In 1617, Vincent de Paul responded to the needs of a family dying of starvation by organising a local group of volunteers to care for them. In doing this, he discovered his life’s mission, meeting the needs of those suffering the ravages of poverty. These groups, known as ‘Charities’ began to spread throughout France and were the foundation of what is now a worldwide organisation caring for those suffering poverty.
Louise de Marillac helped Vincent with the organisation of these ‘charities’. Together in 1633, they gathered a small group of women who would live as sisters and work as servants with the ‘charities’. Louise taught them how to care for the sick, pray each day to grow in God’s love, bring that love to those they serve and do so with gentleness and compassion. This was the beginning of a new form of committed religious living, combining prayer and action and lived among the poor. They had in the words of Vincent,
- for monastery only houses of the sick,
- for cell a hired room,
- for chapel the parish church,
- for cloister the streets of the city,
- for enclosure obedience,
- for grill the fear of God,
- for veil holy modesty…. and confidence in Divine Providence
People who saw them on the streets carrying their pots of soup and remedies called them ‘Filles de la Charité’, a name that continues to this day, Daughters of Charity. At first they cared for the sick in their homes, soon they were caring for the sick in hospitals, teaching little girls, caring for the children abandoned on the streets, galley convicts, wounded soldiers, the elderly, refugees and those who were ashamed of their poverty.
By the time Vincent and Louise died in 1660 there were seventy-four groups of Daughters of Charity in France and two in Poland. Since those early beginnings, the Daughters now work in 91 countries around the world.
Four Daughters of Charity came to England in 1847, to Salford-Manchester. A wealthy Catholic cotton merchant, asked for them to come and work with migrant and local factory workers in the heart of the Industrial revolution. The living conditions of these workers were so shocking they influenced the writing of the Communist Manifesto. The Daughters lived in a rented house nearby. Many people benefitted from their presence in the two short years they were there. They visited families and the sick in their homes, taught in the only Catholic school in Salford, ran evening classes for young women factory workers, and ran a Sunday school. There was a lot of anti-Catholic bigotry in the area where they lived, their house was set on fire and the Daughters were physically attacked themselves. In 1849, they were recalled to Paris.
Eight years later in 1857, the Daughters returned to English shores, to Sheffield, another hugely industrial city where migrant workers lived in great hardship. This time Priests of the Congregation of the Mission, founded by St Vincent to evangelise the poor, supported them. Sister de Missy who had led the group in Salford also led the group in Sheffield. At first, they still faced bigotry, not as intense as it had been in Salford and the next ten years saw houses established in Lancashire, London, Lanark Scotland, Hereford and Liverpool, Their presence in Sheffield lasted over a hundred and fifty years. By 1885 when the Province of Great Britain and Ireland was established there were twenty-six houses in Britain in a mix of industrialised towns and cities and country areas and four houses in Ireland, which became a Province in its own right in 1970.
As in France, the Daughters in Britain undertook a variety of works: home visiting and caring for the poor in industrial towns and cities, running soup kitchens, nursing in hospitals, teaching, providing crèches for working mothers, caring for orphans and children, helping migrant workers and refugees. They also pioneered care for people with physical and learning disabilities, hostels for young workers, evening classes for young men and women, Industrial Schools for young offenders, prison visiting and care and support for homeless people. Many of these original services laid the foundation for the twentieth century welfare state.
As the Province grew and matured, there was a steady outreach internationally with a number of Daughters going to serve in overseas missions in Rome, Madeira, the Middle East including Egypt and the Holy Land, Japan, China, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Romania. Daughters from the Province played a leading role in the development of the Provinces of Australia and Ethiopia. Alongside this, a number of short term and crisis relief missions were undertaken in collaboration with NGOs. Daughters went to ten different countries teaching English for varying lengths of time as well as eight countries combating the immediate effects of famine, war and genocide. They were also involved in missions, collaboratively run by European and English speaking Provinces, in Brussels, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Haiti and are currently involved in Kenya.
From our troubled beginnings in 1847 Salford, to our current situation today “God has called and assembled Daughters of Charity to honour our Lord Jesus Christ as the source and model of all charity serving Him corporally and spiritually in the person of the poor.” CCD, vol. XIIIb p. 147.