The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book II, Chapter XI, Section III

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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SECTION THREE: The Remarkable Effects of the Help Given to the Provinces of Picardy and Champagne

After seeing the extreme misery of these two provinces and the deplorable state to which the people had been reduced, it would be well now to consider the blessings with which God favored the charitable help Monsieur Vincent obtained for them. We can see the happy results of the alms of the Ladies of Charity and all the other virtuous contributors, and the unbelievable efforts of the missionaries who distributed them. It would not be possible to report all, but the little we will say will suffice to judge all the rest.

A month after Monsieur Vincent began to help, he received the following letter:

The food given as a result of the alms sent from Paris to the sick at Guise, Riblemont, La Fere, and Ham has saved the lives of more than two thousand poor people. They would otherwise have been driven out of the town where they had taken refuge, and would surely have died in the fields, with no help, either spiritual or corporal.

The religious women of La Fere and other towns realize that the help they received saved their lives. Thus, they pray unceasingly for those responsible for such great blessings.1

Other letters written from Laon, Soissons, and other places may be cited as well.

We have given out the church ornaments, and the blankets and clothes for the sick. We cannot tell you what an effect this has had in the frontier regions, where people talk about practically nothing else except this charitable help. Our helpers have taken such care of the sick that by God’s grace in the single town of Guise, of the five hundred sick we had, over three hundred have recovered. In the forty villages around Laon, so many have returned to perfect health that you can scarcely find six poor people unable to work at their own livelihood. We have felt obliged to help them in this, by supplying axes, billhooks, and spinning wheels to enable the men and women to work on their own with no burden on anyone, as long as no other misfortune occurs to reduce them again to miserable conditions.

We have distributed the seed sent from Paris. It has already been sown, and God has blessed the sowing. These poor people support their ills with greater patience when they have hope the harvest will bring them some relief.

We provide two hundred livres each month in support of several poor pastors, and as a result all the parishes of the deanery of Guise, Marle, and Vervins have been taken care of. Mass is celebrated in each parish at least once a week, and the sacraments are being administered.2

In letters written from Reims, Fismes, Basoches, and other surrounding areas, we read:

We do not have words enough to express our thanks. We are well aware the hand of God has struck this province, turning its fertility into sterility, and its joy into tears. Its once-populated villages now have only deserted hovels. Were it not for the charitable people inspired by God in Paris, there would not remain any trace of the people caught in this storm. The saved owe their lives to these generous people.

The thirty-five villages of this valley and its surrounding areas give a thousand thanks to their benefactors. We have distributed items for the churches, and clothes to the poor. Many of the sick have recovered and are now able to earn their own living.

We have held a meeting of the local pastors, during which we distributed to the twenty-three most needy the four hundred livres sent to us from Paris. This will enable them to survive and re-establish their parishes, which otherwise they would not have been able to do.3

Letters were written from Saint Quentin and surrounding areas on the same topics, of which we give several extracts:

We cannot tell you how many sick have been cured, how many in affliction have been consoled, how many poor people have been rescued from despair by your help. They would otherwise have been lost in both the country and in the towns.

Alms you sent from Paris during Holy Week enabled us to rescue several young girls from imminent danger of losing their virtue. We spent our Lent in the country places in over a hundred and thirty villages to help the poor or to see that others help them both corporally and spiritually. We have given forty pastors ten livres each month, enabling them to remain in their parishes to carry out their pastoral duties.

We used your gift to buy seven hundred livres worth of sickles, flails, and winnowing baskets and other tools to enable the poor to earn their living by working on the harvest. Our oats have come up well, thanks be to God and to the seed you sent, giving us hope for a good harvest and relief for the coming winter.4

These letters were written in 1651. The following were written in 1654 from Saint Quentin, Laon, Reims, and other places:

We are threatened by roving bands of robbers, but we have visited more than a hundred villages. We have found older people and children, nearly naked, and almost frozen with the cold. Women are in despair, nearly paralyzed by the cold. We clothed more than four hundred, and gave them hemp and spinning wheels. The help we began to give to the pastors has continued. After we brought them together by deaneries we saw they were almost despoiled of everything. We gave clothes and cassocks to them, and supplied church items to them, and missals. We helped repair the roofs and windows of their churches, to protect the sacred host from the elements and to prevent the wind from blowing it away during mass. This is why we now have the holy sacrifice of the mass celebrated in a large number of churches and parishes where the people receive the sacraments, which otherwise would be deserted and abandoned.5

