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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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The Establishment of the Hospitals in Paris and Marseilles for the Galley Slaves

Monsieur Vincent’s pity for the poor galley slaves had its origin in his own experience, as we have described earlier. The charity of his heart did not allow him to forget these poor people, even among all the other important affairs calling for his attention. His thoughts often turned to the hospice he had provided for them near the church of Saint Roch, but lack of time prevented him from visiting them as often as he would have liked. He realized that this state of affairs could not go on for long unless there was some source of funds and a house of their own. Their present house was simply rented. He resolved within himself to work at this, with the help of divine Providence, to bring a solution to these difficulties.

He first requested help from the late king, Louis XIII of glorious memory, and the magistrates of Paris, to assign him the ancient tower between the gate of Saint Bernard and the river, to shelter these poor convicts. This was granted in 1632, and for several years the house only the alms from some charitable donors kept it going. For his part, Monsieur Vincent looked after their spiritual needs by sending priests of the Congregation of the Mission who lived in the College des Bons Enfants to say mass, hear confessions, instruct, and console. On occasions he brought some well-born and virtuous persons to visit, as a help to the prisoners.

Mademoiselle le Gras was among those who helped out, both personally and by her alms. She was then superior of the Confraternity of Charity in the parish of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. The thought came to Monsieur Vincent that perhaps she might propose to these women to give some part of the alms at their disposal to these poor galley slaves since they lived in the same parish. He wrote to her about this proposal in a short note:

Charity towards these poor convicts is of great merit in the eyes of God. You were well advised to help them, and you will do well if you continue to do so in any way you can, until I can have the happiness of seeing you, in two or three days. Consider whether your Charity at Saint Nicolas might not assume responsibility for them, at least for a time. You could help them with the money you have left over, but then what? It is difficult to say, but that is why I throw out this thought for you to consider. 1

For several years he remained the chief provider for these poor unfortunates. He provided lodging, and what physical and spiritual help he could, until divine Providence inspired a certain wealthy man, who died around 1639, to leave in his will an income of six thousand livres to this work. His daughter and heir, aided by the counsel of several priests, would administer it for the express purpose of helping convicts condemned to the galleys.

Only after much difficulty, and over the objection of her husband, was Monsieur Vincent able to arrange the investment of a large enough sum to provide the income as called for in the will. The late Monsieur Mole, then procurator general, helped him in these negotiations. His intervention was most helpful in assuring this income. Monsieur Vincent had alerted this good lady to the deplorable state of the convicts, to convince her that a permanent endowment was essential. She consented, after several discussions with Monsieur Vincent, that the procurator general have in perpetuity the temporal administration of the investment. Later she had the Daughters of Charity appointed to care for the convicts, especially the sick, and provided an income for them from the same six thousand livres. Because these prisoners lived in the parish of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet, the priests of the parish were made responsible for administering the sacraments and burying the dead. Monsieur Vincent pointed out the heavy financial burden this was, and supported by the intervention of several ladies, these priests were granted an income of three hundred livres on condition they would say mass, give sermons and catechism lessons and other spiritual help, all of which they have done with great charity. From time to time Monsieur Vincent would come to these poor convicts, especially when they became numerous or were about to be shipped off to the galleys. He provided a missionary for them, to console them, and dispose them to make good use of their sufferings.

It might seem that he could do nothing more for the convicts. A heart less motivated by his sincere charity would be content with having provided a house and seen to their temporal and spiritual needs. His love, however, would not allow him to think he had done enough or to be content to see them sent away. Instead, he accompanied them to Marseilles, where he unfortunately found conditions worse even than it was in Paris. The convicts who had fallen sick remained chained to their benches in the galleys. They were covered with vermin, full of sores, and nearly smothered in rot and infection. His tender heart was deeply troubled, seeing these men, made in the image of God, reduced to such misery, Christians condemned to die like animals. He resolved to appeal to Cardinal Richelieu, then General of the Galleys, and to the Duchess d’Aiguillon, the cardinal’s niece. 2 He reported on the horrible condition of the convicts and the absolute necessity of a hospital for them where they might be taken when sick. He successfully received authorization to construct one with the help of the late bishop of Marseilles, Bishop Gault, 3 whose memory is held in benediction, and the late Chevalier de Simiane de la Coste, a most charitable gentleman from Provence. 4

Just to have an institution is not enough. It must be supported. So it was that after the death of King Louis XIII, when Monsieur Vincent was called to Paris by the queen regent to help in administering the ecclesiastical affairs of the kingdom, she saw to it that the king, her son, was nominally designated as the founder of the hospital in Marseilles. This was confirmed by letters patent in 1645. The queen mother thereby authorized an annual income of twelve thousand livres, drawn from the Provence salt-tax. She specified that the priests of the Congregation of the Mission who had come to Marseilles, as we shall describe later, should have the spiritual direction of the house in perpetuity, in keeping with the concession made by the bishop of the city. The hospital’s temporal administration was likewise put into the hands of the priests of the Mission, but together with four of the leading zealous citizens of the city.

To assure good chaplains for the galleys, Her Majesty in these same letters patent ordained that the superior of the mission of Marseilles should have the right to appoint and to dismiss, should the need arise. These chaplains could be obligated to live in community when the galleys were in port, to be better prepared by community exercises to fulfill their duties as chaplain. Her Majesty also specified that priests of the Congregation of the Mission be designated as royal chaplains. This appointment would give them more status to work for the salvation of the convicts with better results.

The Chevalier de la Coste had the welfare of this hospital so much at heart that he went to Paris expressly to hasten the letters patent. He finally obtained them through Monsieur Vincent’s recommendation. 5 In a letter of 1645, he wrote:

I am reporting on the progress of the hospital, to which you have contributed so much. In my last letter I told you how, after much difficulty, we finally, with the help of our Lord, have been able to bring the sick galley slaves here. I am sure I could not express the joy felt by these poor convicts when they saw themselves transferred from their hell to this hospital they call paradise. No sooner did they come in than they were healed of half their illnesses, for they were cleaned of the vermin which covered them, their feet were washed, and they were taken to a bed a bit softer than the wooden benches they were accustomed to. Everyone was delighted to see themselves put to bed, served, and treated with a bit more charity than they were used to in the galley. We were able to cure a number who otherwise would have died. We can surely say that God has blessed this work, for we have seen the conversion of some lapsed Christians and even have witnessed some Moslems requesting baptism. 6

After this time, most of the galleys were transferred from Marseilles to Toulon. 7 Care for the sick was also moved. A house was rented for the care of the sick, and a priest of the Mission was regularly on hand to render spiritual services to the convicts, and see to all that could be done for their cure.

  1. CED I:166.
  2. See Book One, ch. 46.
  3. Jean-Baptiste Gault, bishop of Marseilles 1642-1643, a man highly regarded for his holiness and apostolic zeal.
  4. Gaspar de Simiane de la Coste, 1607-1649, devoted to a great number of good works, and particularly so to the relief of the convicts in Marseilles.
  5. CED XIII:310-12.
  6. CED II:525-27.
  7. This transfer took place to avoid a plague from 1649 to 1655.

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