Vincent de Paul, priest and philanthropist 05

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: E. K. Sanders · Year of first publication: 1915.
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Chapter IV: The ordening of charity

WE have glanced at the life within the walls of S. Lazare, and at the spread of its influence over the hidden things that touch the souls of men, but all the time that that inward life was developing the great world of Paris seethed and shouted within sight and hearing of the old building, and the tragedies that spring from disease and vice and negligence were being enacted hourly in the crowded streets of the city where the poor congregated. In his vocation as a priest M. Vincent held himself to be dedicated to the service of the Church, but, to his under­standing, the service of the Church was synonymous with the service of the poor. ” The poor our masters,” was a phrase constantly on his lips, and he regarded his prac­tical labour for that which would now be called social reform as not less spiritual than the endeavours that related directly to the Church.

In his dealing with the two great Companies he founded we shall, it is true, come closer to him in his personal character than in any other relation; but for proofs of his more visible and startling effectiveness it is necessary to turn away from the austere surroundings of his daily life, and regard that social world of Paris and the provinces which has so much both of likeness and of contrast to the social world of to-day.

The year which gave him the inspiration of his country Missions was also the year of his first great discovery in practical philanthropy. This last was made during his brief ministry at Châtillon, and the occasion of it reveals the simple methods of the charitable 30o years ago, and is therefore worthy of record. The monastic system of giving food at stated times to all who asked for it not only encouraged mendicity, but checked any attempt at rational application of relief. It prevented real destitu­tion, however, and so long as the religious Orders remained wealthy and generous the problem of poverty was kept in abeyance. But the civil wars of the sixteenth century reduced all revenues, and the wide flow of charity dwindled to a trickle that seldom reached those who most needed it. In this notable instance at Châtillon a whole family in a farmhouse were so laid low by illness that they reached the border of starvation. As M. Vincent was about to preach on a Saint’s day, a description of the miserable plight of these persons was given him, and in the course of his sermon he made an appeal on their behalf to his congregation. Then, after Vespers that same evening, he set out to visit the unfortunate family himself. The farm was about three miles distant, and at intervals along the road he met groups of his flock at Châtillon returning homewards, while others, overcome by heat or fatigue, rested under trees by the wayside. It appeared that most of those who had heard his appeal had responded to it in the most practical manner, and started there and then to relieve the wants of the sufferers.

No better object-lesson to expound the necessity of organization in the giving of charity could have been devised. The family at the farm could not consume more than a small fraction of the food that had been lavished upon them; the surplus was inevitably wasted, and in a few days their want would have been as great as before if M. Vincent had not taken their case in hand. From this experience came his idea of the Confraternities. In the Archives of Châtillon may be found the rules of M. Vincent’s first Confraternity of Charity. Any woman —so long as she was a Catholic—might belong to it if she had the consent of the male relation who claimed authority over her movements. Officials were to be elected from among them, and they were all to be under the authority of the curé. Their first duty was the care of the sick, their second the relief of poverty. ” The Servant of the Poor will do her nursing lovingly, as though she tended her own son,” so ran M. Vincent’s recommen­dation. The idea of the early Christian Community was to be revived, so that poverty might lose all shadow of shame, and the rich be only fortunate because of their greater opportunity for giving.

As we have seen, M. Vincent’s coming had meant a great awakening at Châtillon. Capacities that had seemed paralyzed were stirred, ideas undreamed of were suggested, to many of his flock the reason of their being seemed to have altered. It was well for them that, with their new awakening, there opened for them a new field of interest. Imbued with M. Vincent’s idea of the claim that life made upon a Christian, they turned with zeal to the practical service of their neighbour ; and afterwards the inward work of a Mission, wherever held, was never felt to be complete if it had not resulted in the outward activities of an established Confraternity.

But in a small country town, far from any of the populous centres, it was not difficult for M. Vincent to instil the practical observance of the Christian rules of brotherhood and fellowship, and the idea of the Confra­ternities, properly carried out, was a satisfactory solution of the problem of almsgiving. It was in the cities that the question assumed an entirely different aspect.

