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DEACONESSES IN PARIS.

When in Paris we visited the deaconess establishment on the Rue de Reuilly, and had the pleasure, ever to be remembered, of seeing the institution in all its workings under the guidance of Mademoiselle Sara Monod, the daughter of Adolphe Monod; members of a family that have been Protestants of the Protestants in the annals of France. We examined with some degree of thoroughness the different departments, and saw them in the busy working hours, when the full activities of the great establishment were in exercise.

In addition to the information and reports then secured I am under further obligation to Mademoiselle Monod for other material lately received, among which is a pamphlet entitled Une Visite a la Maison de Diaconesses, by Madame W. Monod, “the worthy daughter of one of the founders, and the worthy wife of one of the present chaplains of the institution.” I have translated freely from this in the following pages, as it is pervaded by a tone of intimate knowledge, and nothing can take the place of the long years of close personal relation that make this little book so fresh and attractive in its recital.

The institution is situated on the outskirts of the Faubourg St. Antoine, upon an elevation, where the view in one direction is limited by Mont St. Genevieve, and on the other embraces a large territory intersected by the windings of the Seine and by lines of railroad. The space is thickly dotted by the high chimneys of manufactories and massive constructions of various forms. A great pile of buildings which fronts upon the street forms one of the sides of the court within; two long wings extend at right angles, which seem to have been built at different intervals of time. That on the right ends with the penitentiary, or house of correction; the left wing terminates more modestly at the garden entrance; while farther, at the extreme portion of the grounds, still to the left, rises the hospital, standing apart from the rest. The whole establishment, including the gardens, has an extent of fifty-five hundred square meters.

In the little room at the entrance, where the concierge is usually found in these French houses, sits one of the sisters, surrounded by bell-cords and tubes and bells which are constantly in use, bringing messages to and fro in all directions. A sister is always on duty, morning, afternoon, and at night when it is necessary, responding with discreet politeness to the inquiries made. Adjoining are the little reception rooms, where comers and goers are met, and the consulting-room of the distinguished oculist, who twice a week gives gratuitously his valuable services. Then come the office and reception-room of the chaplain of the house, followed by the little “prophet’s chamber,” occupied by the former directress when she returns upon visits which her age and poor health render only too infrequent.

What the French call the “économat” or business office, next demands our attention. A dozen registers admirably kept, portfolios of all kinds, and numberless papers are arranged upon different shelves. The sister in charge notes in her journal every entrance and every departure, and all the journeys and leaves of absence of the sisters. In a safe she has the necessary money for current expenses, the rest being deposited in the bank. She provides the stores, examines the accounts of the pharmacy and the kitchen, pays the salaried employees, gives or sends to each deaconess the modest sum allowed her for personal needs, and transacts the daily business of the house. She must also every month hand in three reports one to the Prefect of Police, another to the Minister of the Interior, and the third to the Minister of Finance, giving detailed statistics concerning the age, occupation, and progress of her proteges. “How many know how to read? How many to read and write? How many to read, write, and cipher? What progress has been made since the last report?” These are some of the questions she has to answer; and, meanwhile, if a crowd of little children come in, she turns from her writing and calculations and plays with them as if she had nothing else to do.

Let us see where these children come from. Here is the “Salle d’Asile,” as it is called, with its benches and chairs for the little ones, maps and historical pictures suspended upon the walls, slates and globes, and all the belongings of a school-room. The sister who has directed this school for thirty-five years has seen sons and daughters succeed fathers and mothers. More than nineteen hundred children have passed through her hands. With what pride she showed us the copy-books, and pointed out some particularly good compositions. Hers was no perfunctory task; a mother could not have displayed greater interest in her children. The number of pupils varies from one hundred and ten to one hundred and thirty, a little less than half of them being Catholics. All kinds of primary instruction are given, including gymnastics, singing, and marching. Bible stories hold an important place in this elementary teaching, even those which are sometimes considered to be beyond the reach of children; for there is nothing in any other book to take their place. It is useless to add that not only lessons are given, but shoes, aprons, and garments of all kinds, some of the little ones being clothed from head to foot by the institution. Every day soup is distributed, ostensibly to the poor and the ill-nourished, but practically partaken of by all. Even during the siege of Paris the soup continued to appear. It gradually became less substantial, it is true, but still it was soup.

