Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Vincent de Paul, The Apostle of Charity

photograph of the Saint Vincent de Paul stained glass window at the Saint Joseph Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; photographed in the summer of 2003Article

Died A.D. 1660.

What land has not been blessed by the labors, what person has not heard of the Sister of Charity? –

“Who once was a lady of honor and wealth;
Bright glowed on her features the roses of health;
Her vesture was blended of silk and of gold.
And her motion shook perfume from every fold;
Joy revelled around her, love shone at her side,
And gay was her smile as the glance of a bride,
And light was her step in the mirth-sounding hall,
When she heard of the Daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul.”
But now –

“Unshrinking where pestilence scatters his breath,
Like an angel she moves ‘mid the vapor of death;
Where rings the loud musket and flashes the sword,
Unfearing she walks for she follows the Lord.
How sweetly she bends o’er each plague-tainted face
With looks that are lighted with holiest grace!
How kindly she dresses each suffering limb,
For she sees in the wounded the image of Him!”

The noble woman, the Daughter of Charity whose heroism is thus pictured by the poet’s pen, honors Vincent de Paul as the father and founder of her society. Let us glance at the career of that immortal benefactor of humanity.

He was born at a little village in the south of France, not far from the shadow of the famous Pyrenees Mountains, in the year of 1576. His parents were good, simple, country people, who owned a small farm. Vincent was the third of a family of four sons and two daughters, who were brought up in innocence and inured to hard labor. He was a bright, thoughtful boy, and gave such early promise of greatness that his father, at much sacrifice, determined to give him a superior education.

But after some time he resolved to be no longer a burden to his poor parents, and, with that manly energy which usually accompanies true genius, he took the matter into his own hands. At twenty years of age we find Vincent entering the University of Toulouse, where, after a long course of study, he graduated Bachelor of Theology. He was raised to the dignity of priesthood in 1600.

The young priest was already a man of virtue and learning; but he had not yet finished his studies. He was shortly to become well versed in a new science. By a very rugged road he was soon to reach the mountain-heights of virtue. As gold through a furnace, so Vincent was to pass through the fire of affliction.

In 1605 the Saint was called to Marseilles on business, and while crossing the Gulf of Lyons on his way back the boat was captured by African pirates. A few of the prisoners were killed; the others were put in chains. Vincent and some companions were carried to Tunis, and placed for sale in the slave market.

Mahometan merchants came to look at the unfortunate captives as they would at oxen or horses. They examined who could eat well, looked at their teeth, felt their sides, probed their wounds, forced them to lift burdens and wrestle, and made them run up and down a given space – all to judge of their strength.

Vincent was bought by a fisherman, who soon sold him to an old physician, at whose death he again changed masters. The poor priest finally fell into the hands of a renegade Christian, whom he converted after a time. They made their escape together, crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a little boat, and, after many adventures, landed near Marseilles in the Summer of 1607. The converted apostate became a true penitent, and passed the remainder of his days in a severe monastery at Rome.

Paris was now to be the chief field of our Saint’s labors – a field where his zeal was to be blessed with the glory of marvellous success. The slave was to become the counsellor of bishops and princes. But the holy toiler began to labor in an obscure corner. Near the gay capital of France there was a parish so miserably poor that for years no pastor could be found to take charge of it. It was Clichy. At his own request Vincent was placed over this forsaken district. Soon there was a great change. We are told that under his rule the people of Clichy “lived like angels.” He built a new church, and left everything in a flourishing condition when, at the advice of Cardinal De Berulle, he became preceptor to the noble family of De Gondi.

It was while in this position that an incident is related of the Saint’s firmness and Christian charity. A quarrel had arisen between Count De Gondi and a nobleman of the court. It could only be settled by blood. The morning came. After De Gondi had finished a prayer in the family chapel, Vincent approached and said:

“I know on good authority that you are going to fight a duel. I declare to you in the name of my Saviour, whom you have just adored, that if you do not relinquish this wicked design He will exercise His justice upon you and all your posterity.” These words were uttered with such force and kindly earnestness that they had the desired effect. No duel was fought.

