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St. Vincent de Paul

“Extend mercy towards others, so that there can be no one in need whom you meet without helping. For what hope is there for us if God should withdraw His mercy from us?” … St. Vincent de Paul.

Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in 1580 in France. His father, Jean de Paul, was convinced by neighbors that this son was so intelligent and dedicated to God, he could become a priest or even a Bishop. It was his hope that by spending a bit of money, Vincent would be successful enough to support his father and maybe even his three brothers.

Vincent was sent to a Franciscan school in the nearest town, Dax. He did so well in his studies that after four years, he was hired to tutor the children of a lawyer. While educating the children, he began to study for the priesthood. After five years, he decided to attend university and though his father had assisted him his first year, there was not enough money.

Vincent was able to continue tutoring the lawyer’s children and eventually other children while attending university and studying at the same time. He was dedicated and conscientious and tutored and studied for seven years. He received his degree in theology and was ordained a priest in 1600.

Vincent was so humble that he avoided all the usual first Mass pomp and ceremony of a new priest and celebrated alone with only the acolyte and server. He felt he was so unworthy to serve God that he offered himself for life and death to be His faithful servant.

“So high were his ideals of what the priestly life should be that in his saintly old age he would often say that, were he not already a priest, he would never dare to become one.”

Though he was offered a position in an important parish, he gave it up because someone else had been promised it. He decided to return to Toulouse, where he continued teaching and studying.

In 1605, he took a business trip to Bordeaux and decided to return by sea. While sailing along the Gulf of Lyons, in the Mediterranean Sea, the vessel he was sailing on was attacked by Turkish pirates and most of the men on the ship were killed or wounded. Vincent received an arrow wound and the ship was captured. The prisoners were taken to the African country of Tunis, and Vincent was a slave for two years.

The Pope’s legate, Cardinal Montorio, took such an interest in Vincent while he was in France that he took him along with him when he returned to Rome. Having been introduced to some influential people, he was soon chosen to go on a secret mission to the court of Henry IV the King of France.

He was anxious to leave the court and dedicate his time to service to the sick and dying. It was at this time he met Father de Berulle, who would become a Cardinal. He was the founder of the French Congregation of the Oratory and soon recognized the holiness and dedication of Vincent.

Vincent’s life was filled with incredible acts of charity; profound moments when he made such an incredible impact on people he encountered. While at the deathbed of a peasant who was considered a Christian, Vincent urged him to confess. The man was so moved because he had been hiding many sins he was ashamed to confess. He said to a visitor, “If I had not made that General Confession my soul would have been lost for all eternity!”

This moved Vincent so much he decided to preach a sermon on General Confession. So many people flocked to Confession that Vincent needed the help of the Jesuits at Amiens. He then visited other nearby towns with his mission sermon.

Soon after he moved to a country parish of Chatillon-les-Dombes. The village people soon came to respect and admire Vincent.

Who was this priest who had so suddenly come among them, so self-forgetful, so simple, so unassuming, yet whose influence was so strong with all classes.”

A Count was so affected by Vincent’s sermon, he sold all his estates and possessions for charity. Two of the richest ladies in the district were so moved by Vincent, they gave up their fashionable life to help the poor and traveled throughout the country helping the sick. They were the first “Sisters of Charity.”

When he would ask for assistance for a needy family, so much was given at once that he realized this needed organization. Those who were willing to help the poor agreed to provide a day’s food in their turn.

This was the beginning of the “Ladies of Charity.” These good women were dedicated to the service of the poor and sick for the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Eventually, confraternities of this charity spread throughout parishes in France and since then, all over the Christian world.

He went to work visiting dungeons and prisons, tending to the prisoners sicknesses and wounds and speaking to them about God. Louis XIII made him Almoner to the King’s ships which gave him the same rights and honors of a naval officer. While he visited prisons in many seaports, hospitals were being built in France and people were offering themselves in the service of charity inspired by his example. Because they helped prisoners with deadly infectious diseases, many priests and helpers died in this service.

He was named the first superior of a foundation in 1625 that consisted of a few good priests who dedicated themselves to traveling to and preaching in villages and small French towns. Vincent trained these priests to be simple, modest and kind when dealing with the poor. The Mission Priests soon outgrew their original building and had to move to a large Augustinian priory call St. Lazare. His congregation soon became known as the Lazarists or the Vincentians. In 1652, Pope Urban VIII recognized it as the Congregation of the Mission.

Soon after, Vincent became involved in freeing babies and children from an institution and set up a Foundling Hospital near the congregational house, where the Sisters of Charity could care for them. They also saw to it that the babies were baptized, saving their souls as well as their bodies.

Louis XIII and his Queen, Anne of Austria, donated generously to this mission and, in 10 years, Vincent’s organization had taken in and adopted 4,000 children of Paris. When finances became scarce, the Sisters of Charity limited themselves to one meal a day and Vincent lived in the depths of poverty. Eventually, he began printing leaflets about the sufferings of the people and how the Mission Priests were helping. These leaflets were sold and some money trickled in.

Then he established a project for old men and women who did not have jobs and put the Sisters of Charity in charge. The last couple of years of Vincent’s life were spent in agony as he suffered much pain but never complained. He died in September, 1660.