Today is the feast day of Saint Vincent de Paul. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
Saint Vincent de Paul (c. 1580-1660), founder of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) and co-founder of the Sisters of Charity, is an outstanding example of great love for the poor and unfortuanate, and the patron of charitable societies.
Vincent de Paul, a Frenchman, was born at Pouy, not far from Dax, in Gascony, and from his boyhood was remarkable for his exceeding charity towards the poor. From the care of his father’s flocks he was sent to study letters. He learned the humanities at Dax, and theology first at Toulouse, then at Saragossa. Having been ordained priest, and having taken a degree in theology, he fell into the hands of the Turks, and was led captive by them into Africa. But being sold into slavery, he won his owner (an apostate) back to Christ. By the help of the Mother of God, therefore, Vincent and his owner hurried away from the shores of the barbarians. Then Vincent undertook a journey to Rome, to visit the thresholds of the Apostles. Having returned to France he governed, in a most saintly manner, first, the parish of Clichy, and then that of Chatillon. He was appointed by the king as principal chaplain of the French galleys, and showed marvelous zeal in striving for the salvation of both the drivers and the rowers. The holy Francis de Sales appointed him superior of the nuns of the Visitation, whom he ruled for nearly forty years with so great prudence, that he amply justified the opinion of their most holy founder, who confessed that he knew no worthier priest than Vincent.
To the preaching of the Gospel unto the poor, especially to the country people, he devoted himself unweariedly, until he was disabled by old age. To this apostolic work he obligated both himself and the members of the congregation, which he specially founded under the name of secular Priests of the Mission, by a perpetual vow confirmed by the Holy See. And how greatly he labored for bettering the discipline of the clergy, is attested by the seminaries erected for senior clerics, by the frequency of sacred conferences among the priests, and by the religious exercises preparatory to the sacrament of Holy Orders; for which purposes, as well as that of giving pious retreats for laymen, he desired that the houses of his institute should be freely opened. Moreover, for the extension of faith and piety, he sent evangelical laborers, not only into the provinces of France, but also into Italy, Poland, Scotland, Ireland, and even to Barbary and to the Indies. And at the death of Louis XIII, whom he had attended and exhorted on his deathbed, Vincent himself was summoned by the queen, Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV, and made a member of the young King’s Council of Conscience. In this position he most zealously urged that only the more worthy men should be placed in authority over the churches and monasteries; that civil discords, single combats, slowly-spreading false doctrines, which he both perceived and dreaded, should be ended; and that due obedience should be rendered by all to the apostolic decisions.
There was no kind of misfortune which he did not, with fatherly tenderness, endeavor to relieve. The faithful groaning beneath the Turkish yoke, infants which had been abandoned, wayward youths, maidens exposed to danger, nuns driven from their convents, fallen women, convicts condemned to the galleys, infirm strangers, disabled workmen and even lunatics, and beggars without number, all these he received and devoutly assisted with resources and in hospices which have lasted to this day. When Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy, and other provinces were devastated by plague, famine, and war, he relieved their necessities with an open hand. He founded many societies for seeking out and alleviating the lot of the wretched, among them a celebrated association of matrons, widely spread under the name of Sisters of Charity. He likewise promoted the foundation of the Daughters of the Cross, of Providence, and of St. Genevieve, for the education of the weaker sex.
Amid these and other most important affairs he was ever intent upon God, affable to everyone, and always true to himself, simple, upright, lowly, and ever shrank from honors, riches, and luxuries. He was heard to say that in nothing was there any pleasure for him except in Christ Jesus, Whom he desired to imitate in all things. At length, worn out with bodily pains, labors, and old age, on September 27th, in the year of salvation 1660, and in the eighty-fifth year of age, at Paris, in the house of St. Lazare, which is the mother-house of the Congregation the Mission, he calmly fell asleep. Since he became illustrious for virtues, merits, and miracles, Clement XII placed him among the Saints, assigning July 19th as his annual feast. And Leo XIII, at the earnest request of many bishops, claimed and appointed this notable hero of divine charity, who has deserved so exceedingly well of every class of men the special patron before God of all the charitable societies existing in the entire Catholic world, and in any way soever emanating from his foundation. (2)
M.A. Henry Beford, 1856
There are few institutions in Paris which excite more admiration in strangers than the Foundling Asylum, the Hospice des Enfans trouves, in the Rue d’Enfer. No one can visit it without being moved with feelings of love and veneration for St. Vincent de Paul, whose work it is; and when we call to mind the difficulties he had to encounter in first establishing it, and the still greater trials which threatened its very existence while it was yet young, we shall indeed acknowledge that it is His work who taught His servant to say, “When my father and mother forsook me, the Lord took me up.”