Besides the four hundred poor who have been clothed, we discovered in the region of the city of Laon nearly six hundred orphans under twelve years of age, in pitiable nakedness and need. The alms from Paris have enabled us to clothe and help them.6  Despair had brought many girls of good families living near the frontier, to the greatest danger. We thought the best remedy was to remove them from the site of greatest danger, and so we began to bring them to the community of Daughters of Saint Martha in the city of Reims. There they were taught the fear of God, and put to some useful work. We now have thirty of these young girls in this charitable home, all daughters of gentlemen of the region. Some had to be hidden in the cellars for a time to avoid the insolence of the soldiers. The expenses of this charitable effort, and bringing others to places of security, are great, for besides paying for their board we had to supply clothes for them. We hope, however, that the charity of people which began so well will continue, and even increase.7

The missionaries had to go from one town to another, after they had cared for the most pressing needs of the priests and the churches, helped the poor, removed young girls to safe havens, seen to the care of the orphans, and provided means of earning their own livelihood to those capable of working. In order not to leave the sick or those likely to become so unattended, they set up an organization in each locality to care for them, depending on the virtue and fidelity of some charitable persons to whom they gave some money and medicines, which they renewed from time to time. In the many towns with ruined and abandoned hospitals, the missionaries worked to put them back into operation, and received many patients at the expense of six or seven sous per day for each one. They were careful to pay this sum regularly on orders from Monsieur Vincent, and by the generosity of the Ladies of Charity of Paris who supplied the funds.

In the city of Rethel the hospital could not receive all the many sick soldiers and peasants. More than seven hundred were sent to the hospital of Reims. Since the number of those sick increased and the expenses mounted greatly, it was thought advisable to have the brothers of the Congregation, together with some priests, bring certain medicines, especially some powders compounded by the infirmarian of Saint Lazare for dysentery, fevers, and some other ailments. God blessed these medicines so greatly that those who used them thought they were almost miraculous, for they hastened the cure of a large number of sick, who before were at the point of death. On occasion these medicines would work their wonders in twenty-four hours or thereabouts.

Not content to help the living, Monsieur Vincent extended his concern even to the dead. The following single example will suffice to show this. After the battles which took place in Champagne in 1651, near Saint Etienne and Saint Souplet, more than fifteen hundred enemy remained dead on the field of battle, prey for dogs and wolves. Once he learned of this, Monsieur Vincent sent one of his missionaries8 to supervise the burial of the decomposing corpses, using local labor for the purpose. He managed so well with the three hundred livres at his disposal that he was able to bury them all, delivering the living from a horrible spectacle and the polluted air. This good priest himself wrote about these events:

We have finished today what Jesus Christ recommended to us in his Gospel, to love and do good to our enemies. We have given decent burial to those who had stolen our goods, ruined many of our people, and who beat and outraged them. I consider myself happy to have been able to obey your orders in a matter explicitly recommended in Holy Scripture. I must say, however, that there was some difficulty in collecting these corpses spread over a large area, especially because of the thaw which developed towards the end. We can see how God favored our work, by the great cold wave that occurred. If we had to do this service in the warmer weather we could not have had helpers for a thousand ecus, and yet it cost us only three hundred livres in all. These bodies which will one day share in the resurrection are now enfolded anew in the womb of their mother. The whole province is indebted to the charitable contributors to this good work, not to mention the crown God has prepared for them in heaven as a reward for their virtue.9

We ought not omit mentioning the help Monsieur Vincent gave to the poor Irish Catholics, exiled from their own country by Cromwell. Out of necessity they had to enroll in the army. Two regiments of these soldiers suffered much in the war at Bordeaux. The following year they were sent to the region around Arras, and after serving in these two campaigns retired to Troyes. They arrived there in a sad state. They brought with them more than a hundred and fifty orphans and a large number of poor widows, barefooted and covered only in the rags they had been able to salvage from those killed in the wars. This desolate army walked towards Troyes, gathering for their food only what the dogs themselves would disdain.

