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St. Vincent de Paul (1581 – 1660)

Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 to a peasant family in Gascony, France. His early life was
spent in a determined struggle to escape his humble roots. His family shared his ambition,
hoping that a career in the priesthood would better the family fortune. Thus as a boy, he
was entrusted to the Franciscans and was ordained at the remarkably young age of
nineteen. It appears that Vincent’s early attitude towards his vocation was no less worldly
than that of his family. The Priesthood was a way to escape the farm. Once in the seminary,
he was visited by his father, but was so ashamed of the old man’s shabby peasant clothes
that he refused to see him.

After his ordination, Vincent applied himself to securing a series of lucrative benefits and to
be at the service as a chaplain of very wealthy families of the highest level of society.
In mid-life, however he underwent a great transformation. The occasion was to hear the
dying confession of a peasant on the estate of the rich family of the Gondis in Paris. After he
had received absolution, the man happened to remark that he might well have perished in a
state of mortal sin had the priest not heard his confession. He was determined that
henceforth his priesthood would be dedicated to the service of the poor. Vincent was
concerned about the spiritual impoverishment of the rural masses and the poor formation
of the clergy. He founded a mission congregation, a society of secular priests, later known as
the Vincentians, devoted to the training of the Parish clergy and to mission work in the
countryside.
Later on, he convinced a number of aristocrat women to undertake a personal ministry to
the poor and destitute. One exceptional woman, a widow, Louise de Marrilac became a
particular close companion in his work. With her able help he founded the Daughters of
Charity, a congregation of women devoted to serving the poor and the sick. In describing
what was at that time a revolutionary model of religious life he wrote: “their convent is the
sick room, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the streets of the city.”
He founded hospitals, orphanages, as well as homes for the human care of the mentally
infirm. He had a personal Ministry of Prisoners and galley slaves and also raised money for
the ransom of Christian Slaves held captive in North Africa. Already in his life-time, Monsieur
Vincent, as he was widely known, became something of a legend. The rich and powerful
vied to endow his projects while the poor accepted him as one of their own. His spirituality
was based on the encounter with Christ in the needs of one’s poor neighbours as he instructed
his priests and sisters:”The poor are your masters and you are their servants.”
Love of the poor did not mean sentimental adoration, imaginary acts of charity. Our love of God
must be “effective” he wrote:”we must love God….But let it be in the work of our bodies, in the
sweat of our brows. For very often, many acts of love for God, of kindness, of good will, and other
similar inclinations and interior practices of tender heart although good and desirable are yet very
suspect when they do not lead to the practice of effective love.”

Vincent’s last years were spent in painful illness. In approaching the hour of his death, his prayer
was:”We have done what you commanded, do now what you have promised.” He died on
September 27th, 1660 at the age of eighty. His canonization followed in 1737. Later Pope Leo XIII
named him Patron of all charitable organizations. These included the movement dedicated to his
name: THE SAINT VINCENT DE PAUL SOCIETY, founded in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam.

Downloadable St. Vincent Biography.pdf

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