Let us trace up this noble institution to its source in the charity of Vincent. Nothing could be more deplorable than the state of the poor foundlings of Paris when they first attracted the attention of our Saint. Not less than three or four hundred children were yearly left exposed by their parents in the public streets; and what does the reader think was the provision made by the government of that day for these little outcasts of society? It sounds well when we hear that a police regulation required that every child thus found should be taken by certain officers to a house appointed for their reception; but if we follow these officers to La Couche, in the Rue St. Landry, what preparations do we find for the nurture and care of this crowd of helpless infants? A widow, with two or three servants; and these so miserably paid, that the barest necessities of life cannot be obtained for those who need the most delicate attention and care! There are no wet-nurses for the youngest, no fitting food for those who have been weaned.
It naturally followed, that the greater part died almost immediately; while most of those who lingered on in a sickly existence were quieted in their pains, and in the end silenced for ever, by narcotics, which were given them by their ruthless guardians. Well was it for those who died thus; for they thereby escaped a harder and more cruel fate. Humanity shudders when it thinks of the lot of those who were given away, or sold for a few pence, to any who would take them from a place which it sounds like mockery to call their home. Some were hired to suck the milk from diseased breasts, who thus with their nurture drew in death; while others–horrible to relate–were bought as victims for diabolic art, and ministered with their blood to the requirements of those who sought therein restoration to health and a revival of the powers which sin and excess had corrupted and destroyed. The bath of infants’ blood is no mere classic dream; for the seventeenth century saw revived (if they had ever really ceased) the mystic charms and satanic remedies which heathenism had used. And while the bodies of these little ones were thus neglected and suffered to perish, none cared for their souls. The miserable creature who had the nominal care of them herself confessed that she had never baptised one, nor did she know of a single case in which that blessed sacrament had been administered! And yet three or four hundred yearly entered her house.
This gigantic evil crossed Vincent’s path: his tender heart recoiled in horror from cruelty so great and from neglect so terrible. To pass it with an exclamation of surprise or disgust, to drop over it a tear of sorrow, and thus to leave it, was not his way. His was an active charity, which shrank from no difficulty, and knew not the word “impossible.” Yet was he prudent and cautious in what he undertook. He did nothing on impulse; and so he never gave up what he once began. Thus, in this case as in others, he considered long and carefully what he should do; he weighed his means against the requirements, and found that he must begin in a small way. He called in the aid of the good ladies of the Hotel-Dieu, and sent them to examine the state of ” La Couche.” They went, and saw what has been related. What language could express their astonishment and distress at the spectacle which there presented itself! How can they meet so great a claim upon their charity? how cope with so overwhelming an evil? Under Vincent’s advice, they agree to select by lot twelve of these poor creatures, and place them in a house near the gate of St. Victor. Madame Le Gras and her Sisters of Charity undertook the immediate charge of them, and wet-nurses were provided.
It was in 1638 that this first step was taken, and gradually the number thus selected was augmented as the means for their support increased; and the contrast between those who had been thus taken and those who were left behind moved the hearts of these generous ladies to make greater sacrifices in their behalf. Thus matters went on for two years; at the end of which time, in 1640, Vincent called these ladies together, and laid before them a design for completing the work by taking charge of all these foundlings.
It was an arduous and costly task; and his prudence would not suffer him to do more than urge them to make trial of their strength and means. All he wished them to do was to make an experiment. If their resources would not suffice, they must give it up; in the meantime he would try what he could do for them.
He was a man of business, and sat down to count the cost of the enterprise; and this was the pecuniary view of the case. The ladies had no more than 70 of fixed income which they could devote to this work: at Vincent’s request, the queen regent, Anne of Austria, ever forward in works of charity, gave an annual grant of 600; and to this our Saint added all that he could spare from the resources ofSt. Lazarus and from the funds which the charitable placed at his disposal. After all, there was a large additional sum required to meet the necessary expenditure, which was certainly not less than 2,000 a year.