At Macon, a little later, M. Vincent beheld pauperism in its most degraded forms. He was passing through on his way elsewhere when his attention was arrested by the enormous number of beggars who infested streets and churches. They were of the most depraved and aban­doned type, without any desire for improvement, and his religious instinct was specially offended by their presence in the churches, where they were heedless of all reverence for holy things. There seems to have flashed upon him, as with the force of a sudden revelation, the sense that he could find a remedy. Instead of continuing his journey, he asked for further hospitality from the Fathers of the Oratory, and remained with them three weeks. It was Père Desmoulins, their Superior, who put on record what was accomplished in that time1. M. Vin­cent began by the practical measure of drawing up a register of all indigent persons in the town. (And here it should be noted that the Patron Saint of Charity was opposed to promiscuous almsgiving. He considered that the able-bodied were in need of work as well as of food, and created useless labour for them rather than leave them unemployed. It is told of him2 that he utilized a tract of marshy ground near Paris that had been given to the Company to occupy the men who begged of him in the streets. They were set to dig a deep ditch at fifteen sols for the day’s work. In course of time the job was completed, and the overseers came to M. Vincent for instructions. He had never wanted the ditch, and he still wanted to provide employment, therefore he directed that a second ditch should be made alongside, and the first filled up. Economically, such a system is unsound, but M. Vincent’s action proves that he did not sanction the old monastic custom of free giving.) When he had ascertained the numbers with which he had to deal, he arranged that assistance should be given on fixed days to those in need ; but if they were found begging in street or church, they were to be punished and the alms withheld. For those who passed through the town lodging for one night only and two sols were to be provided. For the aged and the sick he recommended ample and generous provision.

Organization at Macon demanded virile qualities, and M. Vincent founded a Confraternity of men. It was their business to distribute relief, to watch over the shelter given to vagrants, and to arrange that destitute children should be taught a trade. A Confraternity of women on the usual lines was founded also, but the duties of each were distinct. We shall find that the associations of men for the protection of the faith and the assistance of the poor which were being formed in all parts of France at this time were not the direct result of the work of M. Vincent, but at Macon he was responsible for a com­plete reconstitution of the social conditions of the town. ” So well did he manage both small and great,” says Père Desmoulins, ” that everyone was eager to contribute in money or in kind, so that nearly 30o poor obtained sufficient provision.”

Ignorance as well as poverty seems to have reached an extreme in the city of Macon. The beggars, old and young, with whom M. Vincent held conversation had not the most elementary knowledge of religion, but he left a special charge that they should be taught and given an incentive to lead a better life.

Macon itself did not have a second visit from M. Vin­cent, but he took away from it a provision of experience that was afterwards of infinite use to him.

There awaited him in Paris so many problems to be solved, so many abuses to be faced and conquered, that if in his provincial experience he could have looked for­ward, it would seem that even his high courage must have been daunted. But with the vast array of difficulties there awaited him also such a measure of support as could not be foretold. The description of his capacity for managing others given by Père Desmoulins shows us the key to a part at least of his power. In response to his touch, purses were opened and personal service offered, not only conscientiously, but eagerly. To regard him as the wise dispenser of charity is to catch but a narrow glimpse of him. He was essentially the inspirer of others, and none of the sick and starving people for whom he laboured owed more to him than did the great ladies of his day in Paris. It was his part to wake them, as he had wakened the frivolous women of Châtillon, and then to see that the work they undertook was really for the service of God and of His poor. Among all the changes and chances of those turbulent times, his task was not a light one; but method and means grew as he needed them, and his miraculous achievements in the midst of war and famine were brought to pass without evidence of sensation or excitement.

The amateur enterprise destined to have such immense results was first set in motion by the needs of the patients at the Hôtel Dieu. The great hospital that still stands at the very centre of ancient Paris was—as its name denotes—a definitely religious institution. By regula­tions that were drawn up in 1227, careful provision was made for the lives of those who served the sick within its walls3. These were to be limited to thirty lay brothers, four priests, four clerks, and twenty-five sisters. They took vows of chastity and renounced their goods, and were under obedience to the Chapter of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Three centuries later the thirty lay brothers were replaced by Religious of the Order of S. Victor, and the Sisters seem also to have been under a definite religious Rule. Probably the original institution required modification to suit the times, but though the provisions for the staff were altered, those which con­cerned the patients remained.

