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A congregation of women with simple vows, founded in 1633 and devoted to corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Their full title is Sisters or Daughters of Charity (the founder preferred the latter term), Servants of the Sick Poor. The term "of St. Vincent de Paul" has been added to distinguish them form several communities of Sisters of Charity, animated with a similar spirit, among whom they rank in priority of origin and greatness of numbers. They have always been popularly known in France as "the Grey Sisters" from the colour of their habit, which is bluish grey, but are not to be confounded with the Grey Nuns, a community will known in Canada and New England. They are not infrequently called the sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, though a recent French congregation having this saint for their patron, bears that name.
In the United States several diocesan communities who follow a modified form of the rule of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and wear a black habit are often called the "Black Cap Sisters", while the "White Cap" or "Cornette" Sisters are those who follow the original rule and form part of the world-wide community under the direction of the superior General of the Congregation of the Mission. or Lazarists, in Paris. These latter sisters were founded by St. Vincent de Paul and the Venerable Louise de Mérillac (1591-1660), and the widow of Antoine* Le Gras, known according to a quaint usage of the time as Mlle Le Gras. The need of organization in work for the poor suggested to St. Vincent the forming of a confraternity among the people of his parish. It was so successful that it spread form the rural districts to Paris, where noble ladies often found it hard to give personal care to the wants of the poor. The majority sent their servants to minister to those in need, but often the work was slighted. St. Vincent remedied this by inducing young women from the country to go to Paris and devote themselves to the service of the poor under the direction of the Ladies of Charity. These young girls formed the nucleus of a very large community of the Sisters of Charity now spread over the world, and who have done so much to make the name of St. Vincent de Paul a household work. Mlle Le Gras, who had recently devoted herself at St. Vincent's request to the superintendent of the various confraternities of charity, had charge of these young girls, who lodged at some convent or with the ladies of the confraternity. They met on Sundays at St. Vincent's house for instruction and encouragement. But after three or four years Mlle Le Gras received a few of the most promising of them at her house, where, on 29 November, 1633, she began a more systematic training in the care of the sick and in spiritual life. This is looked on as the real foundation of the community. This little snowball, as St. Vincent playfully called it, was not long in increasing, and on 31 July, 1634, St. Vincent initiated a series of conferences, extending over twenty-five years, which, written sown by the sisters, have had ever since a powerful effect in their formation.
For more than twelve years St. Vincent guided them thus without written rule or constitution and without seeking approval of them as a distinct organization. Let the work grow gradually as the needs of the times demanded, and little did he imagine the vast structure he was laying the foundation of. He used to explain that neither he nor Mlle Le Gras was the founder of the Sisters of Charity, for neither he nor she had ever thought of founding such a community. It sprang from the practical need for such organization. When the idea developed it was at variance with the notions and customs of the times. Hitherto women who publicly consecrated their lives to God's service did so in convents that cut them off from the world, but his sisters were to spend their time nursing the sick in their homes, having no monastery but the homes of the sick, their cell a hired room, their chapel the parish church, their enclosure the streets of the city or wards of the hospital, "having", as St. Vincent says in the rule he finally gave them, "no grate but the fear of God, no veil but holy modesty". After a few months spent with the sisters in her house, Mlle LeGras bound herself irrevocably by vow to the work she had undertaken, 25 March, 1634. This anniversary is religiously kept in the community, for every year the sisters make their annual vows on the feast of the Annunciation. The sisters had hitherto helped the poor and the sick in their homes, but they were now called on for hospital work. A society was formed by some ladies of rank to better the condition of the sick poor in Hotel-Dieu at Paris. A community of Augustinian nuns was in charge, but the miseries of the times had overcrowded the wards, and the revenue was inadequate. It was helpers of the ladies who in turn aided the nuns of the institution that the Sisters of Charity took up hospital work which has since become so prominent a feature in their beneficent activity. A large room near by was hired for their use, where they made delicacies for the sick and also for sale, to swell the income of the hospital. During the first year the labours of the ladies and sisters were blessed by seven hundred and sixty conversions, of Lutherans, Calvinists, and even of Turks wounded in sea-fights.
