After Appointment as Royal Chaplain of the Galleys, Monsieur Vincent Visits Provence and Guienne to Provide Physical and Spiritual Help to the Convicts
When the general of the galleys had seen the blessings brought about through the efforts of Monsieur Vincent in working for the salvation of souls, he wished to widen the arena for the exercise of his charity, that is, to the convicts condemned to serve in the galleys. 1 He requested the late king of glorious memory, Louis XIII, to appoint him as royal chaplain of the galleys, which he agreed to do. 2 This new office required Monsieur Vincent to travel to Marseilles in 1622. He had to see for himself the condition of these poor convicts and to provide for their needs as much as he possibly could.
On his arrival there, he saw a sight as pitiable as could be imagined. These poor creatures were doubly weighed down, by the weight of their sins and by the more tangible weight of their chains. They were overwhelmed by pain and misery that destroyed any thought of their salvation and were given to constant blasphemy and despair. It was an image of hell. They mentioned God only to deny or to curse him, and the evil dispositions of these poor unfortunates rendered useless all their sufferings. Monsieur Vincent was so touched by what he saw of the convicts that he resolved to do all in his power to help them. By encouraging them, he hoped to lift their spirits and to dispose them to be receptive to the spiritual good he hoped to provide. He listened to their complaints with great patience, sympathized with their sufferings, embraced them, kissed their chains. He did all he could by entreaty and protest to the officers of the galleys to have the convicts treated more humanely. In so doing, he gained their confidence, disposing them to be more open to God.
He wrote something like this to a priest of the Congregation who used rude and harsh words in speaking to peasants. He pointed out that if the priest wished to win over any of these poor souls he should deal with them in a spirit of meekness, the true spirit of Jesus Christ. 3
He desired to serve these poor convicts and bring a greater number of souls to heaven. This led him to accept this appointment as royal chaplain of the galleys. In this position he would have charge of the other chaplains, and thus be in a better position to succeed in his charitable designs. This was in keeping with the ardent love burning in his heart. It impelled him to undertake whatever might procure the salvation and sanctification of souls, particularly of the most abandoned.
After some time in Marseilles, he was obliged to return to Paris, where God wished to use him on other occasions for his glory. The trip to Marseilles was important for him, for it allowed him to see at first hand the wretched state of these poor convicts. He could then devise some relief from their great sufferings and some hope for their spiritual welfare. He was able to move in this direction by assigning some priests of the Congregation of the Mission to take care of the Hospital for the Galleys. They also conducted missions on the galleys themselves, as we shall recount in a later chapter of this book.
On his return to Paris he made it a point to visit felons newly condemned to the galleys. He found these prisoners in a worse state than even those he had left in Marseilles. They were kept in the dungeons of the Conciergerie or other prisons, sometimes for extended periods. They were infested with vermin, overwhelmed by weariness and poverty, and entirely neglected in both body and soul.
Seeing these prisoners in such misery, he approached the general of the galleys, pointing out that these poor creatures were his responsibility. While they were awaiting their assignment to the galleys, his charity should see to it that some decent care be taken of these men. In fact, Monsieur Vincent proposed a plan to benefit the convicts, both physically and spiritually. The general of the galleys approved and gave Monsieur Vincent full authority to carry out his plan. This involved renting a house in the faubourg Saint Honore, near the church of Saint Roch, where the convicts would live under guard. As a result of great efforts the house was readied to receive the prisoners in that same year, 1622. 4 Here Monsieur Vincent could give free rein to his charity, to provide all sorts of services for these poor abandoned people. He visited them often, taught them, sympathized with them, prepared them for general confession, and administered the sacraments to them. Not content with these spiritual aids, he looked after their bodily needs as well. Sometimes to be of great service to these convicts he would stay with them, even during a time of dangerous contagion. In his love for them he forgot himself and his own safety, preferring to give himself completely to them.
When he was obliged by other duties to leave them, he enlisted the help of two other clerics, both good and devoted men. One was the late Monsieur Portail. 5 He had joined Monsieur Vincent several years before and, on his advice, had received the priesthood. He was always obedient to the wishes and orders of this wise director. He persevered until 1660, when death separated these two friends in anticipation of a more perfect union in heaven. The second was the late Monsieur Belin, chaplain of the de Gondi house at Villepreux. Both lived in the prison hospital and celebrated mass there. God so blessed this work of charity begun by Monsieur Vincent that in his Providence he has allowed it to continue to this day.
The poor convicts have been housed, helped, and cared for in both body and soul these many years, first in the faubourg Saint Honore and later near the Saint Bernard gate of the city.
The chaplain of the galleys had begun so well that the general was most pleased. In the following year, 1623, the galleys of Marseilles were moved to Bordeaux because of the war against the heretics. 6 As a result, he heartily agreed that Monsieur Vincent should go to Guienne to bring the same help to the convicts in that province as he had done in Marseilles and Paris.
On his arrival in Bordeaux he contacted several other religious orders for help in this work. He was able to assign two chaplains to each of the galleys, where they were able to conduct a mission for the prisoners. These were helped to reconcile themselves to God by making a good general confession, submit themselves to his divine will, and patiently accept their sufferings as satisfaction for their past sins. In Bordeaux, Monsieur Vincent was able to bring a Moslem into the Church. He brought him back to Paris with himself, where he presented him to the general, who graciously received him. He was given the name Louis at his baptism. Now that he is still alive he is ever mindful of the thanks he owes to Monsieur Vincent, to whose charity, after God, he owes the grace of his salvation.
- The galley slaves were sentenced to servitude in the fleet and in times of war they took part in naval battles. The galley slaves were, however, under a separate jurisdiction from the navy, with a general named by the king. This title was suppressed in 1748.
- CED XIII:55. The date of his appointment was February 8, 1619.
- See CED IV:53 which gives the text of this fragment.
- The correct date is 1618. Coste, Life I:115, n. 1.
- Antoine Portail, 1590-1660. He came as a young man to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. He met Vincent de Paul in 1612, and became one of his first companions. He was ordained in 1622. He was employed among the galley slaves, and gave missions in the countryside and worked for the ordinands. He was chosen first assistant general, and director of the Daughters of Charity in 1642, spending most of the rest of his life at Saint Lazare.
- In 1622 the Huguenots rose in revolt against the king. From their fortified center at La Rochelle, their survival depended on receiving supplies by sea from England. Louis XIII massed his navies to blockade the city, and thus the galley slaves were transferred from Marseilles, on the Mediterranean, to Bordeaux, on the Atlantic, where they were evangelized by Saint Vincent.