In the humble little farm-house of a village in the south of France, Vincent de Paul was born, in the year 1576. They were six children in all, and, like the rest, Vincent had to look after the sheep, carry grain to the mill, and help his parents in many ways. But as he grew older, he showed such signs of talent that his father, with some difficulty, placed him at school in Acqs, where he made such progress that he was afterwards engaged as tutor to the little sons of a gentleman there, whilst he still continued many of his own studies.
Vincent went next to Toulouse, where he remain seven years, and was then ordained a priest, but where he said his first Mass is not known; all that he tells is, that he was obliged to do so in a private chapel, because the sense of his own unworthiness overwhelmed him with timidity. After this he was appointed to a parish, but as another claimed the place Vincent gave it up, and went to live near Toulouse, where he received several pupils, who grew very warmly attached to him. Business took him from here to Bordeaux, and on his return by sea he was captured by some African pirates, and taken as a prisoner to Tunis, where he was exposed for sale. A fisherman bought Vincent, and sold him again, to a chemist, who treated him very kindly, and. tried to persuade him to turn to the same occupation, promising to bequeath him his money. But the Saint only desired to regain his liberty, and every day implored the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, in whom he placed his trust, that he should be delivered.
However, at the death of his owner, Vincent was again sold to a man who had three wives, and one of these would go and watch him digging in the fields, and ask him questions about the Christian’s God. At last she wanted him to sing, and when he began the Salve Regina, she listened with great delight. It came out that the husband had been a Christian, but turned from his faith, and, impressed by what she heard from Vincent, this Turkish wife reproached him for giving up such a beautiful religion, and her words took such an effect upon him that he escaped with his slave to France, where he was reconciled to the Church, while Vincent made his way to Rome. From Rome he travelled to Paris; where he was received at the royal palace for a time, and then sought lodgings in another quarter of the city.
Whilst staying there, a magistrate accused Vincent of robbing him of a large sum of money, and drove him from the room which they shared, declaring him publicly to be a rogue and thief; he even carried his complaint to the superior of the Oratorians, whom Vincent was visiting, and there accused him of this robbery. In spite of all this, the Saint was calm and quiet, never seeking to excuse himself, but simply replying, “God knows the truth.”
He teaches us in this a beautiful lesson of patience under false accusations, and though he was content to be suspected of this wrong, God brought his innocence to light some years later, and then the magistrate begged most humbly to receive his pardon.
About this time Vipcent, by the advice of his director, gave up the many high offices which were open to him, to be a priest in the parish of Clichy. Here he laboured unwearyingly amongst his people – never in a hurry, never too busy to have a kind word for those who needed it, and yet his duties were constant. God gave him a wonderful power of understanding the different characters of those with whom he had to deal, so that he could win the timid by his gentleness, as well as repress the bold by his severe words.
For three years Saint Vincent pursued this way of life, and then, by the advice of his director, gave up his much-beloved work amongst the poor of Christ to be chaplain and tutor to a family of high position. But, staying there, lie lived as much as possible in retirement, and under his beautiful influence the whole family became pious and devoted to good works.
But the heart of this holy man was drawn to labour amongst the poor, and whenever the family went to their country residence, he set about instructing and catechizing the ignorant, and hearing confessions, in which he had very great success. For a few months Vincent left his position of chaplain, and during that absence the first thought of founding the Order of Charity occurred to him.
A pious lady, named Louisa de Marillac, asked the Saint to direct her in charitable employments, and he found others who willingly joined her in the duties of visiting the sick and relieving the poor. This was the first beginning of the congregation of the Sisters of Charity, which has now spread to every part of the Christian world, for the assistance of all who suffer, and the instruction of the ignorant.
