The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book I, Chapter XLV

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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The Home for the Aged Poor Begun at Paris by Monsieur Vincent; The General Hospital for the Poor Begun by Him in that Same City

Monsieur Vincent’s charity seemed like a burning fire, ever ready to expand when the conditions were right. It probably would be preferable to say that he was consumed by that heavenly fire which Jesus Christ came to bring upon the earth, to respond to everything having to do with the glory of God and the salvation of souls. This faithful servant of God did not let any opportunity pass to serve the Church or work for the good of his neighbor. Despite his advancing years and the infirmities ordinarily accompanying old age, he still bore the principal burden of the many pious works he had established. Notwithstanding this he was always ready, even anxious, to begin new ventures for the glory of God. Rather than being overwhelmed by the burdens of new projects, on these occasions his vigor and strength seemed to increase.

This is illustrated on the occasion in 1653 when divine Providence used him for a new expression of charity. This led to one of the most significant developments in the Church in many years. This was the establishment of the general hospital for the sick poor at Paris, of which we can say without taking anything away from the many other virtuous people who contributed to its origin that Monsieur Vincent laid the first stone. Rather we should say that God used him without his being aware of the designs of Providence. Since its very inception, other zealous workers have generously participated in building this marvelous structure which flourishes even today.

This is a summary of events leading to the building of the hospital.

A citizen of Paris was moved by the desire to do something in the service of God. He went to see Monsieur Vincent, whose charity was well known to him. He stated that he wished to devote a large sum for works of charity totally at the judgment of Monsieur Vincent, but on condition that his gift remain completely anonymous. He wanted to do this solely for God’s glory, without his identity being known to anyone besides God and Monsieur Vincent.

Monsieur Vincent received the gift as a deposit for the poor, since he did not think he could refuse. After mature deliberation before God he prayed for light to discern what good work would be most suitable. He discussed the question with the donor until the two agreed that the gift should be used to found a home for poor workers who because of age or infirmity were no longer able to earn their livelihood. It was his experience that those reduced to begging often neglected their own salvation. By founding a home for these poor people he would be doing a double service for them: taking care of their bodily wants and at the same time looking after their spiritual welfare. He proposed this idea to the generous benefactor, who agreed wholeheartedly. He did so only on condition that the spiritual and temporal administration of the hospital would forever remain in the hands of the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission.

To carry out his project, Monsieur Vincent bought two houses and grounds in the faubourg Saint Lawrence in Paris. He furnished these houses with beds, linens, and everything else deemed necessary. He had a small chapel constructed, and even with this had enough left over to set up an investment that yielded an annual return. He was able to receive forty poor persons in the hospital, twenty men and twenty women, whom he housed and fed, and this has continued to the present. The income fell off these last years. A reduction in the number of guests would have been necessary had divine Providence not provided help from elsewhere. The forty poor were housed in two separate buildings, one for men and one for women. They were, however, so situated that both groups could attend the same mass, listen to the same reading during meals, but the tables were so arranged that the two groups were entirely separate, with neither able to see or speak with the other.

He bought tools and set up workshops so the forty could occupy their time and talent to the limit of their reduced strength. He wanted to avoid their falling into idleness. He commissioned the Daughters of Charity to care for these poor people and designated one of his priests of the Mission to celebrate mass, instruct them in the word of God, and administer the sacraments. He himself was among the first to offer this instruction. He recommended especially union among themselves, piety, and above all a gratitude towards God for having provided such a peaceful home where their bodily needs and the salvation of their souls were attended to. 1

He called this foundation the Hospital of the Holy Name of Jesus. 2 He applied for approval to king, without, however, naming the chief benefactor, and this was given by letters patent. The archbishop of Paris approved of these matters, granting the entire direction of the hospital to Monsieur Vincent and his successors.

As soon as one of the poor patients died, another was brought in to take his place. All lived in great serenity, esteeming themselves happy to be cared for in life as well as in death. Their chief care was to live such a Christian life that their death would be peaceful. Their well-ordered style of life appealed to others who hoped to succeed them in the hospital, so that soon there was a wait of several years before they could be accommodated.