When Monsieur Vincent was informed of these conditions by the priest of his Congregation stationed there, he alerted the Ladies of Charity of Paris, and sent a priest of his household, originally from Ireland, to go to their relief. The girls and widows were taken to the hospital of Saint Nicolas for lessons in spinning and sewing. The orphans were given special care, and each one clothed and helped. At first six hundred livres were sent from Paris, with many clothes and other things so badly needed. This aid continued from time to time, as the needs developed. The timely help given to these poor exiles lifted their saddened spirits. It prepared them to receive the instruction and exhortations of the missionaries who spoke to them in their own language twice a week in Lent, to prepare them for communion at Easter. Since nothing is stronger than good example, his devotion to these poor people aroused the charity of the townspeople, not only toward these poor strangers, but also toward everyone else in their town.

After three or four years of help to the two provinces of Picardy and Champagne, at the cost of nearly three hundred thousand livres, things began to improve for the people because the armies moved away and because they had received help. Monsieur Vincent recalled most of his priests, leaving only a few to continue their help until the signing of the general peace treaty. These few priests continued to help the poor, help in the repair of the churches, and to assist the priests and pastors. Moreover, one of those who remained, following the advice he received from Monsieur Vincent, formed a Confraternity of Charity of a certain number of the more charitable and better situated of the merchant class. They were to care for the sick, orphans, and other abandoned poor, under the guidance of some virtuous priests. He formed these associations in several towns, especially Reims, Rethel, Chateau-Porcien, La Fere, Ham, Saint Quentin, Rocroy, Mezieres, Charleville, Donchery, and other places, after first having them carry out these services to the poor. By his guidance and the regulations he left them, he enabled them to continue this good work for the relief of the poor.10

We would add to what we have said only some expressions of thanks, given in letters written to Monsieur Vincent by some of the leading persons of the places which had been helped. We will cite only a few, to confirm the truth of what has already been said.

Father Rainssant, canon regular of the order of Saint Augustine and pastor of the town of Ham, wrote:

The missionary you sent to this region has left me to look after the assembly of our pious citizens in favor of the poor. He left me grain and money to feed and keep the orphan girls who are taught a skill to help them earn their own livelihood. I teach them catechism, while a religious sister of the hospital teaches them to pray, and has them attend mass every day. They live together in the same house.

All the sick of the town are well cared for. A good doctor visits and prescribes all that is needed. We are careful to see that nothing is lacking. Our ladies are devoted to this service. I would never have dared hope to see in this poor town of Ham what I now see with great consolation and admiration, due solely to the divine and heavenly Providence of our Lord. Just recently we regained a poor girl from the hands of the heretics. She is now doing well. This motivated a Huguenot servant to come to me to be converted, seeing the care we take of the poor and the charity we show to the sick. We have instructed him enough, and in a few days he will make his abjuration.

This same missionary of yours has left me something to help the poor orphan boys and girls, and the sick poor of the villages which depend on our town of Ham. He has obtained two good and virtuous pastors to help me in this until his return. We owe all this good work to you, Monsieur, as the prime mover, after God.11

Monsieur de la Font, lieutenant general of Saint Quentin, wrote the following letter on the same topic:

The aid sent by the grace of God and your care to this province and so carefully distributed by those you commissioned, has given life to thousands of people reduced by the scourge of war to the last extremity. I must render you most humble thanks for all these people. We saw last week, during the movement of the troops, up to fourteen hundred poor refugees in this city fed each day from your alms. We still have more than a thousand, not counting those in the countryside, with nothing to eat except what is given them from your charity. This misery everywhere is so great no one remains in the villages, since there was only straw to lie upon. Those previously the most affluent were unable to find enough to live on. Some who once owned more than twenty thousand ecus, now need a piece of bread, and have gone two whole days without eating. I am obliged in my position, and by the sights I have seen, to beg you humbly to continue to be the father of this region, to save the lives of so many poor. Although they are languishing and dying, they are helped so worthily by your priests.12

Monsieur Simonnet, president and lieutenant general of Rethel, expressed his thanks in these words:

We may observe in the charity you show to us the original form of true Christian devotion, since in the primitive church the Christians had but a single heart, and would not allow any of their number to suffer the effects of poverty without coming to their aid. You, likewise, Monsieur, looked to the needs of the poor with such methodical zeal, using the priests of your Congregation, that you sent them to all the surrounding area. The poor there had been reduced to eating field grass and even eating dogs, as I have seen with my own eyes. These priests have saved the lives of an innumerable multitude, and have consoled and comforted others in their last agony. All this has been the fruit of your charity.13

Monsieur de Y, canon and later archdeacon of Reims, wrote the following letter:

I am happy to write to you to thank you in the name of the poor of our area for your generosity towards them, for without your help they would have died from hunger. To express the gratitude they have, I must tell you these poor people use the little strength they have to raise their arms to heaven, to call down on their benefactors the graces of the God of Mercy. The poverty of this province cannot be accurately described. Everything that has been said is inadequate to current conditions. You must believe the reports sent to you by your priests. Their zeal and fairness was so evident in the distribution of the alms you sent that it edified everyone. For myself, I thank you for having sent them to us and for the good example they have given us.14

The late Monsieur Souyn, bailiff of the city of Reims, wrote to Monsieur Vincent on this same topic:

I trust you have been shown the report I sent to Paris on the charitable work you have accomplished here, and the corporal and spiritual help you have given to the poor of the region. You did so in imitation of our divine master and savior, whose perfect imitator you become. Two of your priests came to this city. One came to pick up some money in alms, which he could not do in his usual place of residence for it was totally without resources. The other came to pick up some grain he had bought, to be taken to Saint Souplet for the poor of that town. Both worked under your direction at the relief of the most afflicted, while you continued to inspire the fire of divine charity throughout Picardy and Champagne for the relief of the poor.

I await the arrival of Monsieur N., to whom you have given the general direction of this great work, who will set up our winter headquarters. Meanwhile, I am looking after the hospitals and providing assistance to some poor pastors. Our storehouse of oats, set up by your help, is busy in making distributions during these bad times. Continue your charitable care, Monsieur. It preserves the mortal life of so many of the poor, and assures them eternal happiness by all the spiritual help they are given, particularly by the administration of the sacraments. This would cease in many places in our diocese if we did not have your help.15

We will pass over many other letters which contain similar expressions of gratitude. In concluding this chapter it is enough to say that since the beginning of the assistance to these two provinces until the signing of the general peace treaty,16 more than five hundred thousand livres in alms were sent from Paris, in money and in clothes, church furnishings, etc. At the direction of Monsieur Vincent, these alms were distributed with such order and prudence that they not only saved the lives of a countless number of poor, but also supported a large number of pastors in their parishes, who otherwise would have had to leave. Many pillaged and ruined churches were made fit to celebrate mass. Many, even some of the nobility, were rescued from imminent peril to what they held dearer than life itself. A place of refuge was found for a great number of orphans, totally abandoned by everyone else.

Lastly, the priests of the Mission contributed to the eternal salvation of a great number of souls, by the administration of the sacraments and by other spiritual helps when these were most needed.

One day, Monsieur Vincent reflected on these events:

We cannot think of the immense alms God inspired people to give without being filled with admiration: the alms, clothes, linens, blankets, dresses, shoes, etc., given for men, women, and children, and even for priests. Think of the number of albs, chasubles, missals, ciboria, chalices, and other church goods sent for the restoration of the churches, so ravaged that the celebration of the sacred mysteries and the other exercises of our Christian religion could never have been re-established without this help. Many of these churches had been given over completely to profane uses.

It was surely a spectacle to see the houses of the Ladies of Charity of Paris filled with all sorts of goods, looking for all the world like the storehouses of wholesale merchants! These women will undoubtedly have in heaven the crown of priests for their zeal and charity, to clothe Jesus Christ on his altars, in his priests, and in his poor suffering members.17

  1. CED IV:88.
  2. CED IV:131-32.
  3. CED IV:132-33.
  4. CED IV:181.
  5. CED V:87-88. Abelly has joined the two following fragments with this one.
  6. CED V:118.
  7. CED V:95.
  8. Edmond Deschamps.
  9. CED IV:143-44.
  10. One of the missionaries remaining in Picardy after the conclusion of the peace was Brother Jean Parre. He was one of the main and most devoted distributors of Vincent’s charity in the devastated provinces. For two years, Saint Vincent wrote him weekly. These letters, filled with charity and prudence, furnish the details on the distribution of the alms sent from Paris. The brother let no opportunity pass without soliciting help for the great needs of the region which he knew of. He was born at Chatillon-en-Dunois in the diocese of Chartres. He entered the Congregation, April 16, 1638. His death date is not recorded.
  11. CED V:333-34.
  12. CED V:377-78.
  13. CED IV:233.
  14. CED V:385.
  15. CED IV:260-61.
  16. The Peace of the Pyrenees.
  17. Dodin, Entrtiens 946-47.

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