Feast Day: September 27
Immediately upon ordination as a priest, Vincent’s life was dedicated to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, notably among the sick, the poor, and the galley prisoners in France. A unique quality characterizes Vincent de Paul’s lifetime of charity. His temperament was such that he could never turn away from a person in need, no matter what the need was. The list of trouble he sought to alleviate is astounding. He brought food and medicine to penniless sick people, comforted convicts, and sheltered orphans, the elderly, and soldiers incapacitated by war wounds. He opened hospitals, took in abandoned babies, and taught catechism to children. He founded an order of nuns to serve the poor and another for priests to teach and encourage religious devotion among the urban poor and country peasants.
Vincent’s first group of volunteers was made up of upper-middle-class ladies. Well-intentioned but squeamish, the women lacked the physical stamina to working the slums. A peasant himself, Vincent learned to recruit emotionally tough, physically robust young women from the country to serve the poor.
An unexpected benefit of his ambitious programs was the renewal of religious life in seventeenth-century France. The young priests Vincent trained were so well educated in the Catholic faith, so gifted at making Christian doctrine accessible and appealing to any audience, and so exemplary in their personal lives that bishops saw the “Vincentians” (as they came to be called) as a model, and they instituted St. Vincent’s training program in their own seminaries.
Vincent’s work inspired St. Louise de Marillac, who cofounded the Daughters of Charity (also known as the Sisters of Charity). These sisters worked in hospitals and among the destitute. In the U.S., the Sisters of Charity are known through St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who established an American branch of that community. The Daughters of Charity is what the worldwide religious community of women is known by today. It includes both the American and French sisters as well as those all over the world.
Vincent died at the age of 80 and was buried in the St. Lazare Church in Paris. In 1712, his body was exposed and found to be in good condition except for some decay in the face. However, when the body was exhumed again, there was additional damage because of a flood. His bones are now encased in wax in the provincial headquarters of the Congregation of the Missions in Paris.
Frederick Ozanam was inspired by Vincent’s work and in 1832 created the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This society, made up of laymen and women, quietly performs the corporal works of mercy among the destitute in local parishes.
“It is our duty to prefer service to the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Charity is certainly greater than any rule.” – St. Vincent de Paul
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Pennington, M. Basil, O.C.S.O. “Through the Year with the Saints.” New York, NY: Image Books, 1988.
Trigilio, Rev. John, Ph.D, Th.D, and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, Ph.D. “Saints for Dummies.” Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2010.