Account of the Great Good Accomplished in the Church by the Founding of the Congregation of the Mission, of which Monsieur Vincent Was the Prime Mover; First, the Establishment of the Confraternity of Charity for the Corporal and Spiritual Help of the Sick Poor
It is astounding and almost unbelievable, were it not for the accounts of so many people who knew Monsieur Vincent, that a person who thought so humbly of himself and who regarded himself as the last of all priests, would be at the head of a newly founded Company daily growing larger. He was a poor and simple priest, seeking always to remain in the background. Despite himself, he became involved in many significant activities for the service of the Church and the glory of God, as we shall see in this book. But as a holy Father of the Church said, Charity has no measure! It never says, enough, and when it takes possession of a soul it makes the person untiring in his efforts, to the extent prudence allows, to undertake anything that might contribute to the great glory of his divine Savior. It seems to him that all things are possible because of the one who strengthens him.
If we know a tree by its fruits and charity by its good works, we can say with assurance that God had blessed Monsieur Vincent with special graces to enable him to do so much. The charity with which the Holy Spirit filled his heart was so plentiful that it seemed the world was too small to measure up to his desire that God be better known, loved, and glorified.
We will give in this chapter, and in others to follow, a summary account of some of his works which date from the very beginning of the Congregation of the Mission. We will follow approximately the chronological order of these events but occasionally will interrupt this order to discuss related matters. In Book Two we will enlarge upon our treatment of these works of charity.
We will begin in this chapter with the establishment of the Confraternity of Charity for the help of the sick poor. Their corporal and spiritual sufferings so touched the heart of Monsieur Vincent that he became very sensitive on this point. After seeing the good results of the first of these Assemblies or Confraternities of Charity which God had established through him in Bresse, as we have noted in one of the preceding chapters, 1 he decided to extend this good work wherever possible. Wherever he gave a mission himself or his priests gave them, he set up this Confraternity for the relief of the sick poor. God so blessed his efforts that there was hardly a place where the mission had been given that the Confraternity of Charity was not established.
Since it is not enough just to begin good works without trying to sustain and perfect them, Monsieur Vincent considered carefully what had to be done to maintain the confraternities. These were composed mostly of simple village women who needed help and encouragement in their works of charity, in which occasional contradictions would arise. They needed advice, especially in their help for the sick.
Although he had given well thought-out regulations for their guidance and visited the various confraternities as often as he could or had his priests visit them, they became too many to see them as often as he wished. Divine Providence, which watches over all, then inspired a virtuous lady to devote herself, under the guidance of Monsieur Vincent, to this charitable work. Because she contributed so much to these Confraternities of Charity and cooperated with Monsieur Vincent in other activities of which we will speak later, it is important to say more about this good woman.
She was Mademoiselle Louise de Marillac, 2 widow of Monsieur le Gras, secretary of the queen mother, Marie de Medici. God had bestowed upon her all the virtues and dispositions suitable for success in all the activities he had destined for her. She was notable for her good judgment, strong virtue, and universal charity, which allowed her to display an untiring zeal for helping her neighbor, particularly the poor. In God’s providence she was greatly troubled by interior trials and was very uncertain as to her own deportment about how she might best give herself totally to God, as she wished. For several years she had been under the spiritual direction of the late bishop of Belley. 3 Following his advice she finally took Monsieur Vincent as her spiritual director. He did not usually take on the responsibility of personal spiritual direction of others for lack of time and because it would take him away from other works of greater importance for the service of the Church. Nevertheless he deferred on this occasion to the wishes of this great prelate to accept the direction of this virtuous lady. He did so under the inspiration of the providence of God, for the great good he had in store for her, as shall appear later in this book.
