[Editor’s Note: Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée is the Holtschneider Chair of Vincentian Studies at DePaul University. As a French scholar, he was previously an associate professor of Modern History at the Sorbonne, where he graduated. Brejon’s primary teaching and research interests include Charity, Philanthropy and Poor Relief; Women, Gender and Catholicism; French and Global History, and Vincentian Studies. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new book, The Streets as a Cloister: History of the Daughters of Charity.]

Camosy: A book title like “The Streets as a Cloister” is as beautiful as it is provocative. What were you trying to invoke with this title?

Brejon: This title comes from a famous quote of Vincent de Paul himself. When he gave a rule to the Daughters of Charity, he claimed that, unlike the nuns protected by the walls of their convent, they “have for cell, a hired room; for chapel, the parish church; for cloister, the streets of the city; for enclosure obedience, with an obligation to go nowhere but to the houses of the sick or to places necessary for their service; for grille, the fear of God; for veil, holy modesty.”

It was innovative at the time of the Council of Trent which tried to impose more discipline among religious people, and especially claustration for women to protect them from the influences of the world. But how can you take care of the sick and teach children without going out to find them, wherever they are? It helped having a new form of feminine life recognized, neither wife nor nun but a consecrated celibate woman, a sort of ambiguous “third state” at that time.

Dr. Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée, Holtschneider Chair of Vincentian Studies at DePaul University, gives a lecuture at the Cortelyou Commons in DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus. (Randall Spriggs/DePaul University, courtesy to Crux.)

Another point we need to keep in mind is that the cloistered and contemplative life was considered as more perfect than a lay and active life. The simple sisters needed to be encouraged! Vincent de Paul explained to them that their exhausting life, dedicated to the poor, was maybe more requiring than a quiet life inside a cloister. It makes me think of the recent letter Gaudete et Exultate (Rejoice and be Glad) where Pope Francis said that “we are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.” Indeed, many caring religious sisters were those “next door” saints!

I honestly didn’t know that the Daughters of Charity are the largest community of Catholic women in the world. I was also surprised to learn that their history as an order has been almost totally neglected. Why do you think that is?

Indeed, that’s surprising! Despite a high visibility due, until 1965, to their large white cap, the “cornette,” with its extended wings, the Daughters of Charity were mostly active sisters cultivating discretion and humility. “Say little, do much” to quote the title of Sioban Nelson’s book could have been their motto. Another reason is that the true origins of their founder, Louise de Marillac, were hidden for a long time. She was a natural child – don’t know who her mother was. How can you reveal this family secret while it was only in the Constitutions of 1983 that, following the revision of the Code of Canon Law, a dispensation of legitimate birth was not required anymore to embrace religious life? We understand better now the spiritual path of Louise de Marillac who, through her difficulties and sufferings, found her vocation, enriched by her experience as a wife, mother and widow.

Sister Hillary Ross, a member of the Daughters of Charity, who worked with Dr. George Fite on researching a breakthrough for Hansen’s disease, is pictured in an undated photo. (Credit: CNS photo/courtesy Johnny Harmon Family.)

A last reason maybe: Opening the archives is like letting someone touch the treasure of a congregation, at the heart of its identity. What would a scholar, furthermore a man and a lay person, say about us? I must say that I was much honored by the consistent trust that the Daughters of Charity placed in me.

Your book explains that the order can trace its origins to the 17th century. Can you say more about this beginning?

The 17th century was in France a time of high spirituality. It has been called the “age of saints.”

Many of these saints were the founders of new and dynamic religious congregations who respond to the challenges of their time. Two issues can be underlined: First, the need of instruction. The idea that in order to be saved, it was not enough to believe, we now need to know in what we believe. Catechizing lay people, and for that purpose general instruction, became a major goal of the Catholic Church. But people like Vincent de Paul, founder of the Congregation of the Mission, or Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians, tried also to improve the intellectual formation and morality of the clergy.

Vincent de Paul was shocked to hear the story of Mme de Gondi, a pious lady from the nobility, who reported that she met a countryside priest unable to pronounce over her the words of absolution. Others were ignorant of the words of consecration! In that spirit, some young and generous women coming from the lower classes, like Marguerite Nezot, the first Daughter of Charity, gathered around Paris, France, to live simply, to pray, and to teach reading and the beginnings of faith to children. This was the second current of this century which was both mystical and missionary. Many wealthy lay Catholics, both men and women, gave a lot of money to endow such initiatives. They were also living a deep spiritual life.

In my own research for a current project, I learned that the Daughters of Charity were heavily influential on Florence Nightingale in helping form her views about nursing. Can you say more about the order and its relationship to nursing and health care?

You are perfectly right! But Florence Nightingale was not so grateful! She met many times the Daughters of Charity during the 1850s in Rome, Alexandria, Ghent, Dublin or Paris, and was willing to learn from them. She loved their knowledge and dedication, their freedom and independence from masculine hierarchies. “It is Catholic, without being papal” she said. But her opinion changed after the Crimean War (1853-56) where she was in competition on the battlefields with the sisters, which was also a competition between British and French, Catholics and Protestants.

Daughters of Charity in Miami are seen in this undated photo. They operate a donations program to send food, medicine and supplies to Cuba. (Credit: CNS photo/courtesy Global Sisters Report.)

The Daughters of Charity – and that’s certainly what such an authoritarian person like Florence Nightingale liked – were a centralized and hierarchical order, under the authority of an elected superior general. This new model, unlike the Sisters of the Visitation which was much more decentralized, gave a strong unity to the sisters trained and used to act in the same way. Like soldiers, these qualified teachers and nurses could be sent everywhere. They lived in small houses, visiting and caring for people at home, or in large hospitals where they were employed. The most qualified could have been, before the French Revolution, pharmacists. Beyond the technical care, they were committed to a holistic approach of the patient, considering both the body and the soul. Vincent de Paul used to say that they had to bring the two “meats” to the poor.

How are the Daughters of Charity doing today? How are there numbers? What, if anything, does this indicate about the health of orders of Catholic women religious in our contemporary age?

There are today 15,000 sisters in about 100 countries, which is a lot … but they were 45,000 at their climax at the time of Vatican II. They are getting older, especially in the Western world, anticipating a bit our demographics.

But this decrease hides a change in geography. Eight out of ten sisters were Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century, they are only six out of ten today. More women join the “little company” in Asia (India, Vietnam…) or in Africa (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda…) where the average age is 53 and 47 compared to 73 in North America. Catholicism knows the same global shift from the “Norths” to the “Souths.”

Sisters Irene, Catherine, Bruna and Veronica, members of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul, are pictured Oct. 16, 2017, at their residence at La Paix Hospital in Istanbul. (Credit: Oscar Durand/CNS.)

Should we also make a link between poverty, lack of health care and social welfare, and dynamism of active religious congregations? In our countries, it is not necessary anymore to embrace a religious vocation to become a nurse, a teacher or a social worker. We observe more vocations among traditional and contemplative orders which offer to young people the radical change with the secular world they are looking for. We must also recognize that there is a generational gap with these older sisters who have seen in the promises of Vatican II a way to join the world and its poverties.

But there is still some hope with recent entries in the US, and I notice how my students at DePaul University are always amazed by what the Daughters of Charity still do for homeless people, prisoners, immigrants, etc. Another major change is an increasing proximity of vocations within the Vincentian family. Sisters, priests, and lay Catholics are now joining their efforts to work on similar actions focused on “systemic change” inspired by a same spirituality which relies on Matthew, chapter 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”