From four to six o’clock the mothers and older sisters and brothers, or perhaps some old lady who has been engaged to have the care of several children, come to take the little ones home. The influence of these children is felt beyond the school-room; it is a visible, constant force. Such a little girl has persuaded her grandmother not to work on Sundays. Another asks for a book that her father can read aloud to the family. And similar instances could be multiplied; they are always to be obtained where loving Christian hearts are interested in children, and when they remember that fine saying of Jacqueline Pascal; “Parler a Dieu des petites âmes plus qu’ aux petites âmes de Dieu."

There used formerly to be attached to this a “Creche,” where a mother could bring her babe when she went to work in the morning, and could come for it at night. But the government has now started a day-home for this district of the city, so this part of the work of the deaconesses has been discontinued.

Passing by the vegetable garden, which is also a pleasure garden for the sick and infirm, we come to the hospital. This was opened in September, 1873, and can accommodate sixty to seventy patients. There are two large wards for women, one for children, a dormitory for aged women, and rooms with one, two, and three beds. All are perfectly heated, lighted, and ventilated. The medical inspector visits the house every month, and gives it due praise for meeting every condition of modern medical science.

A committee of ladies takes the hospital as an especial object of its care. They have organized a system of patronage, by which beds are furnished poor patients at a low rate, in some cases gratuitously. Fifteen subscribers give each two francs, or forty cents, a month; the sick man or his patron pays a franc a day, to which the Deaconess Home adds also a franc daily. These three francs represent the bare expenses of a hospital bed. Of course, sixty cents a day is far from meeting the entire cost of rent, food, baths, medicine, and service; but those patients who have been accustomed to a certain degree of comfort in life, when paying three francs, are freed from the painful impression of receiving charity.

Many of the patients, when sent forth from the hospital, are directed to the Convalescents’ Home, at Passy. This is an inestimable benefit; what could this poor servant do, whose strength is not yet sufficient to undertake fatiguing labor? Or this mother of a family, who would certainly fall ill again if obliged to resume the heavy burden of housekeeping, accompanied by privations and wearing economies, were it not for the home at Passy? Such homes of rest and convalescence are a necessity in connection with every well-equipped deaconess institution. The pharmacy is in the charge of a deaconess trained especially for her duties. A deaconess director, several nurse deaconesses and probationers, with one or two aged women, constitute the working force of the hospital outside of the physicians. So many denominational hospitals are now arising in America that the arrangement of hospitals under the care of deaconesses in Germany, France, and England, cannot fail to have interest for us.

There are no nurses like the deaconesses. Other nurses, however well prepared in the best of training-schools, do not have the same high motive that lifts the service onto the plane of religious duty, where the question of self-interest is wholly lost sight of. It was the perception of this truth that led the authorities of the German Hospital in Philadelphia to send to Germany for deaconesses as nurses, and that has brought about the erection of the magnificent Mary J. Drexel Home for Deaconesses.

But let us return to Paris and our examination of the home on the Rue de Reuilly. Leaving the hospital, and turning in the opposite direction from that to which we came, we are at the house of correction. Bars of iron before the windows apprise us of the character of the building. There are two divisions of inmates; the one in which the discipline is more rigid is called the retenue. Those placed here are generally between fourteen and twenty-one years of age, although occasionally a child of precocious depravity is met with, who has to be separated from those under less restriction even at ten years of age. The disciplinaire is the division of milder restraint. The twenty-five or twenty-six places in each of the two divisions are ordinarily applied for in advance. Pastor Louis Valette said: “We shall not have room enough until we have too much room.”

There are three classes of inmates: those who are put here by their parents for insubordination or other grave faults; those who are sent here by order of a judge of the court for a limited period, and those who are recognized guilty of a misdemeanor, but are acquitted on account of their age, and must remain a certain time, sometimes until they have attained their majority, in houses of correction and education.

The Minister of the Interior pays twelve cents a day for pupils of the third class; the Prefect of Police four hundred dollars a year for those of the second class, whatever their number, only the establishment is bound to receive them at any time and at any hour.

There is a system of rewards, to promote good behavior, and those who profit by it can accumulate a small sum of money, sometimes amounting to sixteen or eighteen dollars, to have when they go out from here. In other cases there is a large indebtedness on the opposite side, which can never be collected.

