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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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Monsieur Vincent’s Experiences During the Troubled Times of 1649. What Occurred During Several Trips He Made at that Time

The kingdom enjoyed a great calm during the first years of the regency of the queen mother. She struggled to establish peace within the kingdom and to use the army to defeat the efforts of those ill-disposed towards us. But whether because of our sins or some other reason of which we are ignorant this calm was followed by one of the most violent storms France had to endure in many years. 1 Towards the end of 1648 as this tempest began, Their Majesties were obliged to flee to Saint Germain en Laye in January of the following year. Troops came to block the approaches to the town so that it was quickly reduced to extremities.

Monsieur Vincent’s first reaction was to have his community beseech God in prayer to avert the calamity which would prevail if this civil disturbance lasted much longer. Beyond this, he felt it his duty to do all in his power to bring whatever remedy he could to the situation. He resolved to offer his services to Their Majesties at Saint Germain. He would represent to the queen with respect and all possible humility what he thought in the sight of God was most likely to bring back peace and tranquility to the realm. Therefore he left Saint Lazare on the thirteenth of the same month of January.

He took the precaution of leaving a letter addressed to the first president in the hands of the superior at Saint Lazare. In it he recounted the inspiration of God which had led him to go to Saint Germain to do what he could to bring about a peaceful settlement to the present difficulties. He did not have the opportunity to see the first president in person. 2 He assured the queen in this letter that he had consulted with no one else in this undertaking. He took this precaution for several reasons, first to assure the court that he had no communication with the rebellious party, and second to further the opportunity to speak effectively when she would be aware that he was acting solely through God’s inspiration. To appease the Parlement he felt he had to show why he had left the city and what he proposed to do.

Leaving Paris in early morning he arrived at Saint Germain around nine or ten o’clock, not without some difficulty because of the heavy flooding and the presence of the military everywhere. After being presented to the queen he spent nearly an hour with her. Afterwards he met with Cardinal Mazarin for a long time. He was well received by both, who appreciated his sincerity and his upright intentions. His intervention did not have the desired result, that is, peace and the re-establishment of unity in the kingdom, for circumstances were not yet favorable. But he at least had the satisfaction of having done all in his power in service to Their Majesties to procure the public good and relief of the poor. Although the least culpable, they were the most likely to suffer the most from the approaching storm.

When he finished his business in Saint Germain he left for Villepreux, 3 preferring for several reasons not to return to Paris. From Villepreux he went to a small farm in Beauce, two leagues from Etampes, in a poor hamlet called Freneville in the parish of Val-de-Puisseaux. Madame de Herse 4 gave this farm to the house of Saint Lazare to support its works. He stayed here for a month. He lived on the bread of tribulation and the water of anguish, for the weather was extremely cold and the housing primitive. It lacked all conveniences and was open to all sorts of trouble, given the unsettled times. Monsieur Vincent lived during this time as another Jeremiah deploring the misery of the kingdom, offering to God his tears, his sufferings, and his penances as pleas for mercy. He was another Job sitting on a handful of straw, awaiting the fulfillment of God’s designs, but submissive to his will. During his stay in this poor cottage he learned that other farms near Paris which belonged to Saint Lazare and served as the main resource for his community had been pillaged by soldiers, the furniture removed, the flocks driven away, and eighteen or twenty muids of wheat stolen. 5

The house of Saint Lazare itself had many vexations of its own, for six hundred soldiers were quartered there. They took the doors of the house and barns, and according to one official he had been charged by Parlement to seize the wheat and flour for transport to the public market. This order proved later not to have been given by the Parlement, and the soldiers were withdrawn and the keys returned, but the damage to the property was not repaired. Every day Monsieur Vincent was advised of some new loss or pillage, but his sole response was “God be blessed, God be blessed.”

To understand better the situation of Saint Lazare at this time and to see how the patience of Monsieur Vincent was tried, we may quote from a letter of a pious priest, a frequent visitor to the priests of the Mission.

