PILGRIMAGE: Saint Gervais, Paris—Expecting Help by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Saint Gervais, Paris—Expecting Help by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The Church of Saints Gervais et Protais stands in the Marais, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris.  The first church that stood on this spot was a favorite of Saint Germain, Bishop of Paris about the year 550.  King Louis XIII laid the foundation stone for the present building in 1616.  This is the first time I’ve been inside, so, without being too obvious, I steal a peek at the great gothic church while waiting for Midday Prayer to begin.  My eyes trace the lines of the great gray pillars that shoot out of the stone floor and zoom straight skyward into the shadows, where they curve gently until they join one another in a riot of points and arches far overhead.

Kneeling on the floor of the large chapel located behind the main altar, I feel conspicuous in my black habit – the others around me are wearing white choir robes.  Even more unusual is the fact that half of these people are women.  I’m a guest of the “Community of Jerusalem,” a monastic group founded in Paris in the 1970s to witness to God’s presence in the center of the city.

My mind wanders to a wedding held here almost 400 years ago.  The groom was Monsieur Antoine le Gras, and the bride was Mademoiselle Louise de Marillac.  Roman Catholics would one day come to know her as Saint Louise de Marillac.

Louise had a difficult life.  As the “natural daughter” of Louis de Marillac and some unknown woman, she was painfully conscious of the dubious circumstances of her birth, and was not in line to inherit anything of the Marillac estate.  Her father nevertheless saw to her upbringing and education.

Her marriage to Antoine Le Gras, a young man with a bright future at the royal court, finally seemed to promise some happiness.  Shortly after the marriage, however, a political assassination and the disgrace of Le Gras’s friend, Queen Marie de Medici, sent his political fortunes tumbling.  Not long after this he fell gravely ill, and after suffering for five years, died in 1626, leaving Louise to care for their young son, Michel, who was to prove a very troubled and difficult child.  She began to suffer from stomach problems that would beset her for the rest of her life.  Louise de Marillac continued to struggle through years that gave her little joy and plenty of sadness.

A bell rings, and we all stand to sing the traditional opening words of the church’s Liturgy of the Hours, “Dieu, viens à mon aide!  Seigneur, à notre secours!”  (“O God, come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help us!”)  Then we sit down to sing the first psalm.

Around the time of her husband’s death, Louise was introduced to her new spiritual director, a rough, cold, worn-looking priest from the provinces.  Since he lacked the aristocratic polish and sophistication that Louise had come to expect from the Parisian clergy, Vincent de Paul made a poor first impression.  But before long the saintly priest’s wise counsel and encouragement began to profoundly change her life.  The bond of friendship and cooperation that the two of them formed would benefit thousands, even millions of people over the coming centuries.

By having her organize and oversee his small group of pious women engaged in charitable works, “Monsieur Vincent” gave Louise an outlet for her deep-felt desire to serve the poor.  Very soon, however, both of them recognized that the frightful poverty found everywhere in France was not going to be effectively addressed simply by occasional help from rich women volunteering a few hours a week.  What was needed was women who would give not just alms or their spare time but their lives.

Thus Vincent and Louise came up with an innovative idea: a society of religious women who would not live behind cloister walls, but who would be dedicated to actively ministering to the poor and the sick wherever they were to be found.  Their idea for les Filles de la Charité, the Daughters of Charity, would become the basic model for the rest of the church’s active religious orders in the future.

Vincent de Paul has become one of the better-known Roman Catholic saints, and usually gets the credit for the great success of the Daughters of Charity.  But he would never have accomplished what he did if it were not for Louise de Marillac.  She had always shown a talent for organization and administration, and as Vincent and Louis began to found their order, she showed many other gifts as well: in helping to write the “Rule” for the new order she combined a deep and solid spirituality with a sense for practical detail.  She also proved to be an excellent teacher of the spiritual life as she helped train the new sisters, many of whom were simple girls from the countryside.

We chant another psalm, this one set to a melody with a Byzantine feel.

Their early efforts to help the poor were made more difficult by the years of severe economic disruption and moral and social turmoil caused by the political rebellion in France known as the Fronde.  One of the works closest to Louise’s heart at the time – the care of enfants trouvés, abandoned babies – became a particularly troublesome burden.  With more and more helpless infants to care for, and with fewer and fewer economic resources to work with, the task soon went from daunting to overwhelming.  When the civil government totally collapsed, it seemed to Louise that she might have to completely give up the whole effort.  She wrote to Vincent: “I stand in very great need of the particular assistance of God at this time, for wherever I turn, and whatever I put my hand to, I see nothing but misery and affliction.

Eventually the “particular assistance of God” came when the government stepped in and took on the economic burden of caring for the foundlings, and the work could now proceed on a firm footing.  Over the ensuing years the Daughters of Charity and the Vincentian order of men would continue to ease the misery of poor and needy people around the world, as they still do today.

We finish a final psalm and everyone kneels for a moment of silent prayer.

Perhaps the most endearing thing about Louise is that she accomplished so much despite a life filled with so much adversity.  Although her life was filled with sadness, Louise not only survived, but was able to create with Saint Vincent de Paul an order of women religious that changed the face of Europe.

We stand, and the service comes to an end with an oration.  As we file quietly out of the chapel and into the main body of the church, some of the sisters and brothers whisper warm greetings to various people who are waiting for a word with them.

I walk through the rear door and out into the sunlight.  After crossing the busy street behind the church, I head down the quiet cobblestones of the charming and picturesque Rue du Grenier-sur-l’Eau.  These ancient buildings on either side of me, I realize, once looked down on the turmoil of la Fronde.  Undoubtedly, too, they caught an occasional glimpse of Louise de Marillac hurrying by on her way to serve Christ in the poor or to deal with some business of the Daughters of Charity, and counting all the time of God alone to keep her going.


The scripture readings assigned for the final weeks of Lent show Jesus becoming more and more aware of the deadly plot against him, and trusting more and more in the Lord.  Louise lives out this trust under conditions that we can probably relate to more easily.  Think of a time when serious difficulties piled up in your own life.  What did that feel like?  Did you sense that God was particularly distant at the time, or nearby?  Did you experience God’s help?  If so, did you have to wait long for it?

Ask the Lord to  help you imitate Saint Louise’s confidence in God, especially at moments of pain or discouragement.


Sacred Scripture (Philippians 4:13)

I can do all things in him who strengthens me.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 7, “Humility,” vv. 35-39)

The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape.  For scripture has it: “Anyone who perseveres to the end will be saved,” and again, “Be brave of heart and rely on the Lord.”  Another passage shows how the faithful must endure everything, even contradiction, for the Lord’s sake, saying in the person of those who suffer, “For your sake we are put to death continually; we are regarded as sheep marked for slaughter.”  They are so confident in their expectation of reward from God that they continue joyfully and say, “But in all this we overcome because of him who so greatly loved us.”

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