The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book II, Chapter I, Section IX, Part VII

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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PART SEVEN: Letter of Monsieur Vincent to Monsieur Bourdaise, to Whom He Sent Five More Missionaries

The sad news of the loss of so many good workers deeply grieved Monsieur Vincent. This no doubt wounded his paternal heart, since it was so sensitive to the welfare of all his confreres. In this, as in all things, he remained perfectly submissive to the will of God. He was committed to his glory, and to God he had offered and continuously sacrificed of his life and that of all his spiritual family. After these shocking events, he certainly had reason to question whether God wished him and his Congregation to serve in such a distant mission. It seemed presumptuous, perhaps, to pursue an undertaking which it appeared divine Providence did not favor. This was the opinion of some of his friends, guided by the light of human prudence. Yet human prudence is always a risky thing to follow in a matter of apostolic undertakings.

This man of God, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, recognized that all these reverses signified God’s approval rather than his disfavor. This is why, like the palm tree flattened by the storm, he decided to continue what he had begun with the help of God’s grace, in which he placed all his trust. He wrote:

The universal Church has been established by the death of the Son of God, and strengthened by that of the apostles, popes, and bishops martyred for the faith. She increased through persecution, and the blood of martyrs was the seed of Christians. God’s usual way of acting was to test his followers, especially when he had a great work in store for them. His divine Goodness has revealed, now, as always, that his name should be known, and the kingdom of his Son be established in all nations. It is evident that the island people are well disposed to receive the light of the Gospel, for more than six hundred have already received baptism by the ministry of a single missionary. It would be against all reason and charity to abandon the single missionary God has preserved, and to abandon these people who ask only to be instructed in the faith.1

All these and other similar considerations led him to decide to send five other missionaries to this distant island, four priests and a brother.2 These men, disdaining danger and death, offered themselves to him, to work in this perilous and difficult mission. Before their departure he gave them the following letter addressed to Monsieur Bourdaise, in which we can read, as if it were written about himself, a description of his own zeal and virtue.

I must first tell you, Monsieur, of our uncertainty whether you are still in the land of the living. The short time that those who preceded, accompanied, and followed you survived in this inhospitable land which swallowed up those sent to cultivate it, has given us concern. If you are still alive, how great our joy will be to hear from you. You would have no trouble realizing this if you knew the esteem and affection I have for you, which is as great as it is possible for one person to have for another.

Your last report to me has allowed us to see the strength of God working in you, and to hope for extraordinary fruit from your missionary labors. We shed tears of happiness because of you, and of thanksgiving to the goodness of God. He has taken such admirable care of you and your people whom you evangelize by his grace with such zeal and prudence on your part, and such admirable dispositions on their part to become children of God. We also shed tears of sorrow at your loss in the deaths of Messieurs Dufour, Provost and de Belleville, who found rest rather than the occupation they expected, and who increased your concerns where you had expected relief. This sudden separation was a sword of sorrow for your soul, just as the deaths of Messieurs Nacquart, Gondree and Mousnier were earlier.

You expressed such distress at their loss, in giving us news of their deaths, that I could sense your extreme affliction at these heavy losses. It seems, Monsieur, that God is treating you just as he treated his Son. God sent him into the world to establish his Church by the passion, and in the same way it seems he wishes to bring the faith to Madagascar by your sufferings. I adore his divine guidance, and I pray that his designs will be accomplished in you. It may be he has some special good in store for you, since among so many missionaries sent to the island, you alone survive. It would seem the good that they desired to accomplish will be fulfilled by you alone, whom God has preserved in life.

Be that as it may, Monsieur, we have greatly lamented the loss of these good servants of God. Yet we have good reason to admire in this surprising turn of events the incomprehensible scope of his guidance. He knows that we devoutly kiss the hand that strikes us, submitting ourselves humbly to what touches us so deeply. Still, we cannot know the reasons for this sudden death of such promising men in the midst of a people pleading for instruction, and after so many signs in them of a vocation for evangelization.

Despite these latest losses, neither the earlier losses nor the accidents that have happened since will weaken our resolve to help you. The four priests and a brother who were attracted to your mission and who have long requested to be sent, have not slackened in their resolution.

(Here Monsieur Vincent included a description of the good qualities of each of the missionaries, and then continued:)

I do not know who will rejoice more at their safe arrival in Madagascar, you who have awaited them for such a long time, or they themselves, who have a great desire to be with you. They see our Lord in you, and you in our Lord. With this perspective they will obey you as they would the Lord himself, with the help of his grace. Please agree to be in charge of them. I hope God will bless your direction, and their submission.