We have witnessed the persecution suffered by the community at Saint Lazare. They have lost their possessions and goods during the war and the unrest in Paris, brought about by the animosity of some ill-intentioned persons and even of some of the leading magistrates. Under pretext of making an inventory of available foodstuffs in the house and barns, they searched and nosed about everywhere as though they were seeking hidden treasure. Besides, they billeted a regiment of insolent soldiers who behaved unbelievably badly, and even burned all the wood in the woodshed. I saw the embers still smoking when I went to see Monsieur Lambert whom Monsieur Vincent had left in charge. This noble missionary accepted all these affronts and suffered this persecution with his usual serenity and tranquility. He was happy to share in the loss of his spiritual father and to see the loss (since God willed it so) not so much of their own goods but that of the poor for whom these things were destined, for it was their custom to distribute these goods freely and charitably during the year. Et rapinam bonorum vestrorum cum gaudio suscepistis [“You joyfully assented to the confiscation of your goods”]. 6

It could be said to those who conducted an armed search of Saint Lazare for supposed hidden wealth what Saint Lawrence replied to his persecutors who sought the riches of the Church in his day: the poor alone are the living treasures hidden in the vaults of the church. Facultates quas requiris, in coelestes thesauros manus pauperum deportaverunt. [“The hands of the poor have carried off to heavenly storehouses the riches you seek.”]

Monsieur Vincent was a new Lot, saved from this scene of destruction by an inspiration as though from an angel from heaven when, having gone to Saint Germain en Laye to speak with Their Majesties, he decided not to return to Paris but instead to visit several houses of his Congregation. These places benefited by the blessing of his presence, to our privation and loss.

Monsieur Vincent remained then at this poor cottage of Freneville, suffering greatly from the severe cold, as well as from the limited amount of wretched food available in this poor region. He had only a bit of green wood to ward off the cold, and his bread was made of a mixture of rye and beans. Not a word of complaint fell from his lips. Rather he endured all in a spirit of penance. He believed it his duty as a priest to implore God’s mercy to mitigate the effects of his anger being felt everywhere more and more in the kingdom.

He preached to the peasants of this unhappy place, urging them to use their present afflictions well. He exhorted them to penance as a most efficacious means of appeasing the wrath of God. He prepared them for the sacrament of penance, and he, the pastor of the parish, and another priest of his Congregation heard their confessions.

After a stay in this neglected region he left for Le Mans despite the rigors of the season. He planned to visit a house of his community situated on the outskirts of this town. 7 From there he set out for Angers, but near Durtal he escaped from an accident which might have proven fatal were it not for some prompt help from others. His horse slipped while wading a small stream, and threw him into the water. After his rescue he remounted his horse soaked to the skin, but showing no emotion on his face. With some difficulty he found along the way a small cottage where he could dry himself, but as it was the Lenten season he did not eat until he had reached a small inn for the evening. The proprietress remarked that Monsieur Vincent, as was his custom, began to instruct the servants of the inn in their religion. She set off at once to gather the neighborhood children and had them go to Monsieur Vincent’s room. He thanked her for this courtesy and immediately divided them into two groups to be instructed, one by himself and the other by a priest traveling with him.

He remained five days at Angers, taking the occasion to visit the Daughters of Charity who served in the hospital. He then set out for Brittany, but as he neared Rennes he had another accident which almost cost him his life. He was crossing a wooden bridge between a mill and a deep pond when his horse shied at the mill wheel. The horse seemed about to throw him into the pond, for his hind legs were already off the bridge. By a sort of miracle God saved him from sure disaster. Later when he was out of danger Monsieur Vincent admitted that he had never before escaped such disaster. He blessed God for such evident and miraculous protection and besought his traveling companion to join him in blessing the divine goodness.

