The Apostle of Organized Charity, Saint Vincent de Paul, by Henry Somerville

photograph of the Saint Vincent de Paul stained glass window at the Saint Joseph Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; photographed in the summer of 2003There has arisen in modern times a movement of secular philanthropy which has been a rival, and to some extent an adversary, of Catholic charity. The movement of which we speak may be said to have begun in 1833 when the report of the English Poor Law Commission was issued. That Commission was appointed in consequence of the evils which resulted from the poor law system established in England by Queen Elizabeth, after the monasteries and other ancient organs of charitable relief in England had been destroyed by the Reformation. The State system of relief introduced by Protestantism had, it is universally admitted, a very evil effect on the characters of those whom it was designed to benefit. Relief had the effect of “pauperizing” its recipients, that is of weakening in them habits of industry and self-help, and creating in them a chronic habit of depending on alms for their livelihood.

The Commission of 1833, noting the pauperizing effects of relief under the then existing poor law system, recommended that no relief at all be given, except in the most extreme cases of destitution, and then only under the most stringent conditions, so as to deter others from applying for relief. The reformed Poor Law of 1834 embodied the policy recommended by the Commission. The new law was in some respects a remarkable success. The extent of pauperism was very greatly reduced. In other respects the law was not a success for it created new evils as bad as the old ones which it had remedied. But we are here concerned with the history of the reformed English Poor Law only in so far as it helped to determine the character of modern secular philanthropy.

The reform of 1834 did act powerfully in America and England to make men regard charity from a purely utilitarian point of view. It was seen that much charity was misdirected, and produced mischievous instead of beneficial results. We cannot stop now to trace the development which has resulted in the distortion of the Christian meaning of charity, so that now that most beautiful of words is actually ill-sounding to many ears. What we want to point out is that in the nineteenth century all charitable activities came under critical examination, and there arose a movement for the organization of charity on strictly utilitarian principles. It was urged that charity should be regarded as entirely a matter of business, and the object should be the maximum return for the minimum of expenditure. When the new principles came to be put into effect the organization of charity often meant simply the absence of charity. It feared so much the dangers of pauperization, and it esteemed so highly the saving of expenditure, that it flattered itself with having achieved its objects when it had merely left the poor to go without help.

Apart from local and temporary errors, however, the charity organization movement did much that was good; it undoubtedly brought the administrative methods of both public and private relieving agencies to higher standards of efficiency. So much study has been devoted in recent years to the principles and methods of charity organization that there is now an elaborate science of philanthropy with a huge literature of its own, with special schools for its teaching like the New York School of Philanthropy, and with endowed research, like that conducted by the Russell Sage Foundation. Not only is philanthropy a science, it has become a profession also, with hundreds of trained practitioners in this country. For it is one of the canons of the science that every kind of social worker must be trained in order to be efficient, and so we are seeing the amateur social worker being superseded by the professional.

Scientific philanthropy is secular, utilitarian; it is, as we have said, a rival, and sometimes an adversary, of Catholic charity. There are some things in scientific philanthropy that are detestably bad, but there is much that is good. We shall not in this pamphlet say anything about the bad, but we propose to show that the good belongs, by right of ancient possession, to Catholicism. The literature of scientific philanthropy takes for granted that its principles are modern discoveries. The importance of charity organization was not found out until the nineteenth century. “Mediaeval almsgiving” is the stock synonym of the up-to-date philanthropists for all that is wasteful and pauperizing in methods of relief. It is commonly assumed that charity in Catholic countries has been, and is, a means of degrading multitudes. And it is explained to us that the reason for all this is that Catholics are taught to give alms for the good of their own souls, to lay up treasures in heaven, not to benefit the recipient.

But history vindicates the Church. Would that we Catholics were aware of our birthright. We know that the Church was the creator of Christian charity, of that spirit which covered Europe with hospitals, which made men give themselves as galley slaves that others might be freed, which inspired Saint Elizabeth to leave her royal palace, and wash with her own hands the bodies of lepers. The supreme heroes and martyrs of charity are unquestionably ours, but do we realize that the pioneers, the geniuses of charity organization are also ours, that the world owes to the Church the science, as well as the spirit, of charity?