The days are occupied in household work, washing, ironing, and sewing, and two hours of schooling. When the nature of the work will permit, instructive books are read aloud, or the deaconesses give pleasant talks on different subjects that will keep the thoughts of the workers busy, and give them helpful ideas to store away in their minds. As we went about in the sewing-classes, we noticed that the time was invariably utilized in some way that was profitable to the girls. Most of them are pitiably ignorant of even the commonest knowledge demanded in life. There are separate court-yards for the recreations of the two divisions. The girls of the disciplinaire are sometimes taken outside the institution for walks; those of the retenue, never. The work in this last division is especially difficult, and requires the utmost patience and love. These poor girls have to be watched carefully, and kept isolated from one another. Some are greatly influenced by the atmosphere of the place, the gentle, firm kindness of the sisters, and the restriction they receive. Others go out to take up again the old life of immorality, and are dragged away into the meshes of sin, finding their place, after brief delay, in the wards of a hospital, or sometimes a suicide’s grave. It is a singular fact that the numerical appreciation of those influenced by this school of reform is precisely the same as that given in the report of the similar work at Kaiserswerth, although the two reports have no connection with one another, and one in no wise supposes the other. Thirty-three years ago one of the founders of the institution, Pastor Valette, said in answer to a question as to the amount of good accomplished, “Sixteen years ago this question came to my ears, and I stated as a principle that one cannot and ought not to answer it precisely and absolutely, because no one but God can give an appreciation of its real value. However, out of curiosity, I set myself at work to gather and register some results; and, matured by the experience of six years, I offer them, such as they are: One third of the moral results may be considered excellent; another third as offering good guarantees, and a final third has no value. It seems to me, however, as I am sure it will seem to you, that here is cause for rejoicing. Here is something for which to praise the Lord, and to encourage those who administer our affairs. For, I ask of the merchants who listen to me, if any one were to offer you thirty-three and one third per cent. assured, with the hope of a dividend, would you refuse the investment?”

In 1871 an occurrence took place worthy of being recorded. On April 13, at ten o’clock in the evening, emissaries of the Commune entered the house, revolvers in hand. Armed men were posted at all the entrances. The deaconesses were summoned to one of the parlors, and held prisoners until three o’clock the following morning. Meanwhile an investigation took place among the girls in the penitentiary, as they would be the most likely of any of the inmates of the house to have complaints. The officers of the Commune interrogated them closely. Their answers were favorable beyond all expectation. “Are you happy here?” “Oh, yes, very happy.” “What have you done deserving punishment?” “Nothing that we need talk to you about.” “How are you punished here?” “The sisters don’t punish us; they advise us what to do, and warn us.” “Now,” said the chief to one, “just tell me quietly, no one else need hear; if you are not contented I will take you away with me.” “What a coward you are,” she answered, quite scornfully. Not one of them thought of escaping. All this time the prison wagon had been waiting in the street, and would have been filled with deaconesses had the slightest cause of complaint been found; but it went away empty. Later the sisters had occasion to go to the head-quarters of the Commune in their ward, and they met with polite consideration. This is not the only experience of the troubled political life of the great city that the deaconesses have had. The Faubourg St. Antoine has been noted ever since the time of the Fronde as being the haunt of all that is turbulent and revolutionary. In February 1848, a great barricade was thrown across the Rue de Reuilly, men, women, and children hurrying with bricks and stones to help in building it. Then came the moment of storm and attack, and forty-two men lay dead in the street. Some of the wounded were received by the sisters, crowded as they were with the children whom the mothers had brought for safety. Meanwhile the deaconesses went about unmolested, bought food and medicine, hunted friends and relatives for the sick, and through all that period of excitement and strife kept up their ministrations of mercy.

There is no distinct home for women who are left alone and desire Christian surroundings, as is the case in several German institutions, but about sixty such ladies are received as boarders in the Paris home. Frequently also the hospitality of the house is enjoyed by young girls who come to Paris alone to earn a livelihood, or who have to stop here for some hours on their way to another place; a great advantage for inexperienced young women, unversed in the ways of a city, who find themselves alone in the great world for the first time.

