Daughters of Wisdom
Founded at Poitiers by Bl. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort in 1703
Wisdom, DAUGHTERS OF (LES FILLES DE LA SAGESSE), founded at Poitiers by Bl. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort in 1703. While he was temporary chaplain of the hospital of Poitiers in 1701, he associated into a little community some pious but variously afflicted girls, and gave them a rule of life, the main points of which have been retained in the Rule of the Daughters of Wisdom. In their meeting-room, called by Montfort La Sagesse (wisdom), he placed a large wooden cross, to indicate that true wisdom is in the “foolishness” of the Cross. This community of poor, crippled, blind, and sickly girls was destined, under God‘s providence, to give a solid religious training to Louise Trichet, known in religion as Sister Marie-Louise of Jesus. When de Montfort judged her sufficiently advanced in virtue, he gave her a new religious habit, which has been minutely copied by the Daughters of Wisdom. It consists of an ashen-gray woollen dress and a black cape worn over the habit. Their coif and neckerchief are of white linen. They wear slippers instead of shoes. Ten years she alone wore the much-ridiculed dress. In 1712 a companion was given to Marie-Louise in the person of Catharine Brunet (Sister Conception). In 1715, at the request of the Bishop of La Rochelle, de Montfort called upon his spiritual daughters to teach the children of the poor in that city. Henceforth the congregation was both hospitaller and teaching. The founder appointed Sister Marie-Louise superioress of the congregation. On August 22, 1715, Montfort gave the habit of Wisdom to Sister Ste Croix and Sister Incarnation.
The congregation strives to acquire heavenly wisdom by imitating the Incarnate Wisdom, Jesus Christ. The means for imitating Christ is a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin. De Montfort calls it “True Devotion” or “Holy Bondage of Mary”, because it mainly consists (I) in consecrating themselves entirely to Our Lady and (2) in serving her lovingly as a slave. The saint, with his keen perception of Mary’s greatness and of our own unworthiness, preferred the appellation “slave or bondman” to “child or servant of Mary”. Once consecrated to Mary, the sisters perform all their actions in the spirit inculcated in de Montfort’s “Treatise of the True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin”. When he died in 1716, the community numbered only four sisters. In 1720 the site of their motherhouse was acquired at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre, where he was laid to rest. Henceforth the life of Marie-Louise was to be a series of travels necessitated by new foundations and by visits to all her communities; in 1750 there were already thirty. She died on April 27, 1759. Under her successor, Sister Anastasie (1759-68), lay sisters were admitted into the congregation. They wear a black habit, a brown kerchief on weekdays, and a white one on Sundays. When in the chapel or out of the convent they wear a black cape. The lay sisters are over 700. Art. 26 of the first part of the constitution provides that both lay and choir sisters, at the end of five years’ probation, be sent to the motherhouse (at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre, La Vendee, France), where they remain about two months preparing themselves for their perpetual vows.
On January 31, 1794, twenty-six sisters, who had remained in the convent at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre, were fastened two and two like criminals. One was hacked to pieces; another slain in her sickbed, and her corpse dragged through the village. The others were thrown into a squalid prison at Nantes, where eight of them died of starvation. One sister was put to death at Coron; another was wounded by a sabre-cut, and left for dead; two were massacred at Longeron, and two more on the road to Le Mans. Of those imprisoned there, four died of exhaustion. At Poitiers three sisters were exhibited in a public square and the inscription “Harbourers of fanatic priests” placed above their heads. They spent eight months in prison at Le Brouage; they were forced, in the cold winter months, to uproot with their hands the grass that grew between the paving-stones of the streets. At Nantes two sisters were guillotined. At Rennes the heads of Sister Veronique and Jouin fell under the guillotine. Three others, meanwhile exhibited with an iron collar (carcan) around their necks, when apprised of the execution of their companions, and threatened with a similar fate, simply replied: “God‘s holy Will be done”. At La Cuille Sister St. Emily was subjected to revolting maltreatment. Sister St. Eugenie’s fortitude astonished the Revolutionary Committee of La Rochelle. “Enough, gentlemen, my last word is this: the guillotine seems set up for good. Take me there. An oath against my conscience you will never get from me.” On being promised personal safety, she besought her judges not to be separated from her companions. She was imprisoned at Bruges. At Rochefort-en-Terre Sister Mechtilde died of fright at seeing the revolutionaries. Her three companions, imprisoned at Vannes, were refused even a little straw to lie on. From the prison the superioress addressed a pathetic appeal to the municipality. Relief came too late, at least for her. She died after a year’s imprisonment. Her two companions were set free. Still when nurses were needed to take care of the wounded and sick soldiers in the hospital at Brest, the imprisoned sisters, 70 in number, were sent there. They were the first to resume the religious habit in 1800.
Under Napoleon the Daughters of Wisdom recovered most of their former houses, were granted 30,000 francs for building purposes, and an annuity of 12,000 francs. This was faithfully paid until 1848. It was in 1810, when Napoleon was temporarily the master of Europe, that, at his call, the Sisters of Wisdom left French soil for the first time to nurse the wounded soldiers at Antwerp. Numerous medals were bestowed on the congregation by Napoleon, and by every French Government since; Spain, Prussia, and Belgium have honored them for nursing the wounded or plague-stricken soldiers of those countries; as a congregation they have been acknowledged in the Apostolic Brief of Leo XII in 1825; they were canonically approved, together with the Fathers of the Company of Mary, in 1853; they were placed under Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli as protector, and favored by two important decrees in 1893 and 1898 securing the integrity of Montfort’s institution; and they received the definitive approbation of the constitutions of Montfort’s double foundation in 1904.