It would be impossible to single out any one of the Church’s saints as the most perfect exemplar of personal charity, or as the greatest benefactor of humanity; but there is no invidiousness in saying that the saint who is preeminently the apostle of charity organization is Saint Vincent de Paul, he whom the Holy See has declared to be the special patron of charitable works throughout the Universal Church, as Saint Thomas Aquinas is the patron of the schools. Saint Vincent is the Aquinas of charity. A great French bishop said: “Saint Vincent has been endowed by God with the genius of organization and like Saint Thomas Aquinas, has bequeathed to the Christian world his Summa – the Summa of his works. He gathered into his own soul all that Catholic devotedness has ever furnished, from which he might learn how to relieve suffering and poverty, and completing the heritage of the past by broader views and new conceptions, he has transmitted to future generations the organization of charity which the Catholic Church may justly claim as one of her greatest glories in modern times.”

There is scarcely a single form of charitable activity existing in America at the present time that was not successfully undertaken by Saint Vincent in France three centuries ago. He reformed the treatment of prisoners; he built free schools for working-class children, he founded homes for deserted infants; he arranged vocational training for young lads and girls; he established homes for the aged and anticipated the demands of the most advanced of modern philanthropists by providing that husband and wife should not be separated, as is the case in most institutions, but that each old couple should spend their remaining days together. Saint Vincent made such adequate provision for the regular relief of the destitute that there was left no excuse for street begging, which was accordingly abolished. He recruited and trained what have been called his armies of charity, lay men and lay women, as well as the consecrated Sisters of Charity, to visit and relieve the poor in their own homes; and he organized a vast work for relieving provinces devastated by war which compares only with what has been done by the American Committee for relief in Belgium.

Saint Vincent was born in 1576 and he died in 1660, his life being passed in one of the stormiest periods of ecclesiastical and secular history. The ancient unity of Christendom had been destroyed, and Europe was already divided into Catholic and Protestant States, but it was not yet decided which side would hold the supremacy in Europe. The Catholics in England still had hopes of restoring the Faith in their country; the Huguenots had not despaired of a Protestant conquest of France. The tragedy of the time was that France, a Catholic country, joined forces with the Protestant princes to overthrow Catholic Austria, then the leading power in Europe. Religion was at a low ebb in France. Such typical worldlings as Cardinals Richelieu, Mazarin and de Retz held the government of Church and State during Saint Vincent’s adult life. Chronic warfare had filled the country with widows, orphans, cripples and discharged soldiers, who lived mostly by beggary and pillage. Saint Vincent was engaged in all the works of his time; in the reform of the clergy; in the establishment of the seminary system as laid down by the Council of Trent; in fighting the abuses of ecclesiastical patronage by corrupt politicians; in combating heresy; in reconciling hostile factions of a civil war; in sending out home and foreign missionaries, and in fighting the Turks. His charitable institutions, vast as they are, represented but a tithe of his activities, and we would get a false view of his character if we did not remember his labors in other fields.

The son of a poor peasant, Saint Vincent was educated for the priesthood, and was ordained at the age of twenty-four. After seventeen years, full of valuable experiences and good works, we find him a cure of the little town of Chatillon, where his charitable organization may be said to have begun. One day he was about to offer Mass, when a lady asked him to recommend to the charity of his parishioners a certain poor family, all of whose members were sick. The Saint spoke on behalf of the family, and in the afternoon he set out to visit them. He found that a large number of people, moved by his appeal, had already been there with gifts of food and money. “Behold noble but ill-regulated charity,” exclaimed Saint Vincent. “These poor people, provided with too much now, must allow some to perish, and then they will be again in want as before.” The Saint immediately set himself to find a remedy. He brought together some of the ladies of his parish, and pointed out to them the deficiencies of unsystematized charity. “I suggested to them,” the Saint tells us himself, “to club together to do the needful every day, not only for this poor family, but for others that might turn up in future. This was the beginning of the Association of Charity.”