The preparatory school for deaconesses is on the first floor, below the rooms of the sisters. For two years the candidates are under the instruction of superior sisters. They are received into the house gratuitously, and accept its regulations while they remain. They have to pass through all practical duties of house-work, and care of the sick and children. They also pursue practical and theoretical courses in hygiene, and receive lessons in singing and pedagogics. The chaplains of the institution give them courses of religious instruction, and lectures on Church history. Some (the larger number) need very elementary lessons; others come with a good education. Each is directed according to her education and experience. In fact, all classes are represented among the deaconesses; servants, teachers, ladies, and shepherdesses. They come from different parts of France, but in larger numbers from the South.

Deaconesses are constantly in demand to go out in the city as nurses in private families. Such requests often meet with refusals, because sisters cannot be spared for such duties. Their work is limited by the smallness of their numbers. The last report gives sixty deaconesses attached to the Home on the Rue de Reuilly.

The work is upon sterile soil as compared to Germany. The Protestants of France are in a small minority, surrounded by an overwhelming majority of Catholics; while in the beginning of the work some influential members of the Protestant faith, having an inadequate comprehension of the good in the movement, and a misconception of its plans, exerted a powerful influence that for awhile told adversely to the cause. The home has now passed beyond the stage when it can be affected by adverse criticisms; and it to-day not only has the approbation of Christians, but also of those who regard it solely from the point of view of philanthropy.

There are but two parish deaconesses who are at work in Belleville and Ste. Marie. The directors of the institution would be glad to increase the number, as they regard the work of the sisters under the direction of the city pastors as that which presents the widest opportunities for doing good, while it perpetuates those aspects of the deaconess work which most closely resemble those of the early Church. But Calvin’s reply from Geneva to the Church of France is theirs. When petitioned to send more pastors over the boundary into France he replied, “Send us wood and we will send you arrows.” So the want of deaconesses is a continual hinderance to the furtherance of the cause, both in the city and the provinces.

The prisons for women in France are under the supervision of women, save the office of chief director, which is filled by a man. The great majority of the prisoners in France being Catholics, the number of Sisters of Charity is naturally much larger than the number of deaconesses employed. At the prison of Clermont four of the Paris deaconesses are kept constantly at work among the prisoners.

In connection with the old prison of St. Lazare, the women’s prison of Paris, the deaconesses have a mission especially concerned with caring for discharged female convicts. As was the case at Kaiserswerth, this, in its initiation, is closely connected with the saintly life of Elizabeth Fry. When she came to Paris, in 1835, a drawing-room meeting was held at the residence of the Duchess de Broglie, in which she told of her efforts to effect a reform in prisons in England. None of the ladies of rank and wealth who heard her were stirred to greater effort than was demanded by the keen interest with which they listened to her words; but a quiet governess was present, Mademoiselle Dumas, and with her the seeds of truth fell into prepared ground. She determined to attempt for her own country a portion of the work Mrs. Fry had accomplished for England. Obtaining permission from the authorities to visit the prison of St. Lazare, she went daily to the prisoners shut up in the rooms of this great building, formerly the monastery of St. Vincent de Paul, the founder of the Sisters of Charity. After the deaconess home was established, some deaconesses were set apart to aid Mademoiselle Dumas in her work. All these years the mission has continued, not interrupted even during the dark days of the Commune. A committee of ladies aids in providing shelter and work for the prisoners when they are discharged. The great publishing house of Hachette & Co., although the head of the firm is a Catholic, provides employment in folding paper for books.

Through the kind offices of Mademoiselle Monod we called on Mademoiselle Dumas. She is now an extremely aged woman; but her interest in the Christian reformation of prisoners of her sex is as keen as it was over fifty years ago, when her labors began. The registers of many years stand by her desk, and from these we were shown how the records of the mission are kept, and in what way the lives of those assisted are watched and followed for years. Narratives of individual reformation were related to us, and through the long correspondence of many years she was enabled to tell us of those who had turned to a better life and held to it permanently. As she talked her eyes brightened, the tones of her voice became stronger and clearer, her manner more vivacious, and the years seemed to slip from her. Finally, as if overcome by the memories that the long retrospect had brought to her, and thrilled by the recollections, of all this work meant to her, she ended by exclaiming, “O, my dear St. Lazare!” I looked at her astonished. I had just come from the walls of the gloomy prison, and the place had chilled me with horror as I walked through its corridors, and read the stories of shame and guilt in the faces of its inmates; most hopeless looking faces, belonging to little children of ten and twelve up to hardened and prematurely aged women of fifty and sixty. I could not comprehend a term of endearment applied to such a place. But a moment’s consideration led me to see that this aged saint had there fought and won the best of her life’s battles, and the place remains glorified in her thoughts by most hallowed and Christ-like memories.