The Saint now began to devote his services to the instruction of the people in various country villages. And greatly they stood in need of it. It was chiefly to carry on this sublime work that he founded the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission. The new congregation was approved by Pope Urban VIII. in 1632. Saint Vincent lived to see twenty-five houses established.

Boundless was the zeal of this apostolic man. His kind heart went out to suffering humanity in every form He was one day returning from a mission, as he noticed in a retired spot near the walls of Paris one of those fiendish vagrants who have recourse to the most wicked schemes in order to excite compassion. The wretch was in the act of mutilating the tender limbs of an unfortunate foundling. Filled with horror and indignation, the great priest rushed towards the heartless vagabond and tore the child from his grasp. “Barbarian!” he exclaimed, “at a distance I took you for a man, but I was grievously mistaken.” He then bore away the little creature in his arms to one of those asylums which he had established for the reception of abandoned and helpless infancy.

He founded the Sisters of Charity, established hospitals for little orphans, poor old men, and galley-slaves; and he settled all these homes of mercy under such excellent regulations that they had abundant means of support.

At one time, however, the foundling asylum at Paris was about to be discontinued through want of funds. The Saint called together the charitable ladies who had hitherto kept it alive by their liberal contributions. Standing near were five hundred little orphans, born in the arms of the Sisters of Charity. It was a sight truly touching.

“Remember, ladies,” said Vincent, “that compassion and charity have caused you to adopt these little creatures as your children. You have been their mothers according to grace, since they were abandoned by their natural mothers. Now, decide whether you also will abandon them Cease to be their mothers, that you may be their judges; in your hands are their life and death. I am going to take the votes. The time has come to pronounce their sentence and to know whether you will no longer have pity on them If you continue your charitable care of them, they will live; if, on the contrary, you abandon them, they will surely die. Experience does not allow you to doubt it.”

This beautiful appeal – one of the most eloquent in the annals of oratory – was answered by tears and sobs. It gained a great victory. The good work was not abandoned.

Our Saint assisted Louis XIII at his death, which was marked by piety and resignation. The queen regent nominated him a member of the young king’s council, and consulted him on all ecclesiastical affairs. The history of the Church in France bears witness to his great and holy influence.

He made some enemies, however, in the discharge of his duties, and they basely undertook to injure him by calumny. It was maliciously whispered around that he had, in exchange for a library and a sum of money, procured a benefice for an ambitious man. The story finally came to Vincent’s ears. He was deeply affected on hearing the atrocious falsehood. His first impulse was to seize a pen in order to repel the base attack. But he threw it down, exclaiming:

“Ah! unhappy man that I am What was I about to do? What! I desire to justify myself, and I have only now heard that a Christian – falsely accused at Tunis – passed three days in torments, and at last died without a word of complaint! And I would excuse myself! No, no; it shall not be.”

He allowed the calumny to take its course, and soon it spent itself and went the way of all iniquity. Public opinion was in his favor. And, last of all, the untimely death of the slanderer was a solemn hint that God punishes the calumniator and vindicates the character of His servants sooner or later.

Under the Saint’s fatherly guidance the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission grew in number and usefulness. He was especially careful to insist on a deep, sincere humility. When two persons, famous for gifts and learning, presented themselves to be admitted into his Congregation, he gave a refusal, saying:

“Your abilities raise you above our low state. Your talents may be of good service in some other place. As for us, our highest ambition is to instruct the ignorant, to bring sinners to a spirit of penance, and to plant the Gospel-spirit of charity, humility, meekness, and simplicity in the hearts of all Christians.”

He laid it down as a rule of humility that, if possible, a man should never speak of himself – as all such references usually proceed from vanity and self-love.

The hardy frame and intrepid energy of Saint Vincent carried him to a ripe old age. In his eightieth year, however, he was seized by a violent intermittent fever. But he still bore up for a time, and to the end he was active. His last thoughts turned to his dear spiritual children, and his last words referred to them – “He who hath begun will complete the good work.” And when he gently passed away on the 27th of September, 1660, at the age of eighty-five years, the world and religion felt that a truly great man was gone – that the apostle of charity, the friend of the orphan, the cripple, the foundling, the helpless, and galley-slave was no more on this earth.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Vincent de Paul, The Apostle of Charity”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 16 January 2019. <>