Saint Vincent de Paul, by Frank Murphy

photograph of the Saint Vincent de Paul stained glass window at the Saint Joseph Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; photographed in the summer of 2003It is the dawn of the seventeenth Century and it is Marseilles!

Picture, then, the quayside; the blue waters of the Mediterranean lapping at the steps and rocking gently the boats. There is bustle at the quay, for a ship is about to sail. A little ship, it is true, for it goes but a day’s journey; but still, it is a ship, and it goes a-sailing, so there is bustle. A young Gascon steps down the cobbles, talking volubly with a chance friend, whom he has persuaded to accompany him to Narbonne, across the water.

The friend, it happens, is a priest. We see that from his black cassock. Rather worn it is, and, as the young Gascon thinks, in places a trifle shabby. Timid, too, of the sea he is, but so fair it is this day that he makes the journey.

Vincent, for that is the young priest’s name, would soon have done with reverie as the shore receded into the haze. He would say his prayers and talk to the sailors and listen to the prattle of his Gascon companion. A calm crossing, and Narbonne should be made in good time.

But now a new interest arises. A ship coming up a-port. Too far distant at first to distinguish, but gradually to the eyes of the watchers it breaks into a trio of brigantines. Interest changes to anxiety, for they are of a foreign figure. And then, a sudden chill. Turkish pirates, and three to one. There are sharp orders, a running to and fro, feverish preparation for battle. The few weapons are handed out; there is hurried confession in the face of death. The ship is boarded. “Ruffians, worse than tigers,” as Vincent tells us, swarm the deck. The crew put up a gallant fight. The captain kills one of the pirate chiefs, and is himself cut into “a hundred pieces.” Others are killed, all the rest wounded, Vincent included. For them the slave market, and so, with wounds roughly bandaged, they are carried off to Barbary on the Tunisian coast.

There they are sold. They are led through the streets of Tunis to the market-place. Merchants open the mouths and look at the teeth, prod the ribs, and make the captives walk, trot and run, carry loads and wrestle.

Vincent de Paul is sold. A succession of masters, one an old alchemist, for whom Vincent stokes furnaces; another is a renegade from the Faith.

Finally, Vincent escapes in a skiff, carrying with him a memory of irons that not only cut into the flesh, but which leave a festering mark upon a man’s soul.

Vincent finds himself again in France, in a poor lodging under the shadow of a Hospital. He visits the sick, ministering to their spiritual and bodily needs, and holding the dying in his arms. Obscurely he lives, yet his virtue cannot remain hidden. Hard by the hospital are the terraced gardens round the palace of the former Queen Margot, who strives to live down the scandals of her past. But she maintains a court, and into its brilliance Vincent is introduced as chaplain by her secretary. Here is all the fastidious splendour of costume. Vincent must have thought of the rags upon his poor. Here, too, the glitter of jewels — not a fair contrast to the ulcers of the leg iron. Luxury for lap-dogs, perfume in plenty for poodles, and blue-birds in gilt cages! Could Vincent forget the lashing of backs and the stench of prisons? Strange company for Saint Vincent de Paul, you might say. But it has its lessons. He makes a vow to devote his life to the poor, and we find him shortly with a few villagers for a flock.

But he is recalled. Again that contrast which marks his life. Not to the court once more, but to the mansion of Philip de Gondi, General of the Galleys. Vincent’s work is to care, mainly, for the education of the young de Gondis. Madame de Gondi herself, renowned for her beauty, her elegance and her wit, who shines among the stars of the fashionable firmament, seeks for the spiritual direction of the saintly tutor.

But Vincent flees. He steals quietly to the town of Chatillon. A dreadful spot! No priest worthy of the name to minister to its people; filthy, unhealthy, its houses fallen into ruin, an asylum and lurking place for the robber and the footpad. Passion and outrage stalk the streets. To it, Vincent and a companion give example of a regular life, according to the laws of God. The Sacraments are administered, the village church restored, the gospel preached, and in less than a year chaos gives way to order.

In his pastoral work at Chatillon, Vincent reflects upon what might be done further afield. We find him again with the de Gondis, but with a purpose. To Madame de Gondi he tells his ambition. She agrees to assist him. Confraternities, associations, must be established, that assistance be given to the needy. Bodies and souls must be fed.

The confraternities are established, of women at first. Madame de Gondi and other women of wealth, wives of merchants and of soldiers, ladies of court and servant girls walk the sewers of Paris, kneel by the pallets of the sick poor, feed the hungry, scrub the floors. Silver plate is sold that the hungry might eat, and that running sores be stemmed. Carriages are abandoned that rough straw give way to a decent sick-bed. Confraternities of men are set up also; homes for the aged, where they may rest, and workshops for the young, where they may learn a trade. In underground cellars, in leaking attics, in dark alleys moves Vincent de Paul, and where he is not, there are his confraternities ‘himself again’. He finds his way into the hospitals. Disease rages; filthy, obstructed sewers propagate infection. No wonder men sicken. But where are they taken? We have a description.

