The Hallam News has recently carried a number of articles about the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which have been well received. People have appreciated getting to know more about the work of the SVP and also their history. Over the next four months the paper will feature a series of articles focusing on the key people responsible for the establishment and development of the SVP. We begin this month with St Vincent.
St Vincent had nothing to do with the foundation of the Society formed 173 years after his death. The original members chose St Vincent as their patron because he devoted much of his life to helping the poor in rural France, and he had become known as “The apostle of the poor.”
Born into a family of poor farmers in 1581 he was not the eldest so not destined to inherit anything. He was, however, clever, ambitious, a gifted communicator and organiser and a natural leader and motivator and these attributes were to stand him in good stead in later life.
To ensure 3 meals a day he had a brief training for the priesthood and was ordained a priest at 19 – seeing his ordination as a stepping stone to a more comfortable life. Working in his parish along the southern French coast he was frequently out on the water. With piracy prevalent in the region Vincent was captured at sea and forced to act as a galley slave for 2 years. Vincent engineered his escape by befriending his galley captain and persuading him to let him go.
On his return he became a parish priest at Clichy; then in 1613 he was selected to serve the powerful de Gondi family, as tutor to their children. He stayed with the family for about 12 years and acted as chaplain to the peasants on the estates. It was during this time that he realised what his life’s work was. It was whilst ministering to a sick child of one of the estate workers that Vincent began to realise his mission. He saw with great clarity the abysmal living conditions, deprivation and abject poverty in which people existed and resolved to do something about it.
Vincent was driven by his faith to take action, being inspired by the works of Jesus. He saw each person as Jesus and treated them with the utmost respect and dignity, believing that any service offered must be done well to meet the needs of the individual and was a mutual exchange which enhanced the giver and the receiver.
Using his leadership, motivation and communicative talents he set out to gain support from those in power to help the poor. He persuaded the aristocracy to provide finance and resources to enable him to set up systems to improve the spiritual support for the poor through missions; to help to develop levels of literacy with the poor; to oversee the largest estate in Paris to provide the 17th century version of a foodbank; to provide refuges for the homeless and orphaned; to establish charities that would help better the conditions for the sick, elderly, prisoners and galley slaves. The last was obviously close to Vincent’s heart and he is reputed to have raised sufficient money to free 4,000 slaves.
In providing for the poor he used his organisational skills to bring together a “charity” of ladies, who would look after the sick and poor in their parish. One of the ‘ladies’ was Louise de Marillac, herself dedicated to helping improve the conditions and lives of the poor.
Together on 29 November, 1633, they founded the Company of the Daughters of Charity, and thereafter the care and training of the Sisters became Louise’s life work. Vincent and Louise worked together as a team. Vincent provided the original vision of service of the poor, a vision shaped by the love of Jesus Christ. We will learn more about the life and works of St Louise de Marillac in the next instalment.
Vincent’s influence was spreading and he was being recognised for his abilities to influence and improve the training of priests. The Archbishop of Paris asked him to train diocesan seminarians and St Lazare became one of the great focuses of spiritual renewal in France.
Vincent carried on his work well into his later life, dying in 1660. He was canonised in 1737 and declared ‘the patron saint of charitable works’.