This faithful servant of Jesus Christ felt herself strongly moved in her prayer to give herself to the service of the poor. Upon requesting the advice of Monsieur Vincent, she received this letter in reply:
Yes, certainly, Mademoiselle, I agree. Why not, since our Lord has given you this holy thought? Receive communion tomorrow and prepare for the review of life you propose to make. Later you can begin the prescribed retreat. I cannot tell you how anxious I am to see you and know how all goes with you. But I must deny myself for the love of God, which must be your sole wish also. I can well imagine how touched you were by the words of today’s Gospel, for they are powerful for a soul loving with a perfect love. You must have appeared in the eyes of God as a beautiful tree, for by his grace you have borne such good fruit. I beseech him, by his infinite goodness, that you shall ever be that tree of life bearing the fruit of true charity. 4
It was providential that Monsieur Vincent had moved to the College des Bons Enfants, as we said earlier, after Madame de Gondi died in 1625. She had contributed so much to the first missions and to the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission. God willed that Mademoiselle le Gras move to the vicinity of the college to be of service to Monsieur Vincent in all his efforts in favor of the corporal and spiritual welfare of the poor. 5 He found her in such good dispositions and of such tried virtue that at the beginning of 1629 he proposed that she devote herself completely to our Lord to honor his charity towards the poor and to imitate him in the weariness, fatigue, and contradictions he had endured for their sake. 6 He suggested that, following the example of this loving Savior, she would go from town to town, village to village, to oversee the way the meetings and Confraternities of Charity were progressing.
She agreed to do this, motivated by a spirit of obedience and her zeal and her love for the poor. Who can say how great was the blessing and fruit she brought to these visits? She re-established those fallen on difficult times, encouraged the women who made up these meetings, increased their membership when they were too few to carry out their tasks, gave them fitting advice, trained them in caring for the sick, distributed dresses and other clothes she had brought with her, supplied medicines, and suggested other possible ways they could help in the care and salvation of the sick poor.
Ordinarily she would remain in a parish, and beyond the time she gave to the Confraternities of Charity, she would, with the approval of the local pastor, bring together in a private home the young girls of the region. She would catechize and instruct them in the duties of a true Christian. If a schoolmistress lived in the parish she would give her some hints about how best to fulfill her function. If no teacher was available she would seek out someone suitable for the office. The better to show her how to teach, she herself would hold class in the presence of the prospective schoolmistress.
For several years she gave herself to these duties in the dioceses of Beauvais, Paris, Senlis, Soissons, Meaux, Chalons in Champagne, and Chartres, with outstanding success. She had a hand-written directive from Monsieur Vincent, regarding her activities. 7 From time to time she wrote of events and made it a rule to do nothing extraordinary without his advice. She traveled and gave alms at her own expense, always accompanied by other women and a servant. After spending most of the year in these activities, she ordinarily returned to Paris to pass the winter season but continued her same service to the poor. She was not satisfied to serve them simply by herself but sought as much as possible to enlist other virtuous women in her charitable activities, first by giving themselves to Jesus Christ, and then serving him in his members, the poor. What makes her activities the more remarkable is that she was of a delicate constitution, subject to frequent illnesses, but these did not hold her back from her charitable activities.
We give here an extract from the beginning and the ending of a letter written to her by Monsieur Vincent:
Thanks be to God you have arrived in good health. For the love of God and his poor members, take care of yourself, and do not try to do too much. The devil often uses this ruse to trap worthy souls, to get them to do more than they can, so he can succeed in having them do nothing. On the other hand, the Son of God invites us quietly and calmly to do what we reasonably can, so that we can continue to serve. Do the same, Mademoiselle, and you will be following the inspiration of the Spirit of God.
When you are looked upon with favor and praised, unite yourself to the contempt, mockeries, and affronts the Son of God endured. A truly humble soul is humbled as much in honor as in dishonor. Act like the bee. It makes its honey from the dew that rests on bitter absinthe just as well as from the dew on the rose. I hope you can do the same. 8
From the start Monsieur Vincent had conceived of these Confraternities of Charity as established in the small towns and villages with no hospital. Often the sick poor were left with little help, cut off from care or remedy in their illnesses. The late bishop of Beauvais, 9 became aware of the great good these Confraternities of Charity were doing in both the bodily and spiritual care of the poor. As a result, he wished to set them up in all eighteen parishes of his city. In the same way, several devoted women of Paris, seeing the good results of the Confraternities of Charity in the villages, thought of establishing the same in their parish, Saint Sauveur. The year 1629 saw the first of these Confraternities in Paris, set up by Monsieur Vincent with the cooperation of the pastor of the parish. The following year Mademoiselle le Gras joined five or six women of her acquaintance in the parish of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet, where she lived, to serve the sick poor. She wrote to Monsieur Vincent, then away on mission, to tell him of her progress in this charitable work. He suggested they follow the regulations already set out for the Confraternities of Charity, adding some specific directions for her parish, just as he had done earlier for the parish of Saint Sauveur. 10 She observed these rules faithfully, and God was generous in his blessings. Several other women joined the first group for the continued service of the poor under the wise direction of the pastor.