Now the pious souls who were responsible for the original foundation of the Hôtel Dieu attached more importance to spiritual than to temporal needs, but they approached the difficult question of combining the two with a simplicity that may move the religious philan­thropist of later times to envy. A sick person desiring the tendance the Hôtel Dieu offered must make confession and receive the Blessed Sacrament. After that, he would be regarded as master of the house; before, he would not be able to claim any assistance. The theory that lay behind the rule was pure, but its purity was impossible to preserve in practice. About 25,000 patients passed through the great hospital in the course of a year, ad­herence to the rule became a mere formality, and the formality was sacrilegious. When an abuse of this kind is of long continuance, interference demands great courage, and the criticism of the established work of other religious bodies was a task which M. Vincent at all times declined. The mission to the Hôtel Dieu associated with his name was actually the work of one of those intrepid women who become oblivious of all other considerations in a passion of desire for one particular reform.

In 1634, Mme. Goussaulte, wife of a well-known magistrate, discovered the light usage of the Sacraments at the Hôtel Dieu, and was appalled. She went in haste to M. Vincent. The evils she saw were so flagrant, and, in her estimation, productive of such poison to the souls of all concerned, that she was assured that the Superior of S. Lazare would intervene. But he, characteristically, deprecated any idea of responsibility for what might occur at the Hôtel Dieu.

” I have neither position nor authority to check abuses which may exist there as they exist everywhere else,” is the answer attributed to him. ” One must hope that those who undertake the management of this great insti­tution will make the alterations that are needed.”

The reply had sufficient finality (coming from a priest of M. Vincent’s standing) to check even the reforming energies of an enthusiastic woman. But Mme. Gous-saulte’s enthusiasm was very deeply rooted, and she would not be daunted. She turned (as Mme. de Gondi had done) from the hopeless task of persuading M. Vincent to the comparatively easy one of cajoling his ecclesiastical Superior. In due course the Archbishop of Paris wrote to Vincent de Paul, urging that he should make an effort to ameliorate the lot of the patients at the Hôtel Dieu.

M. Vincent was as ready in obedience as he was back­ward in interference. He set himself at once to study the need that was to be met, and organize a scheme for meeting it, and in this connection he made his first real appeal for help to the great ladies of Paris. He sum­moned them together at the house of Mme. Goussaulte that he might tell them what he wanted. The assembly seems to have resembled the drawing-room meeting of the twentieth century, but it was aided by the magic of the unusual as much as by the convincing reality of need. Those who listened responded with a precipitation which was not in keeping with the maxims of M. Vincent ; but though the first form of their response was afterwards modified, there is no evidence that many of them repented of their haste. If there were a few who enlisted under the charm of novelty, and then fell away, their unworthi­ness may be left in oblivion.

There was no vagueness about the purpose of these ladies. The sufferers in the great hospital and the sick poor in Paris were in sore need of comfort, corporal and spiritual. For their assistance a guild was formed, and three officers duly elected—Superior, Treasurer, and a Keeper of the Wardrobe—who was to have charge of stores other than money. The guild bore some resemblance to the Confraternities that had long been in existence, but it had essential differences in its constitution, and must not be regarded as only an aristocratic form of the same movement.

Vincent de Paul regarded this new development with the deepest satisfaction. He described it in glowing terms to M. du Coudray, his representative at Rome, and betrayed at the same time a simplicity which suggests that as the years passed his experience of the realities of human nature would deepen. There were, he says, about 120 ladies of quality in this new Association, who went in parties of four to cheer the sick, taking them soup and jellies and other luxuries, in addition to their ordinary rations. Some 800 invalids were given comfort of this sort, and this, he adds, is done to incline them to make a general confession of their past life, that those who are dying may be well prepared to leave this world, and those who recover may begin life again with good resolutions.

It is plain that the persuasive methods of these ladies were not free from the element of bribery. We shall see that this difficulty arose and was faced during M. Oiler’s parochial labours at S. Sulpice. But at the Hôtel Dieu the original abuse had been so immense that the Ladies of Charity, with their soup and jellies and soft words, were a lesser evil. Their charitable purpose, moreover, was supported by a personal sympathy that was abso­lutely sincere, and hearts hardened by long adversity and the injustice of the ordinary world may have been touched into reality by contact with love of a kind never before experienced. There were no rival possibilities of profes­sion, moreover, no struggle between sects where those who had most to offer might gain most adherents. The Huguenots, if they gained admission, gained it by a fraud that must have been very easy to discover. The patients were Catholics, and therefore in all of them the faith was there, dormant. The influence of good suggestion might be transient, but that which responded to it was a part of themselves; they were not summoned to accept a novelty, but were recalled to recognition of their in­heritance.

