Feast Day : September 27
Patronage: charities and charitable societies; horses; hospitals; hospital workers; lepers and leprosy; lost articles; prisoners; spiritual help; St. Vincent de Paul Societies; Vincentian Service Corps; volunteers; Madagascar
Also known as: Apostle of Charity; Friend of the Poor
Vincent was born on April 24, 1581, at Pouy (now called St.-Vincent-de-Paul) near the village of Dax in Gascony, the third of six children. His parents, Jean de Paul and Bertrande de Moras, were poor peasants, but they managed to send Vincent to study with the Cordeliers, a strict sect of Franciscans. In 1597 he began theological studies at the University of Toulouse, with a short stay at the University of Saragossa in Spain, receiving his degree in 1604. In 1600, at age 19, Vincent entered the priesthood, ordained by Francois de Bourdeille, bishop of Perigueux. In 1605, Vincent returned to Toulouse from his home to recover a small legacy left him by a parishioner. Returning by boat from Marseilles to Narbonne, Vincent and the other travelers were attacked by Turkish pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Three were killed, and the survivors were chained and sold into slavery in Tunis. Vincent was bought by a fisherman, who sold him to an old Muslim alchemist. When the man died, his nephew sold Vincent to a former monk that had renounced Christianity for Islam and had taken three wives. According to legend, one of the wives—a Turkish Muslim—took an interest in Vincent and his faithfulness. She pestered her husband to return to Christianity, and he and Vincent safely escaped from Africa to Marseilles in 1607. The next year the man supposedly accompanied Vincent to Rome, where the former monk entered the order of the Brothers of St. John of God and spent the rest of his life in hospital service. Vincent came to Paris in 1609. He became almoner to the former wife of King Henry IV, Marguerite of Valois— a post that earned him the income from a small abbey. He also attracted the attention of Pierre de Berulle, who eventually became a cardinal. In 1612, Father Berulle found Vincent a curacy at Clichy, just north of Paris. The next year Vincent entered service as tutor and chaplain to the family of Philip de Gondi, count of Joigny and general of the galleys. It was customary for French convicts to serve their sentences as slaves, manning the oars in French warships. Vincent also listened to the confessions of the peasants on the de Gondi properties, and in 1617 was called to hear the confession of a dying man in Folleville who admitted that all his previous confessions had been lies. Appalled, Mme. de Gondi arranged for Vincent to preach in the Folleville parish church and teach the country people the sanctity of the sacraments and liturgy. Vincent was so successful that he had to call for help from the Jesuits in Amiens. In July of that year, Vincent left the de Gondi family to become pastor of the parish church at Châtillon-les- Dombes in eastern France. He restored the building and inspired the congregation, even converting the apparently notorious count of Rougemont and other dissolute aristocrats. He also founded the first Confraternity of Charity to encourage wealthy ladies—who had little or no experience with charity—to raise funds and to minister to the sick and poor as if they were caring for their own sons. Returning to the de Gondis in December, Vincent was soon ministering to the galley slaves held in the Conciergerie in Paris, showing these wretched prisoners that they, too, were beloved. In 1619 Vincent was named chaplain-general of the galleys and their royal almoner. About 1623, Mme. de Gondi offered Vincent a large endowment to found a perpetual mission for whatever purpose he saw fit. Vincent humbly averred, not believing himself worthy. Meanwhile, Mme. de Gondi prevailed upon her husband to organize a group of missionaries to work among the peasants and discussed their plans with M. de Gondi’s brother, Jean Francois de Gondi, archbishop of Paris. The archbishop gave the mission the Collège des Bons Enfants as a home for their new community. Vincent took possession of the house and became director of its mission in April 1625, although he continued to serve Mme. de Gondi until her death later that year. Members of this new Congregation of the Mission were secular priests who were devoted to ministry in the towns and villages, vowing to live in poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. They tended the poor and sick and provided seminaries for those considering the priesthood. In 1632, Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623–44) approved the rules of the community, and in 1633 the archbishop gave Vincent the priory of St. Lazare, which became the motherhouse. Henceforth the fathers often were called Lazarists but are also known as Vincentians. Besides the mission, Vincent also held retreats, conferences and seminaries at St. Lazare and at Bon Enfants to adequately educate clerics and those in religious orders about the spiritual and practical aspects of their vocation. In 1633, Vincent and St. Louise de Marillac cofounded the Sisters (also called the Daughters) of Charity. The Sisters undertook more direct service and hospital work than the original Confraternities of Charity, renamed the Ladies of Charity, could handle. Through generous contributions from wealthy families, the Ladies of Charity and even Cardinal Richelieu, Vincent was able to establish asylums and hospitals for the old, the sick, the insane, foundling infants, orphans beggars, the poor, galley convicts—all who suffered, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually. Vincent was active in the politics of his day and at court as well, always seeking opportunities to serve. When Cardinal Richelieu brought France into the fighting against Germany in 1635, during the Thirty Years’ War, Vincent organized relief for the war-torn province of Lorraine. He attended King Louis XIII on his deathbed in 1643 and remained a valued adviser to the king’s widow, Anne of Austria, who became regent on behalf of the five-year-old dauphin Louis XIV. Remembering his own enslavement, Vincent raised enough funds to free 1,200 slaves in North Africa and acted as agent for the families. During the Fronde, a period of rebellion by the nobility against the monarchy in 1649–53, Vincent worked tirelessly to petition Anne for clemency for the nobles and the establishment of peace. He implored her to dismiss her minister, Cardinal Mazarin, for the good of France, but she declined (giving credence to rumors that Jules Mazarin, born Giulio Mazarini, was secretly married to Anne after Louis XIII’s death). Not long after assuming the regency, Anne had named Vincent the head of the Council of Conscience, a panel charged with reforming ecclesiastical abuse, particularly the bestowing of wealthy religious benefices to aristocrats who were often too young or spiritually untrained for the posts. At one meeting, the Comtesse de Chavigny took great offense at Vincent’s refusal to approve an abbacy for her five-year-old son. Supposedly she threw a stool at Vincent, hitting him in the head. Walking calmly from the room, bleeding, Vincent commented, “What a wonderful thing is mother love!” Vincent’s efforts at reform annoyed Cardinal Mazarin, who had ascended to his position as cardinal without ever being ordained a priest. Finally, Mazarin quit informing Vincent of the council’s meetings and removed him in 1652. A staunch defender of the faith, Vincent fought vigorously against the Jansenist heresy. Cornelius Jansen was a Dutch Catholic theologian and bishop of Ypres who attempted to reform the faith by returning to the principles of St. Augustine. His treatise “Augustinus” and emphasis on personal holiness received wide acceptance in France. Vincent took issue with the bishop’s belief in predestination, denying man’s free will and ability to contribute to his salvation—in other words, some few are chosen but most are not—and campaigned for the pope to condemn these ideas. At the end of his life Vincent suffered ill health and became unable to visit his many ministries. He died peacefully in his chair on September 27, 1660, and was buried in the motherhouse at St. Lazare. St. Louise de Marillac died later that year. In Vincent’s spirit, Frédéric Ozanam founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Paris in 1833. Pope Leo XIII declared Vincent the patron of all charitable societies in 1885. During the French Revolution, enraged citizens ransacked St. Lazare on July 13, 1789, the day before the crowds stormed the Bastille. All of the community’s buildings were confiscated in 1792; the current motherhouse in Paris was given to the congregation in 1817 as compensation. But when the mob broke into the Pantheon and destroyed the religious statues, supposedly they spared the statue of Vincent de Paul, for even the most angry and desperate realized that he was the friend of all.