Nobly did they struggle on against all difficulties for some years; every nerve seemed strained, every power taxed to the uttermost, to carry on the undertaking and to preserve the poor deserted ones from the fate which awaited them should they have to return to their old quarters. But now difficulties increase: national distress shows itself on all sides, the curse of faction once more comes over the land, sin and misery rise together in greater force than ever; and so the demands upon this especial charity augment with its increasing poverty. Moreover, the famine which at this time afflicted the province of Lorraine called for unexampled relief; and those who had burdened themselves with the charge of the foundlings are now foremost in aiding the efforts which Vincent is making for the support of thousands of their starving countrymen.
Can we wonder if at such a time the hearts of these noble women should despond, and that their resolution respecting the orphans should falter? Common prudence seemed to urge them to consolidate their energies on the more pressing need, and to give up, at least for a time, what, after all, had been undertaken only as an experiment. Such was the state of affairs in 1648, when Vincent took his resolution, and called once more around him those liberal souls who were doing so much.
The general meeting is held; Vincent is there, and in the crowd of those present we may observe Madame Le Gras, as well as Madame de Goussault. Every heart beats high with anxiety–for what will Vincent advise? He is so cautious, so prudent, that, it may be, the more enthusiastic are half-inclined to condemn his counsel beforehand; while those who have more calmly weighed the matter in hand sigh as they feel the necessity of drawing back from what seems a hopeless task. At any rate there is this consolation, that they have done their best; and that, had not these national calamities come so unexpectedly upon them, they might still have persevered. It is painful, indeed, to draw back; but is it not madness to go on? Thus they thought; and therefore their hearts were sad, and many a bright eye was dimmed with tears for those whom they were about to abandon.
But what thinks Vincent all this while? It may be that their own thoughts occupy them too exclusively, or those ladies might have marked a determination about the Saint’s brow, and a sweet expression of ardent charity in those benignant eyes, which would in part have revealed the purpose within his mind.
And now Vincent rises; and in breathless silence they listen to the words of their sage counsellor, while he weighs the momentous question, whether they shall continue or give up the charge of the poor foundlings. Calmly and impartially does he set forth the reasons on both sides. He reminds them that it is only an experiment they have been making, and that consequently they are not bound by any obligation to continue it. But then he fails not also to call to their remembrance the fruit of their labours; how five or six hundred infants have been snatched from the hands of death, many of whom have learnt, and others were now being taught trades, by means of which they cease to be an expense to any one. He then goes on to tell them how through their care these little ones have been brought to know and to serve God; how with their earliest accents they have learned to speak of Him; and what bright hopes for a happy future these good beginnings presage. As he speaks, his words grow warmer; and at last, with deep emotion, and with irresistible sweetness, he exclaims: “Yes, ladies, compassion and charity have led you to adopt these little creatures for your children; you became their mothers by grace, when those who are their mothers by nature abandoned them; see now, if you too will forsake them. Cease to be their mothers, that you may become their judges; their life and death are in your hands. I have now to receive your decision. The time has come for you to pronounce sentence, and to declare whether or no you will still have pity on them. If you continue your charitable care over them, they will live; if you abandon them, they will undoubtedly perish. Your own experience forbids you to doubt it.”
The result may be easily imagined. Cost what it might, the good work should go on; and with tearful eyes but joyful hearts, they resolved to take courage from the words of Vincent, and to persevere in what was so evidently the will of God.
The king granted them the chateau at Bicetre, which Louis XIII. had destined for invalided soldiers; and thither for a time they sent the infants who had been weaned; but the air proving too keen, they were soon brought back to Paris, and lodged in a house near St. Lazarus. Here they were intrusted to twelve Sisters of Charity, who brought them up, and communicated to them the first rudiments of education. Those who were not yet weaned were given in charge to some country women, and were visited from time to time by the sisters, and occasionally by the Fathers of the Mission.