In May, 1636, Mlle Le Gras moved to more commodious quarters with her community. A house at La Chapelle was chosen because of its nearness to Saint-Lazare, the priory recently given to St. Vincent for the Congregation of the Priests of the Mission he had founded. Here the instruction of the poor children in religion and in elementary branches was taken up, the beginning of the widespread labour of the Sisters of Charity in teaching the children of the poor. The charge of foundlings so characteristic of St. Vincent and his sisters came to them through his finding out how miserably these tiny waifs were cared for by the State. The modern foundling asylums owe, of not their origin, at least their excellent system to the work of the Sisters of Charity. On 1 Feb., 1640, at Angers the sisters assumed complete charge of a hospital in which hitherto they had acted as aids to the charitable ladies. In 1641 the headquarters of the community was transferred to a house opposite Saint-Lazare. Here they remained until driven away by the French Revolution. In answer to their desire to be bound by vows, authorization was finally granted to four of the sisters, and these on 25 March, 1642, took simple vows for one year. A copy of these first vows is preserved in the archives of the mission in Paris and says:
I, the undersigned, renew my baptismal promises and make a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Superior of the Priests of the Mission in the company of the Daughters of Charity, to apply myself all this year to the corporal and spiritual service of the sick poor, our true masters, with the help of God, which I ask though His Son, Jesus crucified, and by the prayers of the Blessed Virgin. Signed, Jeanne de la Croix.
During the war of the Fronde, whole provinces were reduced to the utmost destitution, and St. Vincent took upon himself the burden of relieving all this misery. In this the sisters had a large share. What they did in Paris is seen from St. Vincent's letters: "they shelter from 800 to 900 women; they distribute soup every day to 1300 bashful poor. In St. Paul's parish they aid 5000 poor, and altogether 1400 persons have for the last six months depended on them for their means of subsistence". At the request of the Queen of Poland, a former Lady of Charity, three sisters were sent to her dominions. Here for the first time the sisters appear on the field of battle. This is a ministry often given by them since, and which has secured for then the title of "Angels of the Battlefield", some dying "sword in hand", as St. Vincent used to style it. Their usefulness opened the eyes of many a dying soldier to the light of the Faith, and inspired the wish to die in the religion which produced such heroism.
While the sisters were on the battlefield in Poland, St. Vincent's daughters took up a new work in the care of the aged and infirm at the House of the Name of Jesus, the pioneer of those homes for the aged so multiplied in our day through a kindred community, the Little Sisters of the Poor. At the same time a hospital for the insane was committed to their care, practically completing the list of human miseries to which they brought alleviation.
On the death of Mlle Le Gras and St. Vincent de Paul there were, in 1660, more than forty houses of the Sisters of Charity in France, and the sick poor were cared for in their own dwellings in twenty-six parishes in Paris. As years went on their numbers grew. Switzerland received the sisters in 1750. In 1778 they were established in Piedmont, whence they spread over Italy. The Spanish community was started by six sisters from Paris in 1790. In 1789 France had 426 houses; the sisters numbered about 6000 in Europe. At the very beginning of the Reign of Terror, the motherhouse of the sisters was invaded by the revolutionists, who had attacked Saint-Lazare across the street the night before, but the sight of this band of angels of mercy on their knees in the chapel, moved their assailants to leave them unmolested. In August, 1792, the sisters were ordered to quit the motherhouse; and the end of 1793 saw their community disbanded officially, though the superior, Sister Antoinette Duleau, strive to keep them together as far as practicable. As soon as the Consular government was established, in 1801 the society was recalled by an edict setting forth the excellence of their work and authorizing Citoyenne Duleay, the former superior, to reorganize. Their greatest growth has been in France during the nineteenth century. Persecution has driven them from all their schools for the poor and from most of their works of mercy, but this has given hundreds of new labourers to the foreign missions. During the last hundred years their growth has been extraordinary. They have gone to Austria, Portugal, Hungary, England, Scotland, Ireland, North and south America. The Orientals call them "The Swallows of Allah" from their cornettes, and they have houses in Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Persia, Abyssiania, and China. Their number is about 25,000.
The first house in the province of the British Isles was opened at Drogheda, Ireland, in 1855. The first house in England in Sheffield in 1857; and in Scotland at Lanark in 1860. The numbers of foundations in 1907 was: England, 46 houses and 407 sisters; Ireland, 13 houses and 134 sisters; Scotland, 8 houses and 62 sisters, making a total of 67 houses and 603 sisters, besides 20 aspirants at the Central House, Mill Hill, London. The principal works under the care of the sisters are as follows, several of these works being carried on in the one house: orphanages, 23; industrial schools, 7; public elementary schools, 24; normal school, 1; traininghomes, 7; homes for working girls, 2; home for women ex-convicts, 1; asylum for insane women, 1; hospitals, 8; houses from which the sisters visit the poor, in which they have soup-kitchens, take charge of guilds and do various other works for the poor, 35.
