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Missionary without a Boat

Madeleine Delbrêl’s ministry of hospitality.

By: Sherry Weddell

Missionary without a Boat: <em>Madeleine Delbrêl’s ministry of hospitality.</em> by Sherry Weddell

To proclaim the Gospel in the language of the people with whom we are speaking is not enough. We have to proclaim the Gospel in the language of the Gospel, in the language of Jesus Christ. . . . And Christ’s language is that of a good and brotherly heart. —Madeleine Delbrêl

In many ways, Madeleine Delbrêl’s ministry of hospitality was ordinary—a one-on-one outreach to her neighbors in Ivry, a working-class suburb of Paris. In other ways, it was extraordinary: Ivry was the most communist and most atheist area of Paris—its residents full of hatred for Catholics and the Church. A former atheist herself, Madeleine brought with her a special sensitivity to the needs of her neighbors.

Madeleine grew up in a nonpracticing Catholic family and declared, at seventeen, that “God is dead. Long live death!” She was artistically inclined, designing and making her own clothes, cutting her hair fashionably short, and throwing parties with her friends under the theme, “Life is meaningless.” She was also intellectually curious and studied philosophy and art at the Sorbonne, reading aloud from her philosophical writings to her parents’ nonreligious friends who were suitably impressed.

Madeleine became engaged to a fellow atheist, but after his own conversion, he broke the engagement in order to enter the Dominican Order. At the same time, her parents’ marriage floundered, and Madeleine found herself, at the age of twenty, with more questions than answers.

Still, she had an instinct for friendship—she was warm, intelligent, a good listener and conversationalist, and always ready to defend her friends if need be. Late in 1924, Madeleine met some young people at a dance who turned out to be believing Catholics. Struck by their high-spirited freedom and intelligence, she began to consider the possibility that God might not be dead and that the Church might offer more than she had considered. Her new friends helped her on her quest, introducing her to a local priest, Abbé Lorenzo, who over the next several years guided her as she explored the faith. He led her through a study of the Old and New Testaments and taught her about the sacramental life of the Church.

At the same time, Madeleine began to pray. She later said that she found God by reading and reflecting. But it was when she prayed, she said, that God found her and that she discovered that “he is living reality . . . We can love him in the same way we love a person.”

She brought together a group of young women friends who read and discussed Scripture every week. Eventually they discerned a call to live as contemplatives in the midst of their world. She pursued her degree in social work, and then, when she was twenty-nine, a parish in Ivry offered her group a house, rent free, if they would live there among the poor. Madeleine and two friends took the parish up on the offer. Their home became, essentially, a house of compassionate hospitality. Neighbors freely came and went—an endless line of people seeking aid, consolation, food, and friendship.

Madeleine called Ivry “my school of applied faith.” In an age when missionaries typically set sail for distant lands, she saw herself as a “missionary without a boat.” She also worked closely with communists, coordinating help for refugees and the poor while living under Nazi occupation during World War II. In the process, she developed strong friendships with them, and at the end of the war, the communist mayor of Ivry invited her to be Minister of Social Services.

A prolific writer, Madeleine covered many political and spiritual topics in her books, including Marxist-Catholic relations. In The Marxist City as Mission Territory, she emphasized that Catholics need to love communists (a notion many Catholics resisted) and they could do so without embracing their ideology. Recognizing her apostolate, the Vatican invited her to join the commission composing the initial draft of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.

One of her best-loved books, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets , captures her sense of the possibilities to be found on behalf of the gospel in ordinary life. She wrote,

There are some people whom God takes and sets apart.
There are others he leaves among the crowd, people he does not “withdraw from the world.”
These are the people who have an ordinary job, an ordinary household, or an ordinary celibacy. People with ordinary sicknesses, and ordinary times of grieving. People with an ordinary house, and ordinary clothes. These are the people of ordinary life. The people we might meet on any street.
They love the door that opens onto the street, just as their brothers who are hidden from the world love the door that shuts behind them forever.
We, the ordinary people of the streets, believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness.

The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity declares that “it is imperative also that the freedom and dignity of the person being helped be respected with the utmost consideration.” Madeleine lived this decree, developing friendships with, and respecting the freedom of, people whose worldview was contrary to hers.

Madeleine Delbrêl died suddenly at her desk of a brain hemorrhage at the age of sixty. She had lived her faith as “pure gift from God . . . right in the midst of everyday life.”

This article is a selection from saints Who Transformed Their World, by Sherry Weddell (The Word Among Us Press, 2019), available from