The next work of kindness which Saint Vincent attempted was amongst the galley slaves, having obtained the office of their chaplain from the king, Louis XIII. When he paid his first visit, he was shocked by the suffering in which he found them; and, what was still more terrible to him was the foul language which was heard amongst the prisoners. But he did not shrink from these wretched creatures. To him they were souls for whom Jesus had shed His precious Blood, souls whom He loved so dearly that it was worth the work of a lifetime to reclaim even one from sin. So, by sweet persuasive words he won hearts which had been hardened by punishment, and those who had cursed and blasphemed, learned to kneel humbly as earnest prayers came from the lips ‘they reverenced. For some time Vincent visited these prisoners daily, instructing and preparing them for the Sacraments, and when he was obliged to be absent he placed some of his friends in charge of them.
During this period the Saint once met with a man who was in a state of despair at the thought of the misery of his family during his separation from them, upon which Vincent went to the chief authority, offering to take this prisoner’s place if he could be released. The offer was accepted, and for several weeks the good man wore the chains of the galley slave, until the affair was discovered by his absence.
Another of Saint Vincent’s great works was the foundation of a hospital for poor deserted infants, which he thought of through finding a little child left in the cold, snowy streets one night without a home, whom he picked up and carried to some charitable ladies, who assisted him in forming a place for such cases to be received.
The principal undertaking of the holy Vincent’s life was not begun until he was forty years of age – this was the congregation of the Mission. It began with himself and two others, who went from village to village catechizing, preaching, and hearing confessions; and God blessed their work, so that other priests came to join them, and the prior of a house in Paris, called “Saint Lazarus,” resigned his possessions to the use of these humble missioners. At first Vincent was frightened at the thought of being established at the priory. In his humility he deemed it far above hira and his brethren, and it was more than a year before the offer was accepted and the congregation removed there. Immediately some disputes and opposition were aroused, but they soon came to an end, and Vincent remained in possession of the priory of Saint Lazarus.
Meanwhile Louisa de Marillac, or “Madame Le Gras,” was toiling on in works of mercy amongst the poor surrounding her, clothing the destitute, nursing the sick, gathering little ignorant children around her, assisted by a company of devout women, who busied themselves thus in different towns and villages. Then Saint Vincent formed a little community under her control, which became dear to all hearts from their self-denying love and untiring zeal. As time went on, they began to receive orphans under their charge, and attend hospitals and sick convicts. Twenty-eight of these houses were founded in Paris alone during the Saints life, and the good work spread throughout France and even to Poland.
It would not be possible to describe all the wise and holy works of Vincent’s commencement. His was a long life, all given to God and his fellow-creatures, and during its close he preached more powerfully by his patient sufferings than even by his fervent words. For some years he was not able to walk, but he afterwards lost the use of his limbs, so that he could no longer stand at the altar. What a sacrifice this was could be known only to God, but his consolation was to hear Mass and communicate daily. Those who went to see him found him always cheerful and uncomplaining, directing those works of charity which he could no longer actively perform. Every morning after Mass, he would repeat the prayers of the Church for the dying, and thus he awaited the call of his Lord. On the 26th of September, 1660, he was able to hear Mass and receive Communion, but he had scarcely been carried back before he fell into a heavy sleep, from which he was roused by the visit of the doctor, who pronounced him dying.
Then the priests of the Mission gathered round and besought his blessing, and Vincent raised his hand, beginning the words of benediction, but his voice failed, and he sank back exhausted. That night he received Extreme Unction, and early in the morning of the 27th September he died in the chair from which he had not been removed for twenty-four hours, so peacefully that he only seemed asleep. For nearly eighty-five years he had lived in the world, bearing its trials, fulfilling its duties – now the time for rest and reward had come.
Many hearts grieved when they heard that the grave had closed over Vincent de Paul. But his work did not die with him; it lives still in his sons, who preach the faith of Christ amongst the heathen in far-off regions; in his daughters, who serve Jesus in the persons of His poor; and every Catholic heart blesses the honoured name of the simple, humble Saint who worked wonders through the love of souls which he had learned at the foot of the crucifix, and sinking deeply within his heart, kindled there the holy fire which made him the great apostle of charity to the world.
– from , by Mary F Seymour