In course of time two houses were bought for these children. Louis XIV. increased the annual grant which his mother had made; and the good queen-dowager continued throughout her life the patronage she had so generously extended to the charity in the hour of its greatest need. From that day to this the institution has flourished; and those who visit it in its present habitation in the Rue d’Enfer, or in any other of its many dwelling-places, find as of old the Sisters of Charity carrying on the very work Vincent left in their hands, and recognise in its vitality another token of the heavenly mission of him whose works not only remain in vigorous life to the present day, but grow and expand with the wants and necessities of each succeeding age. (2)
Work for the Poor
Vincent de Paul had established the Daughters of Charity almost at the same time as the exercises des ordinands. At first they were intended to assist the conferences of charity. When these conferences were established at Paris (1629) the ladies who joined them readily brought their alms and were willing to visit the poor, but it often happened that they did not know how to give them care which their conditions demanded and they sent their servants to do what was needful in their stead. Vincent conceived the idea of enlisting good young women for this service of the poor. They were first distributed singly in the various parishes where the conferences were established and they visited the poor with these ladies of the conferences or when necessary cared for them during their absence. Besides the Daughters of Charity Vincent de Paul secured for the poor the services of the Ladies of Charity, at the request of the Archbishop of Paris. He grouped (1634) under this name some pious women who were determined to nurse the sick poor entering the Hotel-Dieu to the number of 20,000 or 25,000 annually; they also visited the prisons.
St. Vincent’s charity was not restricted to Paris, but reached to all the provinces desolated by misery. In that period of the Thirty Years War known as the French period Lorraine, Trois-Evechés, Franche-Comté, and Champagne underwent for nearly a quarter of a century all the horrors and scourges which then more than ever war drew in its train. Vincent made urgent appeals to the Ladies of Charity; it has been estimated that at his reiterated requests he secured 12,000 livres equivalent to $60,000 in our time (1913). When the treasury was empty he again sought alms which he dispatched at once to the stricken districts.
All these benefits had rendered the name of Vincent de Paul popular in Paris and even at the Court. Richelieu sometimes received him and listened favorably to his requests; he assisted him in his first seminary foundations and established a house for his missionaries in the village of Richelieu. On his deathbed Louis XIII desired to be assisted by him: “Oh, Monsieur Vincent”, said he, “if I am restored to health I shall appoint no bishops unless they have spent three years with you.” His widow, Ann of Austria, made Vincent a member of the council of conscience charged with nominations to benefices. These honors did not alter Vincent’s modesty and simplicity.
Up to the time of St. Vincent’s death these missionaries had ransomed 1200 slaves, and they had expended 1,200,000 liveres in behalf of the slaves of Barbary, not to mention the affronts and persecutions of all kinds which they themselves had endured from the Turks. This exterior life so fruitful in works had its source in a profound spirit of religion and in an interior life of wonderful intensity. He was singularly faithful to the duties of his state, careful to obey the suggestions of faith and piety, devoted to prayer, meditation, and all religious and ascetic exercises. Of practical and prudent mind, he left nothing to chance. His distrust of himself was equalled only by his trust in Providence; when he founded the Congregation of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity he refrained from giving them fixed constitutions beforehand; it was only after tentatives, trials, and long experience that he resolved in the last years of his life to give them definitive rules. His zeal for souls knew no limit. All occasions were to him opportunities to exercise it. When he died the poor of Paris lost their best friend and humanity a benefactor unsurpassed in modern times. He died at Paris, 27 September, 1660
Forty years later (1705) the Superior-General of the Lazarists requested that the process of his canonization might be instituted. Many bishops, among them Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Cardinal de Noailles, supported the request. On 13 August, 1729, Vincent was declared Blessed by Benedict XIII, and canonized by Clement XII on 16 June, 1737. In 1885 Leo XIII gave him as patron to the sisters of Charity. In the course of his long and busy life Vincent de Paul wrote a large number of letters, estimated at not less than 30,000. After his death the task of collecting them was begun; in the eighteenth century nearly 7000 had been gathered; many have since been lost. Those which remained were published rather incorrectly as “Lettres et conferérences de s. Vincent de Paul” (supplement, Paris, 1888); “Lettres inédites de saint Vincent de Paul” (Coste in”Revue de Gascogne”, 1909, 1911); Lettres choisies de saint Vincent de Paul” (Paris, 1911); the total of letters thus published amounts to about 3200. There have also been collected and published the saint’s “Conférences aux missionaires” (Paris, 1882) and “Conférences aux Filles de la Charite” (Paris, 1882). (5)
Image: Saint Vincent de Paul; artist: Juan Nepomuceno Herrera 1859 (7)
Research by REGINA Staff