A copy of the rules of the Association drawn up by Saint Vincent, were discovered in 1839, in the archives of Chatillon. The Association was to consist of lay women, married and single. There was to be a president, elected by the members, and also an assistant-president and a treasurer. The members were to visit only those cases which had been referred to, and approved by, the three officers. The member deputed to visit a particular family was to obtain food from the treasurer, cook it, and take it to the invalids. The visitor was to serve the food to the invalid and perform other services, as washing, and converse with the sick person cheerfully and religiously. The assistance given was to be regular and adequate. The visitor was to go each day, not only with dinner, but with supper also when needed. This is the institution of the system of visiting the poor in their own homes by lay workers. Saint Vincent’s rules conform to the standards set by the modern teachers of scientific philanthropy. Assistance was preceded by investigation, friendly intercourse was fostered; religious guidance as well as material help was given, and the help was not spasmodic, or insufficient, but regular and adequate.

With the cooperation of Madame de Gondi, mistress of one of the greatest aristocratic houses in France, Saint Vincent soon afterwards established in thirty other villages Associations similar to that of Chatillon. A year later, in 1618, at Folleville, he introduced another innovation by forming an Association of Charity for men. The men were to have charge of the healthy poor, the children, the young people and the old, leaving the care of the sick to the women. A few months later, at the town of Joigny, Saint Vincent organized a most drastic reform scheme at the request of the municipal authorities. He undertook to provide suitable relief for each of the different classes of dependents, and at the same time to suppress mendicity in the streets. This is what Saint Vincent says: “The Association is intended for the spiritual and corporal assistance of the poor – spiritually by teaching Christian doctrine and piety; and corporally by procuring employment for those who could work, and assisting those who could not. In this way they fulfill the command of God in the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, enjoining us to act that there shall be no poor nor beggar among you. The number of the poor having been ascertained, and each having obtained aid proportionate to his want, they are prohibited from begging under penalty of having the aid withdrawn, and the public are forbidden to give alms.”

Work for the able-bodied, and proportionate assistance to those wholly or partly incapable of self-support: this was Saint Vincent’s programme. There were already hospitals in existence for cases of sickness needing institutional care; the sick poor in their own homes were attended by the women of the Association of Charity; those incapable of work, but not needing frequent visitation, received alms according to their necessities, the alms being distributed at a church each Sunday where the recipients assembled to hear Mass and a sermon. Tramps were not forgotten: Saint Vincent established for them night refuges where supper and lodging were given to them, and they were sent on their road next morning with two sous each. Young boys were either apprenticed to useful trades, as weaving, the indenture fees being paid by the Association, or they were employed in special workshops which Saint Vincent established. These workshops manufactured woolen socks or similar articles, and were managed by a qualified master workman who taught the young lads the trade. There were, of course, the most careful regulations for the Religious, as well as the industrial training of the boys.

How did Saint Vincent get the money for his undertakings? He resorted to a multitude of means, many of which are mistakenly thought to be modern inventions. He canvassed for permanent subscriptions from bishops and priests, lords and merchants, peasants and artisans. He had collections at church doors and from house-to-house. He had little collecting boxes in hotels, such as we see to-day on the counters of banks and other places. He secured that certain fines imposed by the judges should be paid to the Association of Charity, and also the proceeds of certain taxes. At a later date we find him publishing a newspaper in order to enlist public interest and support for his charitable works.

