We continue our series on key people involved in the development of the SVP with the first of two articles on Blessed Rosalie Rendu.
Over a century and a half apart, Blessed Roslie Rendu and St Vincent are inextricably linked. It was her influence that persuaded Blessed Frederic Ozanam to adopt St Vincent as the patron of his new society. Yet there is so much more to the life and works of this remarkable woman.
Jeanne Marie Rendu was born 9 September, 1786 in the Jura Mountains. Jeanne Marie was three years old when the Revolution broke out in France. From 1790 the Rendu family home became a refuge for those priests who refused to accept the civil Constitution. The penalty for this was torture and sometimes death. It was in this atmosphere of solid faith, always exposed to the dangers of denunciation, that Jeanne Marie was educated. This exceptional environment forged her character.
In the days following the Terror life resumed its normality. Jeanne Marie went to the Ursuline Sisters in Gex, staying two years in this boarding school. Whilst there she discovered the hospital where the Daughters of Charity cared for the sick. She had only one desire, to go and join them. God’s call, which she had sensed for many years, made itself clear: she would become a Daughter of Charity.
In 1802, Armande Jacquinot, from the village of Lancrans, confided to her friend that she was preparing to leave for Paris to enter the Company of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. Jeanne Marie leaped at the opportunity and begged her mother to allow her to leave. Madame Rendu, happy, but very emotional at her daughter’s vocation, consented to her request.
On 25 May, 1802, Jeanne Marie arrived at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. She was nearly 17 years old! The thirst for action, devotion and service that burned within Jeanne Marie could not have found a better place to be quenched than this district of Paris. At the time, it was the most impoverished district of the quickly expanding capital: poverty in all its forms, psychological and spiritual. There disease, unhealthy slums and destitution were the daily lot of the people who were trying to survive.
Jeanne Marie, who received the name Sr Rosalie, made her “apprenticeship” accompanying Sisters visiting the sick and the poor. Between times, she taught catechism and reading to little girls accepted at the free school. In 1815 Sr Rosalie became Superior of the Community.
All her qualities of devotedness, natural authority, humility, compassion and her organisational abilities would be revealed. “Her poor,” as she would call them, became more and more numerous during this troubled time. She sent her Sisters into all the hidden recesses of St Médard Parish in order to bring supplies, clothing, care and a comforting word.
To assist all the suffering and without resources, Sr Rosalie opened a free clinic, a pharmacy, a school, an orphanage, a child care centre, a youth club for young workers and a home for the elderly. Soon a whole network of charitable services would be established to counter poverty.
Sr Rosalie helping those in need
Her example encouraged her Sisters. She often told them, “Be a milestone where all those who are tired have the right to lay down their load.” She was so simple, and lived so poorly, as to let the presence of God shine through her.
Her faith, solid as a rock and clear as a spring, revealed Jesus Christ in all circumstances. She daily experienced this conviction of St Vincent, “You will go and visit the poor ten times a day, and ten times a day you will find God there … you go into their poor homes, but you find God there.”
Superiors sent her postulants and young Sisters to be formed. They put in her house, for a period of time, Sisters who were somewhat difficult or fragile. To one of her Sisters in crisis, she gave this advice one day, which is the secret of her life, “If you want someone to love you, you must be the first to love; and if you have nothing to give, give yourself.”
Her reputation quickly grew in the capital and also beyond. Sr Rosalie knew how to surround herself with many efficient and dedicated collaborators. The donations flowed in quickly as the rich were unable to resist this persuasive woman. Even the former royalty did not forget her in their generosity. The Ladies of Charity helped in the home visits. Bishops, priests, the Ambassador of Spain, Donoso Cortéz, Carlo X, General Cavaignac and the most distinguished men of state and culture, even the Emperor Napoleon III, with his wife, were often seen in her parlour. Students of law, medicine, science, technology, engineering, teacher training and all the other important schools came seeking from Sr Rosalie information and recommendations. Or, before performing a good work, they asked her at which door they should knock.
It was only to be a matter of time before a young Frederic Ozanam and his friends were asking Sr Rosalie for help!