On all his trips Monsieur Vincent paid no visits of mere civility, either at Orleans, Le Mans, Angers, or anywhere he visited. He intended to do the same at Rennes, to pass unrecognized through the town on the way to a house of his Congregation at Saint Meen some eight leagues beyond the city. Notwithstanding this, he was recognized as he entered the town, which at that time was in the same state of agitation as Paris itself. An authority of the town informed him that he was under suspicion because of his connection with the royal family. He was told that he would be arrested and it was suggested that he leave town immediately. Monsieur Vincent was disposed to follow this advice. Yet at the very moment he was saddling his horse another guest staying at the same inn recognized him. He said angrily that Monsieur Vincent was likely to be shot in the head within two leagues of the town. The canon theologian of Saint Brieuc who had learned about Monsieur Vincent’s visit and had come to the inn to meet with him, heard the threat. He persuaded Monsieur Vincent not to leave but rather to complain to the first president and some others, who received him well.

The following day he was preparing again to leave the inn when the one who had threatened him with death reappeared. The story went around that this man had waited in hiding along the road for the chance to carry out his threat. The faithful servant of God relied completely on God’s providence. He seemed always ready to die, even desiring death after the example of the apostle that he might be united with Christ. He seemed unconcerned about his personal safety, but his friend the canon theologian of Saint Brieuc was not so trusting. He insisted on accompanying Monsieur Vincent all the way to Saint Meen, where he arrived on Tuesday of Holy Week. He remained there two weeks, spending most of his time in the confessional to benefit the poor of the region. They came on pilgrimage to this holy place and sought to be cured of their infirmities as God often granted such favors in response to the intercession of the patron saint of the town.

Monsieur Vincent then went on a charitable mission to Nantes, then to Lucon with the intention of proceeding to Saintes and then to Guienne, just to visit the houses of his Congregation. However, he received a direct order from the queen to return to Paris where the king also had returned. He went at once to Richelieu but fell sick there. When the Duchess d’Aiguillon heard of this she sent a small two-horse carriage and a coachman to bring him to Paris as soon as he would be well enough to travel. Some time before, he had been given the use of this same carriage because of trouble with his legs, but he had never wished to use it.

In every house of his Congregation he visited on this long trip he greatly consoled his spiritual sons, besides being such an example of humility, cordiality, meekness, and all other virtues he displayed. Finally he returned to Paris in July 1649 after an absence of six and a half months. He returned the carriage and horses to Madame d’Aiguillon with thanks, but she in turn sent them back saying that they were a gift to help him in his work. He refused once more, protesting that the difficulties with his legs were increasing so greatly that he could travel neither by foot nor by horse, that he was resolved to spend the rest of his life at Saint Lazare rather than ride in a coach. When the queen and the archbishop of Paris heard of this, they ordered him formally to use the carriage. He acquiesced in this but not without pain and confusion, calling the carriage, which in reality was quite ordinary, his ignominy. He wanted the horses put to useful work in the fields when he was not using them to go to the city. At that time he was seventy years of age, suffering much from his legs which pained him especially when he tried to stand after sitting for some time. 8 He used this poor carriage only out of obedience and necessity. Nevertheless it enabled him to attend to some important affairs in service to the Church which he otherwise could not have done.

  1. The troubles referred to here are those of the Fronde, eventually put down under Cardinal Mazarin.
  2. Mathieu Mole, 1584-1656, first president (chief justice) of the Parlement of Paris for many years.
  3. To the home of Father de Gondi, former general of the galleys.
  4. Charlotte de Ligny, wife of Michel Vialart, the president de Herse. She was a relative of Monsieur Olier, and was associated with all of Saint Vincent’s works, particularly the ordination retreats. She died in 1662.
  5. The farm at Orsigny, near Versailles. Monsieur Vincent accepted this farm December 22, 1644, from Jacques Norais and his wife. Their heirs contested this after their death, and the Congregation lost this farm, the principal support of the house of Saint Lazare. It returned to the community only in 1684.
  6. Heb 10:34.
  7. Notre Dame de Coeffort.
  8. Abelly here shows that believed that Vincent was born in 1580, not in 1576 as he wrote in ch. 1.

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