At Paris Saint Vincent formed the assembly known as the Ladies of Charity, which was somewhat different from the Associations of Charity. The Ladies of Charity were about three hundred in number, and they included the Queen and persons of the highest rank in France. The assembly was first formed to visit the patients in the great hospital called Hotel Dieu, but it became an organization for seconding all sorts of charitable projects of Saint Vincent de Paul. The ladies raised extraordinary sums of money for those days. It was through the Ladies of Charity that Saint Vincent accomplished his work for foundlings, which, of all his labors, has most touched the imagination of the world’ and made his name venerated. One night as the Saint was walking through a street, he saw a wretched beggar in the act of maiming a child, in order the better to excite compassion for begging purposes. The horrified Saint seized the child and took it to a place called the ” Couche,” which existed to receive foundlings. Saint Vincent related the incident to the Ladies of Charity, who arranged what American newspapers call a “probe” into the work of the Couche. They found it a poorhouse, badly organized, and kept by a widow and two servants. According to official reports about four hundred children were admitted each year. There was disgraceful trafficking in the children. They were sold or abandoned at will. Often they were left to die without baptism. Saint Vincent and the Ladies of Charity inaugurated a system of inspection to prevent ill-treatment and ensure baptism. They took away a few of the children, who were chosen by drawing lots. But the Saint felt they must take charge of all the children, and he urged this upon the ladies. A great “campaign” was organized to finance a foundling hospital. The King gave an annuity of eight thousand francs, a number of noblemen raised this sum to forty thousand, and the Queen and the Ladies of Charity were equally generous. But owing to the large numbers of foundlings, and failures of subscriptions and to the war of the Fronde, it required superhuman efforts and courage on the part of Saint Vincent to prevent the work being abandoned.

The assembly of the Ladies of Charity gave rise to the institution of the Sisters of Charity, which had become one of the most glorious organizations in the Church. Their beginnings were of the humblest, but exceedingly interesting to anyone experienced even in a small way in the difficulties of organization, as showing that the human nature we meet with today was present in Saint Vincent’s associates. The Ladies of Charity, as we have said, were the great ones of the land. Some of them heroines of charity, to whom no work was too great or too small. But others were less heroic. They could not persevere in the work of personal visits to the poor, and sometimes when their intentions were good they were not capable of any practical service. So some of these great dames began to send their servants in their stead. These were not always satisfactory. Saint Vincent decided to obtain some suitable assistants for the Ladies of Charity, who would nurse and visit the sick poor. He knew that among the humbler classes of people there were many pious and competent girls who were not anxious to marry, nor yet thinking of entering religious communities, who could do excellent work for the poor. He brought a number of these girls together, lodged them in the houses of Ladies of Charity, and allotted a certain number to visit the poor of each parish. After a while it was found necessary to give some training to these girls, and so they were all lodged in one house under a directress, who was the great and saintly Mademoiselle le Gras. A long time passed before Saint Vincent allowed any to bind herself to the work by religious vows. It was almost in spite of his designs that the Sisters of Charity grew into a great religious order. The constitution that Saint Vincent did finally decide upon for the Sisters was something then quite novel in the history of the Church, and he had to overcome much opposition before he could get his rules approved. Heretofore Religious had always taken solemn vows which involved enclosure and legal inability to marry or inherit or bequeath property; or they had taken simple but perpetual vows. Saint Vincent felt, and it was practically the unanimous view of all other holy directors, that to send young women bound by perpetual vows into the streets and garrets of Paris was altogether inadvisable. Saint Vincent determined that his Sisters should either take no vows at all or bind themselves only for one year, so that they could freely engage in the work of visiting the poor. It was a bold undertaking, and though many of the religious communities of women within the past three hundred years have adopted the rule of terminable vows, it is easy to understand the opposition to the novelty in its first days. “You are not Religious in the strict sense,” said Saint Vincent to the Sisters, “and never can be, because of the service of the poor. You must, therefore, be holier than Religious, since you have greater temptations and less security.” And again he says: “The Sister of Charity shall have for her convent the house of the sick, for her cell the chamber of suffering, for her chapel the parish church, for her cloister the streets of the city or the wards of a hospital. Obedience shall be her enclosure, the fear of God her grate, and modesty her veil.”

The time was coming when the organizations that Saint Vincent had created were to be put to the greatest test. In 1633, when our Saint was in his fifty-seventh year, France was invaded by Austrian troops. Fighting in those days was no chivalrous business. Instead of regular and disciplined troops there were armies of hired mercenaries who depended on their pay for what they could pillage. It was quite the recognized principle to destroy harvests, cut down fruit trees and lay waste whole districts in order to starve out the enemy. Chiefly as a consequence of the war, famine raged in Lorraine and other frontier provinces for close upon twenty years. Famine was exceeded in horror by pestilence. Corn could not be had at any price. The poor died of hunger. The streets were strewn with the bodies of the dead and the dying. Wolves entered the towns and devoured the corpses. Mothers killed their own children for food. Saint Vincent set himself the task of relieving these provinces ravaged by war, famine and plague.