The work of the Ladies of Charity at the Hôtel Dieu was, as a whole, a magnificent object-lesson in the possi­bilities of real charitable effort. M. Vincent’s influence guided them clear of the pitfalls lying ready for ignorance and excessive zeal, and smoothed the difficulties between the newcomers, in their first glow of enthusiasm, and the Grey Sisters, who had tended the patients of the Hôtel Dieu for so many years that their work of charity had become a matter of routine. But though the beginning was admirable, the drawbacks that attend amateur philanthropy soon became apparent, and the Members of the Association of Ladies of Charity ceased to be regular in the fulfilment of the duties they had undertaken. It was natural that a great lady who had been stirred by the new and beautiful idea of serving Christ in the persons of His poor should discover—with the subsidence of first fervour—that delicate fingers were less capable of service than stronger and rougher ones, and that her novel occupation could only be regarded as an interlude in the employments and amusements of ordinary life. Good­will towards the objects of their charity remained un­altered, but reasons of health, interference of husbands, claims of Court duties, intervened ; there were a thousand reasons against fulfilling their tasks themselves, and many of them turned to the obvious resource of the wealthy and paid a substitute. It was easy to send a servant when it was very difficult to go in person ; but that which had been a glorious work of piety to the mis­tress was, unfortunately, only a disagreeable duty to the maid. Very little profit accrued to anyone from visits or from gifts, and the fire of Mme. Goussaulte’s great scheme bade fair to flicker down into dull and uninspired ashes.

It is at this point—in 1638—that the world of Paris had its first real knowledge of the Sisters of Charity, or Servants of the Poor. In a quiet house in the parish of S. Nicholas Chardonnet, Mlle. Le Gras (the widow of a Secretary of Marie de Médici) had gathered round her a small number of young women from the country to aid her in her own efforts for the service of the poor. She herself had long been working under the direction of M. Vincent, and the story of their friendship belongs to the record of his deeper and more intimate life. The needs of the poor around her had been her inducement to seek helpers, and because the tasks required of them were laborious and homely, her helpers were of the lower class; but in gathering them she had no great scheme in hand, only the fulfilment of a pressing and immediate claim.

M. Vincent, confronted by the instability of great ladies, turned to these unpretentious Servants of the Poor, and called on them to carry on the work their more favoured sisters had discovered, but not sustained. Mlle. Le Gras reorganized the scheme of Mme. Goussaulte, eager in­terest and liberal funds were forthcoming, and the Com­pany of the Sisters of the Poor justified its existence.

It was many years before their Founder sought for them the sanction of the Church, but their actual growth was extraordinarily rapid. The numerous and inevitable failures of the Confraternities and the weaknesses of the Ladies of Charity demanded the settled force of a trained band of workers pledged to regular service, if the fruit of many fine and high aspirations was to benefit the people. The experience of Mlle. Le Gras had convinced her that the work that needed doing could only be done by women of dedicated life, that the spiritual responsibility entailed was too heavy to be borne by persons of divided interests. ” It is of little good for us to hurry about the streets with bowls of soup,” she said, ” and do such service as regards the body, if we do not look on the Son of God as the object of our effort. If we lose hold—ever so little—on the idea that the poor are members of Him, inevitably our love for them grows less.”

The root of their strength and influence lay in that suggestion. Their method of approach to the poor they tended, whether at home or in the hospitals, was a novelty, and they were recognized as doing good in the Name of Christ. They were homely persons, not endowed either with eloquence or education ; if they made converts, they did it not by their words, but by their lives. Nor were their first beginnings attended by any excitement or applause. The degrees by which Mlle. Le Gras formed them into a Sisterhood are indeed hardly perceptible. We may take the year 1629 as that of the first arrival of helpers at her house, and eleven years later they were given a permanent Rule; but at the outset their future as a Community was not considered, each of the little band was to be content with a sense of individual consecration. Before the giving of their Rule they had made their head­quarters at La Chapelle, outside the gates of Paris, the private house of Mlle. Le Gras being too small for them, and, while there, the Company was joined by some of those Sisters whose devotion and endurance—proved amid the terrors of civil war and invasion—laid the first stones of its reputation.