Once he had established and organized this new hospital, Monsieur Vincent received visits from several representatives of the Ladies of Charity of Paris and other virtuous women of some standing. They visited all parts of the establishment only to be thoroughly edified at the good order and excellent management they saw. Everywhere peace and union prevailed. Murmurings and slander were unheard of, as were all other vices. The poor, busy in their small workshops, fulfilled their religious duties as much as their condition would allow. The whole hospital seemed to recall the life of the early Christians and seemed to be a convent or monastery rather than a home for seculars. 3

The sight of such a well-run enterprise gave rise in the minds of those who had visited the hospital the plight of the many poor who begged in the streets or in the churches of the city. These people for the most part live a disordered life, marked by vice and dissipation, but until now no one seemed able to help them. Several of the Ladies of Charity had the thought that perhaps Monsieur Vincent could rescue these poor from the streets. He possibly could do on a larger scale what he had so well accomplished on a smaller. God’s grace and blessing could be relied on, and at Saint Lazare and with the Daughters of Charity some were available to help out, if only a place large enough could be found to receive these poor people.

The women who first thought of this mentioned it to several others who had visited Monsieur Vincent’s hospital. Then one of the visitors gave fifty thousand livres to begin the building of a general hospital. Another woman gave an investment worth three thousand livres for the same purpose. On the day of the periodic assembly of these Ladies of Charity, at which Monsieur Vincent presided in keeping with his usual practice unless prevented by some unforeseen difficulty, they surprised him greatly, as he himself said, when they endorsed the project wholeheartedly. He could not help admiring the zealous charity of these good women for which he praised God and congratulated them. However, he stated that the matter was of such importance that it should be considered further and prayed over at great length.

At the next meeting these women appeared even more determined than before. They assured Monsieur Vincent that money for the project would not be lacking, for they had contacts with several other wealthy persons who had promised considerable help. They pressed Monsieur Vincent to give his consent. He still hesitated, but his reluctance was no match for their ardent desire to begin this enterprise. A large enough house and grounds would obviously be required to house the number of poor they were considering. Someone proposed that the king be asked for the property known as the Salpetriere, near the river, opposite the arsenal. At the time the building and grounds were not being used. Monsieur Vincent spoke to the queen regent, who agreed and gave him the deed to the property. Some person claimed that he had an interest in the property, but was satisfied when one of the Ladies of Charity promised him an annual investment paying eight hundred livres to compensate his losses.

After all these matters had been taken care for, it seemed to the Ladies of Charity that it remained only to get started. Some of the more fervent were disappointed that the poor were not immediately gathered up and brought to the home. They let Monsieur Vincent know how they felt about the delay. Monsieur Vincent and the women could not agree about how the poor were to be enticed to come to this new home nor about how it was to be run. This led him to the painful position of having to slow down the project, for it was going far too fast for his taste. This explains what he said, in an effort to moderate their zeal:

The affairs of the Lord ordinarily develop little by little. They begin slowly and only then develop. When God wished to save Noah and his family he directed him to build the ark. This could have been completed quickly, but Noah was told to begin building a hundred years before the rains began and to work little by little on its construction. In the same way when the Lord planned to bring the children of Israel to the promised land he could have done so in a short time. Instead, forty years passed before they entered into Canaan. When God sent his Son to redeem mankind did he not delay three or four thousand years? God is never rushed. He does all things in their own good time.

When our Savior came upon earth he could have come at a perfect age to effect our redemption. He did not have to spend thirty years in a hidden, even superfluous, life at Nazareth, but he chose to be born an infant and grew just like other men to full stature. Did he not say on occasion that his hour had not yet come? This was to teach us not to be too hasty in those matters which depend more on God than on ourselves. He could have established his Church throughout the world in his own lifetime. He preferred, however, to lay the foundation and leave the rest to his apostles and their successors. According to this way of acting it does not seem expedient to attempt to do everything at once or even to think that we have to act immediately to keep the good will of those who are anxious to start. What should we do, then? Go gently, pray much to God and act in union of heart.