We have few details of what was done between 1633 and 1640. Money was sent to Lorraine by the Associations of Charity, but apparently it was thought that the distress could not last and no adequate organization was attempted. After 1640 relief was increased and systematized. A definite sun? of money was sent monthly to particular towns, as Nancy, Verdun and Metz. In this way thirty thousand livres a year were distributed. By 1651 the amount had increased to one hundred and eighty livres in a year. It is estimated that during the war Saint Vincent’s relief fund amounted to over twelve million livres. The Ladies of Charity were his great contributors and collectors. The Queen Regent, when she had exhausted her money, sent Saint Vincent her jewels, which were sold by the Ladies of Charity for eighteen thousand livres. Saint Vincent carried his begging still further, says Monsignor Bougaud, the Saint’s best modern biographer: “There were others who had more than the Queen; there was the public. Our Saint conceived the courageous idea of using the press in favor of charity. His missioners, spread over the scene of war, sent most touching accounts of the sufferings. These the Saint had published and distributed them at the church doors. Soon they became periodicals, appearing every month, and read with such eagerness that the first numbers had to be reprinted. A paper even was founded called the Magazine of Charity with the express object of promoting the great movement of charity.”

The funds were collected chiefly by the Ladies of Charity; the food and other provisions were transported to the devastated provinces, and then distributed by the Vincentian Priests of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity. Of the exalted heroism of these priests and holy women, many of whom died through overwork and pestilence, martyrs of charity, we have not space here to speak, as we are studying only the organizing methods of Saint Vincent. The three chief corporal works of mercy in Saint Vincent’s relief scheme were the feeding of the hungry, the burial of the dead, and the provision of seed so as to obtain the following year’s crop. The feeding of the hungry was done by soup kitchens, as it is being done in Belgium to-day, and was conducted by the Sisters of Charity. In many towns the families of the highest rank were glad to accept this relief. Some districts of Paris were crowded with fugitives, and here there were ten thousand daily in the “soup line.” In the towns of all the eastern provinces of France there was the same distress and the same relief.

Whilst feeding the hungry, Saint Vincent was also performing the functions of a Minister of Public Health. In towns and villages, in streets and fields, thousands of human and animal bodies lay unburied, spreading forth corruption and disease. Priests of the Mission and Sisters of Charity, together with layfolk whom they enlisted, set to work to bury the dead. It was ghastly and dangerous work, in which many lost their lives. Saint Vincent was also like a Minister of Agriculture: with his customary prevision he thought of the following year’s harvest. He was therefore careful to provide seed for the land. He collected huge quantities of every kind of grain seed from the parts of France that had escaped the famine, and he sent the seed to the afflicted provinces. Within two months of one year he spent twenty thousand livres for this purpose.

So effective was the work of the sons and daughters of Saint Vincent in this crisis, that the King of France issued a proclamation endowing the Priests of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity with special legal securities and powers. “By this warrant,” says Monsignor Bougaud, “Saint Vincent ceases to act as a private individual and becomes the royal Almoner-General to whom is bequeathed the noblest gift of all – the power to do good. The humble peasant of the Landes by his charity became the strongest support of the kingdom in its hour of trial, and merited to be called by the Governor of Saint Quentin the father of his country.”

The highest quality of Saint Vincent was not his genius for organization, extraordinary though that was; and his best work was not what he did to alleviate human suffering, though no man in history has ever done more. It is only with the least of his labors that this sketch deals, but it is sufficient to show that the most representative of Catholic social workers was as thoroughly “scientific,” and infinitely more successful in charity organization than the best of modern secular philanthropists. There are signs that secular scientific philanthropy is developing on lines more and more opposed to the principles and practice of Catholic charity. If we Catholics are to meet our opponents successfully, we must remember that the traditional charity of the Church is both supernatural and scientific.