The Sisters of that first generation were, almost without exception, of the lower middle class ; among them were peasants of special capability, but novices of noble blood were not accepted. This rule was afterwards modified, and the standard of service was not lowered because there were women of high lineage among the Servants of the Poor, but its existence at the beginning defended the Company from the invasion of persons to whom novelty was an attraction. Complete obedience and unity of purpose were necessary, for in times of great distress it was often their difficult task to organize and administer relief, and in the seventeenth century the problem of destitution was no less pressing than in the twentieth, while the laws and machinery of charity had not come into being.

The problem that made sharpest appeal to the hearts and minds of the Ladies of Charity was that most difficult one of the habitual vagrant. That which had been a remediable disorder in a provincial town, such as Macon, assumed a more sinister aspect in the capital. Any semblance of protection for the public that had existed during the reigns of Henri IV. and Louis XIII. was extinguished during the War of the Fronde, and as soon as the daylight hours were over the streets could not be traversed by a peaceful citizen without the gravest danger to life. The testimonies to this condition of things are countless. If we go no farther than the writings of Boileau or Gui Patin, we may find it graphically depicted. No doubt many of the robberies were com­mitted by the soldiery or the lawless servants attached to the households of the nobility, but the difficulty of dealing with the question was greatly increased by the hosts of homeless persons who crowded the streets, living on alms which were often extorted by force. An individual malefactor of whatever degree was impossible to trace amid a crowd which was a species of nursery for the galleys, and it was generally accepted that an able-bodied beggar only required opportunity to change from sup­plicant to robber. The citizens were so habituated to their danger from these marauders that they seem to have recognized them as possessors of certain rights4. There were places of refuge scattered about Paris where the beggars might congregate unmolested, and which came to be forcing-houses for every species of crime. There were companies of beggars having different head­quarters and a species of organization to aid them in preying on society, and the evil—a lamentable one even on the smallest scale—grew with alarming rapidity. When justice continually miscarried, and the general distress was so great that honest men and their families perished of want, the incentive to vagabondage is obvious, and the first deliberate effort to check the spread of this infection does not seem to have been made until in 1667 Colbert appointed Nicolas de la Reynie Lieutenant of Police, and under his supervision the beggars’ sanc­tuaries were raided, and that simple expedient for the safety of the public, the lighting of the streets, was in­troduced. Summary justice by drastic means purged the city of a disease that undermined its prosperity, and which, being once cured, was cured for ever.

But there are symptoms of debility hardly less dangerous that cannot be disposed of by violent remedy, and are not expelled from the system by the natural process of civilization. Laws wisely made and carefully adminis­tered may be successful in checking crime and in dimin­ishing the number of the criminals, but though moral deficiency may be thus dealt with, no law has yet been made that will lessen the number of victims to another evil that is hardly separable. In every community there exists a race of persons who may be classed as Nature’s failures. Deficient in some faculty, and yet not so en­tirely deprived as to be the objects of charitable effort ; seeing but dimly, hearing indistinctly, yet not blind or deaf ; limping and misshapen, with speech that is only half articulate, yet not either a cripple or a mute—these unlucky beings start in their race heavily handicapped, and in most cases lose even the humble place they might have won for lack of courage to compete against the odds. Add to their numbers the melancholy company of those whose mental faculties are shortened, whose will-power is not systematically controlled by any reasoning process, yet who are not within measurable distance of insanity—the aggregate presents the hardest problem that can con­front the student of social questions.. Because the line of division is so hard to draw betwixt deficiency and indolence, and mental weakness verges so closely upon criminal intention, therefore indulgence towards ineffi­ciency tends to widen the ranks of wastrels, while ordinary justice applied where the sense of responsibility is only half defined becomes inhuman.

London in the twentieth century groans under the ravages of the disease, and finds no remedy. Paris nearly 300 years ago was less resigned and more courageous. In a city whose total population was much under 500,000 there were, in 165o5, 40,000 beggars. The law, by making vagrancy a crime, had already done what it could to cope with the difficulty. In January, 15456, an edict was passed forbidding anyone to beg on penalty of a whipping, the second offence to be punished with perpetual imprisonment; and at the time some attempt must have been made to enforce it, as we hear of a difficulty touching the care of children whose parents —as second offenders—were thus summarily disposed of. The same edict required the regular distribution of alms to the sick poor. Both provisions became a dead letter, the latter probably from lack of funds, the former from the obvious impossibilities attaching to it at a time when the prisons were constantly overcrowded, and the State could not afford to feed those whom it debarred from seeking for support.