You would not have had to wait so long for reinforcements if it were not for unhappy incidents on two different occasions. In one case the ship carrying two of our priests and a brother, foundered at Nantes with a loss of nearly a hundred persons.3 It was only a special protection of God that saved our confreres. The second ship left last year, but Spaniards captured it, and the four priests and a brother aboard were returned here. It pleased God that no aid or consolation would come to you from us, but from himself alone. He will be your first and last hope in this apostolic work to which he has called you, to show that the establishment of the faith is strictly his work and not a human enterprise. This is the way it was at the beginning of the Church, when he chose only twelve apostles. They soon separated to go to the four corners of the earth, to announce his coming and his doctrine to the whole world. This holy seed of the Word began to increase, and Providence allowed the number of laborers to increase. Your Church will also grow little by little, and will in time have priests to develop and extend it.

O Monsieur, how happy you are to have laid the first foundations of this Church. It will lead so many souls to heaven who otherwise would not have entered there, if God did not pour out on them the principle of eternal life through the teaching and sacraments which you have administered. May you continue, with the help of his grace, for a long time in your holy ministry, and serve as an example and an encouragement for the other missionaries. This is the prayer the whole Company frequently offers, for it has your person and your work very much at heart. I feel this deeply.

In vain will we ask God to keep you safe, if you do not cooperate. I beg of you, Monsieur, with all my heart, to take care of yourself and of your confreres. You know from your own experience how important this is, especially in that region. Your own intuition that our dear departed hastened their end by their excessive work must lead you to moderate your zeal. It is better to have some strength in reserve than to exceed your limit. Pray to God for our little Congregation. It needs both men and virtue for the many and diverse harvests we attempt to reap on all sides, among the priests or among the people. Please pray to God for me also. I feel I do not have much longer to live, given my age, now above eighty, and my bad legs no longer can support me.4 I shall die in peace if I know that you are still living, and if I am informed of the number of children and adults you have baptized. If it should be that we no longer meet in this world, I hope to see you in the presence of God. I remain faithfully yours.5

These five missionaries left France towards the end of 1659, but Providence decreed they were to return to Paris after eighteen months. The ship on which they were sailing was shipwrecked at the Cape of Good Hope, but thanks be to God, all aboard were saved. These good missionaries stayed there until a Dutch fleet called at the port ten months after the shipwreck, and kindly brought them back to France.

By the time news of this terrible accident was received, Monsieur Vincent had died. Undoubtedly he would have been greatly distressed. By now, nineteen or twenty members of the Congregation had been sent to Madagascar at various times to work for the conversion of the people of the island, to establish among them the empire of Jesus Christ. Of these, seven had died in this effort, including Monsieur Bourdaise, the last of those on the scene.6 The others, by the secret and incomprehensible order of divine Providence, had to return to France without being allowed to cultivate the fertile field of this poor struggling Church.

The superior who succeeded Monsieur Vincent7 immediately sent five missionaries in December, 1662, to continue this work. They had to wait at Nantes until May of the following year. They finally embarked then for Madagascar with the same wish to work and suffer for the glory of God among these poor infidels which animated all the others who preceded them in this mission. We have since learned that by the grace of God all have happily arrived at their destination.8

  1. Letter of April 19, 1659, cited in Collet, Vie, I:456.
  2. The missionaries for this fifth expedition were: Nicolas Etienne, Pierre Daveroult, Pasquier Desfontaines, Francois Feydin, and Brother Philippe Patte, a surgeon.
  3. For this fourth expedition, the priests were Charles Boussordec and Francois Herbron; the brother was Christophe de Launay. For Saint Vincent’s account of these events, see CED XI:372-80. Boussordec died on a later voyage in 1665.
  4. Abelly perhaps altered this expression, since the saint would have turned eighty in 1660, as other letters of his clearly show. Perhaps the original read “now turning eighty” or “going on for eighty years.”
  5. CED VIII:156-60.
  6. Eighteen men were sent in six expeditions: First, (1) C. Nacquart, (2) N. Gondree; Second, (3) F. Mousnier; (4) T. Bourdaise, (5) Bro. R. Foret; Third, (6) C. Dufour, (7) N. Prevost, (8) M. de Belleville; Fourth, (9) C. Boussordec, (10) F. Herbron, (11) Bro. C. De Launay, also on the next expedition; Fifth, (12) C. Leblanc, (13) I. Arnaud, (14) P. Desfontaines, (15) P. Daveroult; Sixth, (16) F. Feydin, (17) N. Etienne, (18) Bro. P. Patte. The seven who died were Nacquart, Gondree, Mousnier, Bourdaise, Dufour, Prevost, de Belleville. This listing generally follows Coste, Life.
  7. Rene Almeras.
  8. The five were N. Etienne, M. Manie, Bro. P. Patte, and Bro. G. Lebrun. They were joined by a secular priest, Fr. Frachey.

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