“Tumbled-down, tottering beds, dirty bed clothes riddled with holes, sticky with spittle and slobber, harder than sailcloth from dirt and dust; broken pots that were never scoured; the timber infested with bugs; foul, cast-off dressings strewn in all directions, oozing out on the floor. The wounded, pregnant women, and those who had just been delivered, small-pox cases, and those afflicted with scurvy were all heaped together, close to the Mortuary chamber and dissecting-room. Beds intended to hold two contained six, piled together, attacked by fearful and various diseases, which they communicated to each other.”

In these ghastly scenes is Vincent, planning for his poor.

He thought much about the hospitals, but he had still another thought, a memory. He remembered that de Gondi was General of the Galleys, and so, in the deep, underground cellars, green-coated with slime, he visits his fellow-beings, chained in their living tombs. He washes their sores and brushes off the vermin. He sees the scars upon the heads of those who have tried to end their earthly misery by dashing out their poor brains against the stones. He sees the rats and the spiders running and crawling over these ghosts of human beings.

Vincent goes to de Gondi. Vincent is authorised to take what means he thinks fit to improve the lot of the unhappy convicts. He acquires a special home for them wherein he can not only look after them, but raise, educate and transform them. “No more lost souls in the next world,” he says, “or miserable ones in this.” At last, by Royal assent, he is given jurisdiction over the convicts not only of Paris, but of the whole kingdom. His convicts! He goes to the galleys.

No space here to tell of the horrors of the galley-slaves, or of Vincent’s care for them. You must read it for yourself. The number of priests who wish to help Vincent in his work leads to the realisation of another of his dreams, the foundation of a community. A few at first, then numbers, until their small house is inadequate. The old leper hospital of Saint Lazarus, which shelters lepers no longer, is offered them. In 1632, Vincent takes possession. Hence, his missionaries are known as Lazarists. Saint Lazare Hospital becomes famous overnight. Crowds flock to it. The centre of Vincent’s work, it hums with activity. It holds assistance to the poor, counsel for the troubled, retreat for the weary, conferences for the clergy, and Christianity for the world. Twenty five houses of the new institute are founded in Vincent’s lifetime. Additions are made to Saint Lazare, which, though plundered by the Revolution, remain, though turned by the whirligig of irony into convict cells.

His congregation of men set up, Vincent founds a congregation of women, the famous Daughters of Charity, they of the quaint cornette. The sick are soothed by kindly hands; into orphanages and schools, the Daughters of Charity gather the little children. Much work done, but for Vincent not enough. What of children stifled at birth, thrown from the window, flung to the rats, or deformed into monstrosities, that they might earn a horrible livelihood for their torturers!

A foundling hospital then! It is established. But, how to get the children! If they are called foundlings, it is Vincent who does the finding. Slipping out by night from Saint Lazare into the dark streets of Paris, that figure, familiar to the lurking cut-throat and garrotter by the unusual, large cloak which it wears, makes its way along the narrow pavements and crooked alleys. Quarter after quarter he searches, picking up from the rubbish heap and the dunghill, from the gutter and the sewer the newborn, gasping its small breath in the fetid air. Back to Saint Lazare he goes, the folds of his great cloak wrapped warmly about him, back to the watchers who wait to take from his arms the struggling wisps of humanity and fan into life the faint flicker that remains.

Back to a few hours of sleep for the weary body of Saint Vincent de Paul. Sleep he has need of, but it is little rest. He suffers torture in his limbs, racked by continuous activity. Age creeps on, hand in hand with suffering, but he works to the last. At his poor desk, on his knees in prayer, thumbing his worn breviary, this is his respite. And so, on the 27th of September 1660, sitting in his chair, a crucifix at his lips, quietly he dies.

Saint Lazare is his tomb. About it Paris, grief-stricken, mourns the loss of the Father of the Poor. It becomes a place of pilgrimage, where strong men come to pray. Yet by that odd irony, which we see again today, the resting place of him who has earned his rest by a life for the people, is shaken by the Revolution. Twice is Saint Lazare plundered by the mob; the blood of its priests spilt upon its stones. History repeats itself. They shout, “Liberty!” and rage against the Truth, which alone can make men free, they yell, “Equality!” and fetter those who have lived in the conviction that men are equal. They cry, “Fraternity!” and trample the confraternities of Saint Vincent de Paul.

But their cries are but cries, and cries are lost in the wind.

A saint-endures, for sanctity is of God. Nothing else stands!

– from the booklet Five Figures of the Faith, by Frank Murphy; published by the Australian Catholic Truth Society in 1937