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The Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, sometimes simply referred to as Daughters of Charity, is a Society of Apostolic Life for women within the Catholic Church. Its members take simple, private, annual vows. It was founded in 1633 and devoted to serving Jesus Christ in persons who are poor through corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
The full title of the congregation is the Daughters of Charity (the people of Paris used this term for the sisters), Servants of the Sick Poor. The term "of St. Vincent de Paul" was added to distinguish them from other communities called 'Sisters of Charity', animated with a similar spirit, founded after the French Revolution, and modelled on the rule which Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac gave their own sisters. Sometimes they have been popularly known in France as "the Grey Sisters" from the colour of their traditional religious habit, which was originally grey, then bluish grey. The Vincentian Family Tree (Vincentian Studies Institute: DePaul University, 1996) presents an overview of related communities from a genealogical perspective.
The congregation was founded by Saint Vincent de Paul, a French priest, and Saint Louise de Marillac, a widow. The need of organization in work for the poor suggested to Fr. de Paul the forming of a confraternity among the women of his parish in Chatillon-les-dombes. It was so successful that it spread from the rural districts to Paris, where noble ladies often found it hard to give personal care to the needs of the poor. The majority sent their servants to minister to those in need, but often the work was considered unimportant. Vincent de Paul remedied this by referring young women who inquired about serving persons in need to go to Paris and devote themselves to this ministry under the direction of the Ladies of Charity. These young girls formed the nucleus of the Daughters of Charity now spread over the world. On 29 November 1633, Louise de Marillac began a more systematic training of the women, particularly for the care of the sick. The sisters lived in community in order to better develop the spiritual life and thus, more effectively, carry out their mission of service in a Christ-like manner. From the beginning, the community motto was: "The charity of Christ impels us!"
Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul both died in 1660, and by this time there were more than forty houses of the Sisters of Charity in France, and the sick poor were cared for in their own dwellings in twenty-six parishes in Paris.
From that time and through the 19th century, the community spread to Austria, Australia, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the Americas. During this period, the ministry of the Sisters developed to caring for others in need such as orphans and those with physical disabilities.
The mother house of the Daughters of Charity is located in Paris, France. The remains of Louise de Marillac and those of Saint Catherine Labouré lie preserved in the chapel of the mother house. Catherine Labouré was the Daughter of Charity to whom, in 1830, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared, commissioning her to spread devotion to the Medal of Mary Immaculate, commonly called the Miraculous Medal.
The traditional habit of the Daughters of Charity was one of the most conspicuous of Catholic religious sisters, as it included a large starched cornette on the head. The sisters universally adopted a more simple modern dress and blue coiffe on 20 September 1964.
Multiple hospitals, orphanages, and educational institutions were established and operated by the Daughters of Charity over the years, including Saint Joseph College, Emmitsburg, Maryland, Marillac College in Missouri, Santa Isabel College in Manila,Saint Louise's Comprehensive College in Belfast, Ireland and Saint Louise de Marillac High School in Illinois. Though no longer staffed and run by the Daughters, five of the hospitals which were founded by them in the U.S.A. contine to operate within the St. Vincent's Health Care System.