The enterprises of Vincent de Paul in many directions had prospered so amazingly that it was a natural instinct in those whose eyes were opened to the degraded and dangerous position of the street beggars to turn to him for direction in their hard effort. The Ladies of Charity seem to have attributed to him an almost miraculous power, and had no misgivings as to success in their stupendous task, provided they might rely upon his guidance. M. Vincent knew more than they did, and was more anxious that any scheme of this kind should be allowed time to mellow than that it should receive speedy acceptance and popular support. But the Ladies of Charity were not under obedience, and they were full of fervour. His efforts to control them were only par­tially successful, and eventually M. Vincent decided to go with the tide rather than exhaust his influence in a futile attempt to stem it.

It is easy to imagine how the infection of pity—origin-ally suggested, probably, by some particularly miserable group shivering at a street corner—had spread among a society of wealthy women who had been for years en­couraged in the principles of charity by Vincent de Paul, and how they formed a plan for the extermination of cold and hunger, with very little notion of the vast issues that were involved. But M. Vincent had the experience they lacked, and knew that if the plan was to be effective it would eventually have to be carried out on a large scale. If he was forced to go with the current, he kept his hold upon the helm, and the result was due to his guidance rather than to the generous haste of the Ladies of Charity. He laid the matter before the Queen Regent, and obtained a grant of the build­ings and grounds known as La Salpêtrière, on the banks of the river opposite the Arsenal. At first the delight of the Ladies was great, and they had to be restrained from going out into the streets and driving every beggar whom they met into the home that was henceforward to await the homeless. M. Vincent exhorted them to begin on a small scale, and to go forward slowly, not only for reasons of prudence, but from the highest motive, that it was more reverent to wait for God’s fulfilment of their desire. Probably his arguments would have prevailed with them, as they had done before, even if the power of the law had not intervened and made patience a necessity. It was impossible to begin a charity of this description without reference to the magistrates, and to some of these the advantage of the plan was not self-evident. Something of the kind had been attempted under Henri IV., and had been very unsuccessful. It was two years before their objections were overcome, and when at length the expediency of the new idea was generally admitted, instead of giving permission to its originators to carry it out, the magis­trates undertook the matter themselves. The Ladies of Charity were loyal in support, but the actual result must have been very different from their dream. They had intended to be the hostesses of that wretched class who knew none of the happiness of a kindly welcome and gentle treatment, and the possibility that by such charity they might increase the numbers of those whose existence was as a wound to their soft hearts did not occur to them.

In fact, the Salpêtrière became the enforced retreat for beggars. All who asked for alms in the streets of Paris must go thither or leave the city; there was no other alternative, and it is probable that those who loved their freedom, and to whom custom had softened the hardship of a vagrant life, were not disposed to gratitude towards those benevolent ladies whose sugges­tions had so effectually deprived them of their liberty. But Paris had cause to bless M. Vincent, as Macon had blessed him many years earlier, for the fame of the new regulations reduced the number of homeless poor within its walls to 5,000, and these were no longer to be found inciting pity in the streets, but in the Hôpital Générale of La Salpêtrière, provided with such work as they were able to do. On May 7, 1657, it was given out in every pulpit in Paris that in a week the new order would begin, and the doors of the Salpêtrière were thrown open to all who cared to come. On the 13th, instead of the per­suasions of the Ladies of Charity, the insistence of the City Archers collected all who did not prefer to try their fortune in the country. The numbers for whom it was necessary to provide increased as time went on, and four establishments were required. In the main building young children, women, and 250 aged married couples (who were each provided with a room), were housed. Bicêtre was reserved for men of all ages. At Notre Dame de la Pitié were boys under twelve, and the establishment of S. Marthe de Scipion was used for the offices of the com­missariat, necessarily on a vast scale for this enormous colony. It was provided by the regulations that the children should be educated and taught to work, while all able-bodied men and women should be obliged to do their share of labour7.

