Jeanne- Marie Rendu (Sister Rosalie), daughter of Antoine Rendu and Marie-Anne Laracine, was born 9 September 1786 at Confort, in the district of Gex in the Jura Mountains of southeastern France near the Swiss border. She lived her whole life as a Daughter of Charity, some 53 years, in the Mouffetard district, the poorest quarter of Paris.
On 25 May 1802 Sister Rosalie entered the Seminary (novitiate) at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, rue du Vieux-Colombier in Paris. In her effort to give her very best in this new life, her health weakened so she was sent to the house of the Daughters of Charity in the Mouffetard area in the hope that the change would help her to regain her strength.
The thirst for action, devotion and service that burned within Sister Rosalie could not have found a better place to be quenched. There disease, unhealthy slums and destitution were the daily lot of the inhabitants who were struggling just to survive. Sister Rosalie blossomed among the people who would rapidly become her “Beloved Poor.”
In the beginning, she accompanied the sisters of the house visiting the sick and the poor in their homes. She also taught catechism and reading to little girls in the free school. Sister Rosalie thrived and, in 1807, she made vows for the first time. All her qualities of devotedness, natural authority, humility, compassion and her organizational abilities would soon be revealed. Thus in 1815, she would be named Sister Servant (local superior) of the house.
As the one responsible for her Community, Sister Rosalie received the mission of mentoring each of her Sisters, providing formation for the new members and leadership for their Community life. She carried this out with the greatest of care, communicating her love and joy of service.
As the years passed, ever attentive to new deprivations, Sister Rosalie expanded the works of the house: a school and visits to the sick in their homes, adding a free clinic, a day nursery, a day shelter for children, too young for the school, a practical training center and a social center for older girls. At the same time she reached out to others to share in the Vincentian mission.
Sister Rosalie was the “good mother of all” without distinction of religion, political persuasion, or social status. With one hand, she received from the rich, with the other she gave to the poor. To the rich Sister Rosalie gave the joy of doing good works. Often one could see her in the parlor of the house with her “beloved Poor” as well as bishops, priests, government officials, wealthy women and university students. Among them were Frédéric Ozanam and the first members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Tenderly and respectfully Sr. Rosalie and the sisters of the house mentored these generous young men and other students. She recommended patience, leniency and courtesy to them. “Love the poor, do not blame them too much… remember that the poor are even more sensitive to your behavior than to help.” Above all she led by her example: “Every day, in all kinds of weather, Sister Rosalie crisscrossed the streets and alleyways that climbed to the Panthéon, the south side of the Hill of St. Geneviève …. With her rosary in her hand and a heavy basket on her arm, she walked with hurried steps for she knew that the poor were waiting for her! “
She would speak to God of this family in distress as the father no longer had any work, of that elderly person who risked dying alone in an attic: “Never have I prayed so well as in the streets”, she would say. Her faith, solid as a rock and clear as a spring, revealed Jesus Christ in all circumstances. Her prayer life was intense, as a Sister affirmed, “…she continually lived in the presence of God. She had a difficult mission to fulfill and we were always assured of seeing her go to the chapel or finding her on her knees in her office”.
With her sister companions and her vast network of collaborators, she untiringly cared for, fed, visited, and consoled others! Gifted with a keen sensitivity, she had empathy for all suffering. “There is something that is choking me”, she said, “and takes away my appetite… the thought that so many families lack bread”. For the service of her Beloved Poor, she dared to undertake everything with intelligence and boldness. Nothing would stop her if it enabled them to rise from their misery.
Sister Rosalie did not question the established order nor did she support rebellion. In order to fight against injustice and poverty, she awakened the conscience of those in power or those with money, she worked toward the education of the children and the youth of poor families and, to respond to emergencies, she encouraged sharing. She “organized charity”.
During the years of Revolution, both in 1830 and 1848, Sister Rosalie and her Sisters cared for the wounded – rioters or soldiers alike. People who were in jeopardy found refuge at the sisters’ house on the rue de l’Épée-de-Bois. Their house became a refuge and a field hospital.
The last few years of Sister Rosalie’s life were painful as her health worsened and her sight diminished. She was no longer able to visit her “beloved poor” on a regular basis yet her reputation continued to grow. The emperor, Napoléon III awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor, a military honor that only four women had received until recent times.
She experienced in her life as a “simple Daughter of Charity” the truth of the words of Vincent de Paul in 1660, “… certainly it is the great secret of the spiritual life to abandon to God all that we love by abandoning ourselves to all that he will. Pray for me.”And it would be this simple Daughter of Charity who would be honored at her funeral, 9 February 1856.It was attended by an estimated 50,000 persons of every sector of society and every political and religious persuasion. From that day onward, flowers always decorate her grave.