He added:

It seems to me that we first ought to experiment with taking one, or even two hundred poor people, and afterward only those who want to come. If they are well treated there will be no lack of applications, and we can adjust the number we take to what resources Providence provides. We won’t lose by following this plan, but if on the contrary we use compulsion and act precipitously, we run the risk of thwarting the designs of God. If the work we propose is from him it will succeed and endure, but if it is solely a human enterprise it will not do much good, nor will it last long.

Thus Monsieur Vincent expressed his opinion to the Ladies of Charity, who responded by tempering their zeal for the project. But what restrained them even more was that some of the leading civil officials would not approve the project, thinking it not well enough planned. 4 The years 1655 and 1656 passed with no real progress, except that several proposals were made to solve the practical problems of administering the proposed hospital. Finally a group of well-placed and zealous persons worked out a plan of administration which included a board of directors, and with God’s blessing this plan was accepted. The Ladies of Charity, who under the wise guidance of Monsieur Vincent had first conceived the project, were greatly consoled to see it finally approved by public authority, and willingly gave their support to the newly created board. Monsieur Vincent for his part turned over the Salpetriere to them, as well as the Chateau de Bicetre which had been given him several years before as a home for abandoned children.

Besides turning over these buildings in favor of the poor, the Ladies of Charity contributed notable amounts of money, a quantity of linens, beds, and other furniture, even some made in the shops of Saint Lazare, to prepare the hospital for its opening. The whole enterprise was not carried out as an experiment, as Monsieur Vincent had suggested, nor would it depend on a choice made by the poor. Instead, to put an end to begging, all the poor of Paris were offered the choice–either work to earn their livelihood or else go to the general hospital.

Monsieur Vincent wrote the following in March 1657 to one of his friends:

Begging is outlawed in Paris, and the poor are being brought together in suitable places where they may be helped, instructed, and given something do to. It’s a fine scheme but difficult. It has begun well, and thanks be to God, has won the everyone’s approval. Many people have helped by giving generously, and others have donated their services. We have already collected ten thousand shirts and other things in proportion. The king and Parlement have powerfully supported the project even without our asking. They have even appointed the priests of our Congregation and the Daughters of Charity to serve the poor under the authority of the archbishop of Paris. We have not yet undertaken the actual work for we do not yet know for sure if it is the God’s will for us. If we do begin this work it will at first be an experiment to see how it goes. 5

Monsieur Vincent learned that the priests of his Congregation would be in charge of the spiritual ministry to the poor of the hospital, but in a matter of this importance he felt it should be thoroughly considered before God. Even though he was advised that it would be expedient to accept this appointment, he prayed and then called together the priests at Saint Lazare to discuss the matter fully. He pointed out the pros and cons of the case, and then they, for several great and serious reasons, decided to excuse themselves from this responsibility. Letters patent had already been issued assigning this right exclusively to the priests, so a formal legal document was drawn up which renounced this right, to enable other clerics to take up the work.

Since the hospital was just about to open, and the directors and administrators were anxious to begin as soon as possible, Monsieur Vincent persuaded one of the priests, who came regularly to Saint Lazare on Tuesdays, to accept the assignment as rector of the general hospital. 6 This was done to avoid any delay in the opening of the hospital which might have resulted from the refusal of Monsieur Vincent to take over the spiritual care of the poor there. It would also ensure that the poor were adequately provided for right from the beginning. After serving for some time with other priests of the Tuesday Conference of Clerics giving missions in the various parts of the hospital with others from various churches of Paris, the rector was forced by illness to resign from the difficult position he had assumed. He submitted his resignation to the vicars general of Cardinal de Retz, archbishop of Paris. He appointed, in turn, another priest of the Tuesday Conference, a doctor on the faculty of the University of Paris. He has served as rector of the general hospital for some time with great success, offering missions in all houses of the institution as an expression of his dedication to the poor. 7

  1. CED XII:156-63.
  2. This building had probably already been known as “Holy Name of Jesus.”
  3. This hospital survived the French Revolution, with various names and locations in later years.
  4. The most opposed was the first president Pomponne de Bellievre, who had succeeded Mathieu Mole at his death, in January 1656. He was won to the cause before his death, and he provided generous gifts to the new establishment. Lamoignon succeeded him, and continued his charitable efforts.
  5. CED VI:245.
  6. Abelly himself.
  7. This hospital annually housed twenty thousand poor.

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