Now that Mademoiselle Dumas is kept to her room, the deaconesses still come to her weekly, make their reports, and keep up the proper entries in her books.

A recent letter from Mademoiselle Monod says: “Mademoiselle Dumas still lives, having completed her ninety-sixth year the 26th of last December (1888). Only yesterday our prison committee met at her house, she acting as presiding officer.”

The life of this quiet woman is but little known outside the circle of her immediate influence, but it has been more valuable to her country than that of many a general or statesman who has been ranked among the famous of the earth.

The deaconess home has also branches of work in different parts of France. These include nine hospitals, two homes for the aged and infirm, four orphanages, two work-rooms for young girls, and a convalescents’ home. The house has established close connection with the deaconess houses at St. Loup in French Switzerland, and with Strasburg. The ties of a common language and former memories are strong, and these are the homes most akin to the Paris home.

The ordinary expenses of the Paris deaconess home are about thirty thousand dollars a year. Nearly seven thousand dollars are collected annually by subscriptions, the remaining sum being made up of returns arising from service.

The institution was founded in 1841 by Rev. Antoine Vermeil, a distinguished minister of the Reformed Church, aided by a devout and worthy minister of the Lutheran Church, Rev. Louis Valette. It has grown up under the joint and harmonious patronage of these two State Churches.

A later deaconess home, entirely devoted to training and employing parish deaconesses, was started in 1874, under the sole control of the Lutheran Church. Some pastors secured the co-operation of a few young Christian women to consecrate a portion of their strength and time to the service of the Church. From this beginning sprang the work that exists to-day. The home is located in the Rue de Bridaine. There are now sixteen deaconesses, six of whom are probationers. Five of them are located in different parishes in Paris, usually at a long distance from the central house. Each goes forth early in the morning to her parish, where is a room of some kind serving as a center to the work. Materials used in nursing and medicines are stored here, and there is an office for the physician, who comes at stated periods to give free consultation. From the district house the deaconess goes in all directions and in all weather to look up families which have fallen away from the Church, to gather in children for the Sunday-school, to visit the sick, and to collect garments and money from the rich in order to distribute them among the poor. Such are some of their duties. Each sister is under the direction of a pastor, and is aided by his advice, while still remaining a member of the community to which she belongs.

In both of the deaconess houses of Paris, as in the German houses, a special service sets apart those sisters who have passed their period of probation, and have been received into full connection. As one of the deaconess reports beautifully says: “When Christ calls the soul to a special vocation he gives it special grace, and those who consecrate themselves to him he consecrates to their task by the strength of his Spirit. So in conformity with the usages of the primitive Church we give consecration to our sisters by the laying on of hands. The consecration is not a sacramental act, conferring a particular character, greater sanctity, or special powers; neither is it simply a ceremony or pious formality. It is a real and efficacious benediction, which the Saviour accords to our sisters to consecrate them to their holy work, as he accorded it to the deacons who received the imposition of the apostles’ hands.”

The good that can be accomplished by deaconesses working together with ministers in behalf of the manifold interests of the Church is incalculable. The most faithful pastor can make only short and unsatisfactory visits. Many sorrows which he overlooks the deaconess can discern and assuage. She knows best how to reach the heart of a sorrowing woman, to care for her needs, to discern her wants, and to bring solace to the sorrowing and succor to the needy. Deaconesses who have been specially trained for service cannot be spared now that the world has learned to know of them. For “charity cannot take the place of experience, nor good-will replace knowledge;” and trained Christian service is the highest of all service.

The old spirit of the Huguenots has not died out of France, and with that ready susceptibility to noble ideas which is a marked characteristic of the French character, we can expect to see the deaconess cause thrive and prosper as it has done in other lands.