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In July of 1617, Vincent de Paul was named parish priest in the little French country village of Chatillon le Dombes. It was a month later that a woman of the parish alerted St. Vincent about the plight of a family that lived on the outskirts of the village. They were desperately ill and in need of assistance. Moved by what he heard, Vincent spoke passionately about them during his sermon. In the afternoon as he was on his way to visit the family he met many of the good women of his parish as they were either going to visit the family or coming back from just having visited them.
It was through this experience that Vincent began organizing the regular distribution of relief to the poor. After discussing this project with several ladies in his parish, they began an association called the Confraternity of Charity. St. Vincent de Paul founded the priests of the Congregation of the Mission who would minister to the spiritual needs of the poor in 1625. It was in the Confraternities that the first peasant women came to volunteer — laying the groundwork for what would become the Daughters of Charity. In 1634, one of the Confraternities of Charity of the Hotel Dieu formed the nucleus of what would become the Ladies of Charity, an international association that is still in existence today.
On November 29, 1633, together with Louise de Marillac, who in 1624 sought spiritual guidance from Vincent de Paul and became his partner in building up the works of charity he established, Vincent officially founded the Daughters of Charity. Under the tutelage of St. Louise, the Daughters would do the physical care of the poor that the Ladies could not undertake, as well as minister spiritually to those confided to their care. Louise died on March 15, 1660, just months before Vincent de Paul died in Paris on September 27, 1660, at the age of 79.
Pope Clement XII declared Vincent de Paul to be a Saint on June 16, 1737. The first members of the Congregation of Mission arrived in the United States in 1816. Pope Leo XIII declared Vincent to be the Patron of Charitable Endeavors in 1885. Louise de Marillac was proclaimed a Saint on March 11, 1934.
Almost two centuries later, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the American foundress of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph (1809), adapted the rule of the French Daughters of Charity for her Emmitsburg, Maryland community. In 1850, the Emmitsburg community united with the international community based in Paris.
According to Reflections on Mary’s Help Hospital & Seton Medical Center, by Marie M. Mahoney:
“The Daughters of Charity came to San Francisco in 1852 from Emmitsburg at the request of Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, O.P., first Archbishop of San Francisco. Travel from Maryland to California in 1852 was difficult for the first seven Daughters of Charity. The long trip required sailing to Panama, traveling across the Isthmus on foot and donkey to the Pacific, and then sailing to San Francisco. Sister Ignatia and Sister Honorine died of cholera on the journey.
“On August 18, 1852, the five remaining Daughters — Sisters Frances McEnnis, Fidelis Buckley, Sebastian Doyle, Bernice Williams, and Corsina McKay — reached San Francisco. Father Maginnis, the Pastor of Saint Patrick’s Church, welcomed them to their first house in San Francisco. It was a dilapidated little frame building at Market and Montgomery Streets. Fifteen orphan girls were waiting along with Father Maginnis for the Sisters. The work of the social ministry of the Daughters of Charity in San Francisco began in 1852, on the day that they arrived. Mary’s Help Hospital opened on July 2, 1912.”
Today, the Daughters of Charity Health System includes: O’Connor Hospital, San Jose (founded in 1889); Seton Medical Center, Daly City (founded in 1912 as Mary’s Help); Seton Medical Center Coastside, Moss Beach; St. Francis Medical Center, Lynwood; Saint Louise Regional Hospital, Gilroy; St. Vincent Medical Center, Los Angeles (founded in 1858, the state’s first hospital); and System Office locations in Los Altos Hills, Redwood Shores and Pasadena.
Until 1995, the Daughters of Charity hospitals were part of the Daughters of Charity National Health System, which was established in 1986 in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1995, the Daughters of Charity, Province of the West, merged their six hospitals with Catholic Healthcare West (CHW). In 2001, after careful reflection, they withdrew from CHW. On January 1, 2002, the Daughters of Charity Health System was formed.
Now, on the occasion of our 10th anniversary, more history is being made. On Friday, March 16, 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) intended to lead to Daughters of Charity Health System to becoming part of Ascension Health was signed. Four other Provinces of the Daughters of Charity, together with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, were the original Sponsors of Ascension Health when the health system was formed in 1999. In the words of DCHS President & CEO Robert Issai, it feels like we’re coming home.
The Daughters of Charity have grown into an international community of Catholic women ministering all over the world. The Daughters of Charity still serve the “poorest of the poor.” Their ministry touches those in need through education, health care, social, and pastoral services. Prayer and community life are essential elements for their life of service.