St Louise de Marillac together with St Vincent de Paul in 1633, gathered a small group of women who would live as sisters and work as servants with the Confraternities of Charity. Louise taught them how to care for the sick, to pray each day, to grow in God’s love, to bring that love to those they served and to do so with gentleness and compassion. This was the beginning of a new form of committed religious living, combining prayer and action while living among the people they served. They had in the words of Vincent,
• for monastery the 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 (St Vincent de Paul, 24 August 1659).
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 St Vincent and St Louise died in 1660 there were seventy-four local communities of Daughters of Charity in France and two in Poland. Now worldwide there are approximately 17,000 Daughters of Charity in ninety-one countries, in all five continents.
The Daughters of Charity first came to Ireland in 1855 when the country was still recovering from the effects of the Famine. The initial invitation led the Sisters to Drogheda where they cared for people in need in their homes and opened a night school for young girls working in the factories.
Two years later, in 1857 two houses were opened in Dublin. Since then the sisters have expanded and diversified their services and over the years have withdrawn from some services and undertaken new ones in response to changing needs.
Today the Irish Province of the Daughters of Charity comprises twenty-four houses across the country and five in Kenya. The Irish Province also fostered the growth of the now thriving Provinces of Nigeria and Ethiopia. The ministries of the Daughters of Charity today in Ireland are many and varied. Sisters are engaged in Social and Community Services, in services for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, in Child and Family Services.
More recently the Sisters are working with people who are refugees, migrants and with those who are homeless. They are also involved in Parish ministry, prison ministry and care of the elderly, as well as working in hospice care.