He is Appointed Head of the College des Bons Enfants, and Later Makes the First Foundation of the Congregation of the Mission
Madame de Gondi, as we have already said, saw both the need and the success of the missions. She had conceived the idea some years before of endowing a foundation of priests or religious to give some of their time to providing missions on her lands. She grew more and more anxious about this project, especially each year when she reviewed her last will and testament. Her plan was to contribute sixteen thousand livres towards this undertaking, and her wish was that Monsieur Vincent would be the one to carry it out.
Monsieur Vincent looked everywhere for the means and the occasion for complying with the wishes of this virtuous lady. He spoke several times with superiors of various orders and used all his powers of persuasion to have them accept the foundation. However, he found none willing to take up the project for his own community. Each one had his own reason, but the fact was that none judged it proper to do so, for all felt this foundation was destined by God to be Monsieur Vincent’s arena of service. Providence directs all things to their proper end and often makes use of secondary agents to effect its design. This is how it came about, in this instance, that the foundation became Monsieur Vincent’s concern.
Madame de Gondi became aware of the refusal of the religious communities to take up this work. 1 She also was aware that doctors and other clerics helped Monsieur Vincent in the work of the missions. She thought that if they had a house in Paris they might possibly come together in some form of community. This might even attract others to this same work, and so perpetuate the work of the missions she had so much at heart. She spoke of this to her husband. He not only approved the idea but wished to become a co-founder with her of this foundation. The two spoke to His Excellency, John Francis de Gondi, the general’s brother, the successor to Cardinal de Retz as leader of the Church in Paris, and later its first archbishop. 2 He heartily approved their plan, since his diocese would likely win many advantages from it. He proposed that on his part he would make available the College des Bons Enfants, which was then at his disposition, as the residence for these priests. 3
The three together considered who might be best suited for bringing this project to a successful conclusion. All three decided to meet with Monsieur Vincent to overcome all objections his humility would raise and to have him accept. All this came about as they hoped, chiefly because Monsieur Vincent’s great respect for all three of these persons led him to do all they asked of him. He agreed to their proposition, first, to take over the direction of the College des Bons Enfants and the priests who might come to live there to help out in the giving of missions; second, to accept, in the name of these priests,the foundation given by the de Gondis; and third, to select personally those he thought proper and disposed to participate in this holy work.
Once they had agreed on these matters, a formal deed was drawn up. On March 1, 1624, the archbishop sent him his appointment as head of the College des Bons Enfants. 4
On April 17 of the following year, the general of the galleys and his wife delivered the contract of foundation, written in a fashion worthy of their piety.
It declared, in the first place:
God, having for some years inspired in us the desire to honor him in our own lands and elsewhere, and we, having now considered how it has pleased his divine Majesty to provide in his infinite mercy for the spiritual needs of the residents of the cities by many doctors and good religious who have preached and catechized, and who have preserved in them a spirit of devotion, only the poor of the countryside now remain, and they alone are neglected. It has seemed that this evil might be remedied by a pious association of clerics, learned and devoted and of known ability. They should renounce all the conveniences of the towns and all benefices or other Church dignities. Under the guidance of the bishops they would give themselves entirely and solely to the salvation of these poor people, going from village to village at their own common expense. They would preach, instruct, exhort, and catechize those poor people and bring them to make a good general confession of their past lives, without taking any recompense in any manner whatsoever. In this, they would give freely what they have freely received from the hand of God.
To help arrive at this, the said lord and lady, in thanksgiving for the gifts and graces they have received and continue to receive from the divine Majesty, to contribute to the salvation of the souls of the poor in honor of the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord and of the life and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, for the love of his blessed Mother, and to obtain the grace to live the rest of their lives worthily and come with their family to eternal glory, the said lord and lady have contributed a sum of forty thousand livres into the hands of Monsieur Vincent de Paul, priest of the diocese of Dax, with the following clauses and charges, To wit:
The said lord and lady confide to Monsieur Vincent the right to select and choose within the year a certain number of clerics to live at the expense of the foundation. These men will have the learning, piety, good conduct, and integrity of life necessary to engage in this work for the remainder of their lives under the direction of Monsieur Vincent. The said lord and lady expressly understand and order that because of the confidence they have in him and because of the experience he has had in the missions, so blessed by God, he should guide this undertaking. Nevertheless, it is understood that Monsieur Vincent will continue to live in the de Gondi household to continue to provide the spiritual help he has given these many years past.
That the said clergy and others who might in future wish to join in this holy enterprise devote themselves solely to the welfare of the poor country people. For this purpose they promise not to preach or administer the sacraments in any city where there is an archiepiscopal or episcopal palace or regional court, unless it be a case of unusual necessity.
That the said clerics live in common, under obedience to the said Monsieur de Paul or his successors after his death. That the name of this community be the Company or the Congregation of the Mission. That those who join this community have the intention of serving God in the manner spoken of above and promise to observe the rules which shall be given. That every five years they serve all the lands of the said lord and lady by preaching, hearing confessions, catechizing, and the other good works spoken of above. That they render spiritual help to the poor convicts so they many benefit from the corporal sufferings they may have to undergo, although the general recognizes no obligation on his part to do so. That this charity be continued in the future by the said clerics to the said convicts for good and just considerations. Finally, the said lord and lady remain jointly founders of this good work. As such, they and their heirs enjoy and retain in perpetuity all the rights and privileges accorded to patrons in the sacred canons, except the right of assigning persons to positions of responsibility, which right they have renounced. 5
Some other clauses in this contract had to do with the good order to be observed by the priests, or the frequency of the missions, or their own development. These are too long to cite here, but what has been given suffices to see the origins of this first of the houses of the Congregation of the Mission. It also allows us to see how exalted and agreeable to God, whose greater glory alone motivated this action, was this foundation for the salvation of most abandoned souls, such as the poor of the countryside.
It is particularly noteworthy how disinterested the benefactors were. They imposed no obligation of masses and prayers for themselves, neither in this life or after their death. Freed from this obligation, the priests of the Congregation could act with greater liberty. They could give themselves completely to the functions of their ministry and work more diligently for the missions. These charitable founders voluntarily deprived themselves of all the spiritual suffrages they might have had, in favor of the poor and to the greater glory of God.
Shortly after the execution of this contract, the general of the galleys went to Provence, and Madame remained in Paris. They were both greatly consoled that their offering to God had been accomplished. They were greatly relieved to know their new foundation was off to a good start by being placed in the care of Monsieur Vincent, in whom they had such complete confidence. They knew for sure that, like the servant in the Gospel who had received the ten talents, he would devote himself completely to making good use of them. In this they were not to be disappointed, for under the prudent and faithful direction of Monsieur Vincent this first foundation, by the blessing of God, led to many others, as we shall see in this book.
- CED XI:170-71.
- This Jean Francois was brother both to Philip Emmanuel and Henri de Gondi. In 1622 he succeeded his brother, the first Cardinal de Retz, as the first archbishop of Paris, raised to an archdiocese by Gregory XV in that year.
- This residence, nearly three centuries old, was one of the oldest of the university, but almost abandoned and dilapidated. It occupied some sixteen acres. It took its name, “Good Youth,” from the type of upper-class students expected there. Students, whether foundation scholars or paying borders, were provided with shelter and sleeping quarters.
- At this same time, Saint Vincent acquired rights to the priory of Saint Nicolas de Grosse-Sauve in the diocese of Langres. CED XIII:56-57. The document is dated February 1624. He may never have exercised these rights, however.
- CED XIII:197-202; for the act of approval by the archbishop of Paris, April 24, 1626, see CED XIII:202-03.