In the United Stated the first community was started by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809. She arranged to have sisters come over from the motherhouse in Paris 1810 to affiliate her young community at Emmitsburg, Maryland to the daughters of St. Vincent, but Napoleon forbade the departure of the sisters for America. She had received, however, from Bishop Flaget, the rules of the Sisters of Charity, and put them in practice with some modifications which were suggested. Houses were founded in Philadelphia and New York, when through the request of Archbishop Hughes of New York, in 1846, the majority of the sisters labouring there were released from the Emmitsburg jurisdiction and formed an independent community following the same rule.
Four years after the withdrawal of the New York sisters, Mother Seton's community at Emmitsburg was received under the jurisdiction of the Superior General of the Sisters of Charity in France and assumed the French habit and St. Vincent's rule in its entirety. Their general motherhouse in 140 Rue du Bac, Paris, and their central house at St. Joseph's Academy, Emmitsburg, Maryland. They have establishments in the Archdioceses of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and the Dioceses of Albany, Alton, Buffalo, Dallas, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Harrisburg, Hartford, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mobile, Monterey, and Los Angeles, Nashville, Natchez, Richmond, Rochester, St. Joseph, San Antonio, Syracuse, Wilmington, Puerto Rico, and the Vicariate of North Carolina, where there are 1704 sisters in charge of these institutions: academy, 1; hospitals, 38; orphanages, 28; infant asylums, 14; industrial schools, 5; parochial schools, 33; asylums and schools, 6; insane asylums, 5.
The growth of St. Vincent's community has been gradual, and the slowness of their founder in giving it a written rule allowed that rule to have a practicability that has made it as fitted for the democratic notions of our day as for the aristocratic ideas of the old regime. But this is most of all because its animating principle is the saying of Christ, "So long as you do it to the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me". In 1646 the approbation of the Archbishop of Paris was asked by St. Vincent for his community, and this was granted in 1655. Though numerous privileges have been granted to the sisters by various popes, no approbation has ever been asked from the Holy See because their founder wished this community to be a lay one with only private vows. Hence the canon law concerning religious communities does not apply to them. Their confessor is the pastor or secular priest approved by the bishop. The interior administration is subject only to superior general. or his delegates. while their interior works are of course under the jurisdiction of the bishop. This has been the case from the very beginning, and the Holy See has on several occasions ratified their long established custom, notably in 1882.
The rule and constitution have remained unchanged since the days of St. Vincent. To his successor, as Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity, the sisters vow obedience. He ratifies the election of the mother general divided into several provinces governed by a visitatrix and a director, a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, who are appointed by the central government. There is no distinction among the sisters; those from the highest as from the humblest walks of life associate together as servants of the poor. The hour of rising is everywhere at four o'clock; then followed meditation and Mass and usually Communion. At noon there is their particular examination of conscience which is made again before supper. In the afternoon there are spiritual reading and another meditation. No office is recited, for "Charity is your office", said St. Vincent. All the rest of the time is given to the poor. He used to tell them that when they left prayer to wait on the poor they were leaving God for God. After three months of approbation the candidate is sent to the "seminary", where she is trained for six months and then admitted to the habit, which is put on without any ceremony whatever, and after a trial of five years she is permitted to take the four annual vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and the service of the poor. The dress is that of peasant women of the neighborhood of Paris at the date of the foundation, a grey habit with wide sleeves and a long grey apron. The head-dress was at first a small linen cap, but to this was added in the early days the white linen cornette. At first it was used only in the country, being in fact the headdress of the Ile de France district, but in 1685 its use became general. Seven sisters were martyred during the French Revolution, and ten laid down their lives for the Faith in 1870 at T'ien-tsin, among whom was an Irishwoman, Sister Alice O'Sullivan. But no one can count the numbers that have died martyrs to duty on the battlefield, or among the plague-stricken, or in the hidden ways of continuous hard work for the poor. In 1830 at the motherhouse of the sisters, Rue du Bac, Paris, Sister Catherine Labouré (declared venerable in 1907) had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who urged her to have a medal made and distributed, since well known as the miraculous medal, through the wonders wrought in favour of those who wear it devoutly. Pope Leo XIII granted a special feast of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal to the double family of St. Vincent. The scapular of the Passion, or red scapular was revealed to Sister Apollone Andreveau in 1846 and approved by Pope Pius IX in 1847.
APA citation. (1908). Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03605a.htm
MLA citation. "Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03605a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Claudia C. Neira.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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