In 1800 the membership of the community was 260; in 1810, 509; in 1830, 710; in 1840, 1400. Today there are 5400, distributed among 430 houses. Their principal novitiate is the motherhouse. The present French Government has replaced them by lay nurses in the important naval and military hospitals of Toulon, Brest, Cherbourg, Boulogne, and others, in the state prisons, in the Maisons Centrales (prisons for women) of Cadillac and Clermont. Not less than 250 of their educational establishments have been closed. They are in charge of hospitals, insane asylums, orthopaedic institutes, orphan homes, training schools, apprentice shops, protectories, poor-houses, magdalen institutions, kindergartens, day nurseries, boarding-schools, day-schools, and parochial schools. The Asile des Vieillards, founded at Clamart (Paris) by Duchess Galiera, deserves a special mention for the uniqueness of its purpose. It is a home for aged and indigent artists, literary and scientific men, or noblemen.
In 1812 the Daughters of Wisdom took charge of the institution for deaf-mutes at La Chartreuse d’Auray. Trained by Miss Duler and by the Abbe Sicard, the sisters made rapid progress in this new field of usefulness. They improved the methods of their masters, and, in turn, became the teachers of several other religious communities. Today the Daughters of Wisdom direct the institutes of the blind and deaf-mutes in seven departments; at La Chartreuse, Larnay, Orleans, Lille, Laon, Besancon, and Toulouse. Larnay gained world-wide renown after the publication of Louis Arnould’s “tine Ame en prison”, in which he graphically describes the method pursued by Sister Marguerite for the education of Marie Heurtin, deaf-mute and blind from her birth. Before Sister Marguerite, Sister St. Medulle had worked on similar lines, in instructing Germaine Cambon and Marthe Obrecht. What the famous Abbe de l’Epee considered almost impossible has been successfully accomplished by Sisters St. Medulle and Marguerite, and is zealously continued by the Daughters of Wisdom. Marie Heurtin herself has been very serviceable in teaching her similarly afflicted companions. The deaf-mutes of Larnay manufacture, under the direction of their teachers, church vestments which experts have declared to rival the products of the ateliers of Paris and Toulouse. A unique religious congregation, “the Little Religious of Our Lady of the Seven Dolors”, sprang from the Larnay Institute. It was founded in 1849 for the deaf-mutes of Larnay by Canon de Larnay, and approved by Cardinal Pie. Since 1898 it has been affiliated to the Daughters of Wisdom. Their rule has been approved by Pius X.
Belgium.—In 1846 the Daughters of Wisdom crossed the French frontier and settled at Tournai. Of the establishments of the congregation on Belgian soil, the principal ones are located at Tournai, Antwerp, Brussels, and Malines. Holland.—In 1880 the Daughters of Wisdom made their first foundation at Schimmert, Limburg, in the Netherlands, where they have since opened a boarding-school, a novitiate for the Dutch Province, and a kindergarten. Among their other establishments in Holland are schools at Rotterdam (in 1905) and an institute for defective children at Druten.
Italy.—The Hospital Sant’ Andrea, Genoa, with its branches San Filippo and Coronata; houses in Rome, Turin, Gorno, Nettuno, and San Remo. The novitiate of the Italian Province at San Giorgio (Monf errato).
Switzerland.—Establishments at Sonnenwyl and Bonnefontaine. Denmark.—Establishment at Roskilde. Hayti.—1871, the number of establishments today is 45, with 250 teachers and nurses. Colombia.—Houses at Villavicencio (1905), Medina (1906), and Gachala (1911). Central Africa.—In the Vicariate Apostolic of Shire, houses at Nugludi and Utale.
England.—(I) Abbey House, Romsey, Hampshire (1891), 17 sisters, 80 orphan boys. (2) La Sagesse Convent, Golder’s Green, London, N. W., boarding-school and day-school. (3) La Sagesse Convent, Grassendale, Liverpool, a juniorate destined to recruit English-speaking members for the congregation. The Sisters also visit the poor and take care of them in their homes. Evening school for girls; 15 sisters. (4) Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Moorfield Convent, Preston (1905), an orphan home for girls, who are taught domestic science; also a home of retreat for ladies (21 sisters). (5) Our Lady’s Convent, Gateshead-on-Tyne (1906), boarding-school and day-school, 14 sisters, 80 pupils. (6) Romsey, near de Montfort College, of the Company of Mary, one house; the sisters have charge of the kitchen, laundry, linen-room, and infirmary of the college.
Canada.—(I) In Ontario: Cumming’s Bridge, near Ottawa, the provincial house of the Canadian province, and a novitiate for English and French-speaking young ladies. Also, a boarding-school and the parochial schools. Other houses: Sturgeon Falls, Blind River, Cyrville, Alfred, and St. Thomas Lefaivre. (2) In Quebec: Montfort (1884), Huberdeau, St. Jovite, St. Agathe des Monts, Papineauville (2 houses), Cheneville, Grenville, and two hospitals in Montreal; St. Justine, for children; St. Helene. Also domiciliary visiting of the poor. (3) New Brunswick: Edmundston, a boarding-school and a day-school. (4) Alberta: Red Deer, Castor, and Calgary.
United States.—Maine: St. Agatha, a high school, a boarding-school and day-school, and a hospital at Grand Isle; parochial schools. New York: Ozone Park, Long Island, Our Lady of Wisdom Academy, boarding-school, day-school, and parochial school; 27 sisters, 80 boarders. Here they admit little boys up to the age of ten. Port Jefferson, St. Charles’ Home for blind, crippled, and defective children; 30 sisters, 250 inmates.
JOHN H. BEMELMANS