In that same and the following year, 1631, the Confraternity was established in the parishes of Saint Merry, Saint Benedict, and Saint Sulpice, with the approval of the archbishop of Paris and the cooperation of the pastors. A little later the Confraternity was established in the parishes of Saint Paul, Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, Saint Eustache, Saint Andre, Saint Jean, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Etienne du Mont, Saint Nicolas des Champs, Saint Roch, Saint Jacques de la Boucherie, Saint Jacques du Haut-pas, Saint Laurent, and in practically all the parishes of the city and suburbs of Paris.
Messieurs Descords and Lamy, masters and administrators of the Quinze-Vingts Hospital, requested Monsieur Vincent to found a Confraternity of Charity there, which he did. 11
We should not omit here the account of the first years of Mademoiselle le Gras, working with the Confraternity of Charity in her parish of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. One day a young woman who had contracted the plague came to see her. When Monsieur Vincent heard of it, he wrote to her:
I have just learned of the accident that has occurred to the girl whom your guardians of the poor have rescued and that you had visited. I must say, Mademoiselle, that I was so upset that were it not the middle of the night I would have come right away to see you. But the goodness of God towards those who have given themselves to the service of the poor in the Confraternities of Charity, in which no one up to now has been stricken with the plague, gives me total confidence that no harm will come to you. Believe me, Mademoiselle, for not only did I visit the late subprior of Saint Lazare in his last illness when he was afflicted with the plague, but I heard his last sigh. Yet, neither I nor those who attended him in his illness, suffered any harm. No, Mademoiselle, do not fear, for God wishes to use you for his greater glory, and I think he will preserve you for that. I will celebrate holy mass for your intention. I would go to see you tomorrow were it not for a meeting I have with some doctors at the Madeleine about the establishment of a mission there. 12
In regard to the subject of this letter, Monsieur Vincent proved to be correct. This charitable lady, despite all her work and her own constant illnesses, lived thirty years after receiving this letter. God wished to use her services not only for the good of the Confraternities of Charity but also for the founding of an entirely new community of virtuous women. The confraternities were helpful to the sick poor, and the women would contribute so much to these Confraternities and render many other services to the Church, as we shall see in the following chapter.
- Ch. 10.
- Saint Louise de Marillac, 1591-1660, daughter of Louis de Marillac and an unknown mother. She married Antoine le Gras, February 5, 1613, and lost him in death, December 21, 1625. They had a son Michel. She placed her confidence in her spiritual director, Vincent de Paul, who eventually used her in his charitable works. She was canonized on March 11, 1934, and on February 10, 1960, was named patroness of all those who devote themselves to Christian social work.
- Jean-Pierre Camus.
- CED I:51-52. The original text is more vivid: “Oh! what a tree you have appeared to be today in God’s sight, since you have borne such a fruit! May you be forever a beautiful tree of life bringing forth fruits of love.”
- She left the parish of Saint Sauveur and went to live in that of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet.
- CED I:73-74.
- See Book Two, ch.9.
- CED I:95-98. This letter was sent to Beauvais where Louise had gone to establish eighteen Confraternities of Charity. On her return from there, she received extraordinary expressions of gratitude, not only from the women but also from the men who had furtively come to listen to her instructions.
- Augustin Potier de Gesvre, consecrated in Rome on September 17, 1617. He renewed his diocese with the help of Saint Vincent, Adrien Bourdoise, and the Ursuline nuns. He served in a great many important positions in both Church and state. He died June 20, 1650.
- CED XIII:523-24.
- Literally “fifteen twenties,” for a total of three hundred, the capacity of the hospital.
- The plague erupted in France in 1628 and ravaged the country. See CED I:185-86.