St. Vincent de Paul was born to a poor peasant family in the French village of Pouy on April 24, 1581. His first formal education was provided by the Franciscans. He showed an early talent for reading and writing, so much so that he was hired to tutor the children of a nearby wealthy family. He used the monies he earned teaching to continue his formal studies at the University of Toulouse where he studied theology.
He was ordained priest on September 23rd 1600 at the young age of 20 and remained in Toulouse for a time. In 1605, while on a ship traveling from Marseilles to Narbone, he was captured, brought to Tunisia and sold as a slave. Vincent spent two hard years in bondage. Two years later he and his master managed to escape and they both returned to France. Upon landing in France the two men went their separate ways, the former slave-master entered a monastery and Vincent began serving in local parishes and abbeys. Word spread about his remarkable virtue and wisdom and he received an invitation to serve as the Queens personal chaplain. Vincent accepted the position. He had fine food and lived luxuriously for a time but he felt that God was calling him elsewhere. He felt a strong desire to be with the poor, to reach out to them and to help them in any way that he could. A wealthy and influential family, the Gondi family, asked Vincent if he would tutor their children. What made him decide to take this position was when they asked him if he would also be a chaplain to the many peasants working on their estates. He felt really alive when he was with the poor and knew that he wanted to spend his whole life doing this work.
On one occasion in 1617, Vincent learned of a family in his parish who were in great distress. All the family members had fallen ill and were living in extremely poor conditions with no food and very little money. Vincent made an appeal to his parishioners to come together to help out this family in any way that they could. There was a huge response as money, food and help generously poured in. Vincent realized that this was good in the short term but in a few weeks’ time the family would be back into the same state of poverty again and would require more help so he had an idea to organise a dedicated group of caring parishioners who would take turns caring for needy families, visiting them regularly and keeping contact with them so that they didn’t become isolated from the community.
On 20th August 1617 he set up his first charitable group called ‘the servants of the poor’ – later called ‘the ladies of charity’. They reached out to families with whatever help was needed and within a few years their mission had expanded starting up new hospitals, gathering relief funds to help war victims and ransoming slaves from north Africa. Vincent set up a rule for the group – he asked that they see Christ in the poor and serve the poor through personal Charity. This group of women did so much great work that they began to inspire other groups to be established around France. One of the more well-known groups that sprung up from this group was ‘The Daughters of Charity’. Vincent persuaded the wealthy and noblemen of his time to join together and to collect funds to assist the poor in practical ways.
These groups began to flourish all around France and soon after this men’s groups began to grow too. A new community of priests called the Congregation of the Mission was set up. These priests visited the sick and the imprisoned, the peasants in the field and tended to all those in need around them. Vincent was asked by the Archbishop to train the diocesan seminarians. Vincent had a special love for all of the poor especially the vulnerable and those unable to work due to disability. Vincent also took care of children that were left orphaned or abandoned. The ladies of charity opened special houses with nurses present, and children were taken in here to be cared for. The numbers coming into these homes grew and grew.
Vincent set up houses for the homeless where people could come for shelter and be fed and cared for. He gave them opportunities to do some work so as to restore their self- worth, their confidence and their dignity. He even dug graves for those who had no family to bury them. He greeted each person with a gentle smile and everybody was drawn to him. No one ever felt uncomfortable in his company when they needed help.
It has been reported that St. Vincent wrote more than 30,000 letters in his lifetime and that nearly 7,000 had been collected in the 18th century. There are at least five collections of his letters in existence today. Vincent was eighty years old when he died in Paris on September 27th, 1660.
Reflection on the life of St. Vincent De Paul
It is amazing to see that Centuries later, the work of St Vincent de Paul continues to flourish in our world today There are more than 18,000 Daughters of Charity serving the needs of the poor in 94 countries and the Vincentians, (the Congregation of the Mission) have over 4,000 members in 86 countries. We also see his work through the practical charity of the St. Vincent De Paul society which is active in thousands of parishes worldwide, including our own parish here in Wexford. The members of the St. Vincent De Paul society give so generously of their time in helping those in need and they are truly following in the footsteps of this wonderful Saint whose life still bears much fruit in our world today.
‘Charity is the cement which binds persons to God and persons to one another’ – St Vincent De Paul