The Ladies of Charity had complained at the dilatory methods of the magistrates; they had been obliged to exercise patience for two years, and endure the thought that hundreds of men, women, and children were exposed to rain, wind, or frost night after night throughout two winters within the immediate neighbourhood of their own well-appointed homes; they thought the delay un­necessarily prolonged, but posterity is astonished at the precipitation with which so immense a scheme was launched. M. Vincent’s position towards it is a curious one. He, whose choice of action was ruled always by the spirit of caution, was possessed of fuller knowledge of the difficulties of this enterprise than any of the officials of the law. Before La Salpêtrière was actually opened he wrote to a friend that ” Begging is to be abolished in Paris, and the poor all gathered together in a place specially prepared for them, and taught and set to work. This is a great undertaking, and very difficult, but by the grace of God it seems to promise well, and everyone applauds it.” Yet his hopefulness was tem­pered with misgiving. It was true that this huge affair had sprung from the plan concerted between himself and the Ladies of Charity, and that the poor folk were to have special facilities for receiving instruction as well as for useful employment. Ostensibly, the lines he had laid down were followed, and in the letter already re­ferred to he says that he finds himself and his Mission Priests appointed as the spiritual guardians of the new institution, while the Sisters of Charity were to be the recognized servants of the poor thus congregated. Col­bert, as representative of the King, was ready to defer to M. Vincent, and to undertake that this work should be done for the advancement of the kingdom of God. Such a foundation for such a purpose would seem to be ideal, yet he who was its originator hung back. Neither he nor any of his Company were to be found in the vast halls of the Hôpital Générale attempting to bring those messages of hope which they loved to carry to the most miserable. Yet they never shrank from labour, and their hearers would have been pre-eminently of the class which it was their mission to serve. The explanation may per­haps lie in the element of compulsion, which was an essential part of the system. For one week only had there been a chance of accepting an offer, made in the name of charity, by free-will; afterwards force had stepped in.

M. Vincent was the apostle of charity. Many years of experience had taught him an understanding of the poor man’s point of view—an equipment seldom possessed or desired by those who have to regulate the poor man’s lot—and the indiscriminate treatment of vast numbers is not compatible with that respect for the individual which, according to M. Vincent’s theory, is the right of every Christian. Before many years had passed there were instances of men guilty of the worst offences being sent to the Hôpital Générale to share the lot of those whose only crime was poverty, and, although M. Vincent could not foresee all this in detail, a long life had given him the opportunity of studying the tendencies of popular movements, and he had reason for grave misgiving.

He had already, with a sum of money given to him, founded the hospital known as Le Nom de Jésus for forty aged and penniless persons, and tradition says that the benefits there bestowed nourished the souls no less than the bodies of the inmates. So far as in this later case his own ideas took form, they suggest that he meant to persuade the poor and miserable to accept shelter, with the sincere intention of working for their spiritual benefit, and that their removal from the streets by force because their presence was undesirable was not a measure consis­tent with any of his theories. M. Vincent did not regard the most hopeless wastrel as beyond reach of the grace of God; he believed each one might be turned into a loving servant of the Master whom he served himself. But it is not astonishing if his plans appeared fantastic and impracticable. To have tested them by lending them the support of all the law’s machinery would have meant on the part of the magistrates a faith in God’s guidance of affairs equal to his own—an unimaginable consumma­tion. Yet without the law’s support no adequate measures could have been taken against this particular species of distress. La Salpêtrière was therefore, humanly speaking, the best provision possible for a class in itself degraded and notably dangerous to others ; and its effect was found to be so greatly for the benefit of the State that similar institu­tions were founded throughout the provinces. M. Vincent, loving his country as he did, rejoiced, one may be sure, at all the good that had been by this means allowed to come to it, and, as was his method, could resign into the hands of God that scheme of loving-kindness which was not to be fulfilled.

The attention attracted by the opening of the Hôpital Générale may have gone farther than its original object, so that a little of the melancholy knowledge with which M. Vincent and those about him had long been familiar became public property. To ascertain the immense number of the homeless poor in Paris was to open the door to speculations that went far beyond the evil indi­cated by the fact itself. We have seen that, a century earlier, compliance with the edict of 1545 respecting mendicants had thrown the care of the children of im­prisoned beggars upon the State, and it may easily be understood that the greater the difficulty in obtaining the means of living, the less welcome did a child become to parents of the necessitous class. In the dark and crowded streets there was no difficulty in depositing a child where it was not altogether hidden and in escaping before the desertion was observed. This practice became so common that, in 15528, a law was passed providing that all infants found in the streets should be brought to the Hospital of the Trinity and placed in the charge of a woman especially appointed for the care of them. A little later, further and more elaborate arrangements were made for their benefit, and two houses in the Rue S. Landry9 were rented for their reception. A sort of committee was appointed, and the actual supervision entrusted to three married women of the respectable middle class. The treatment of the question seems to have been well considered and humane, but, once dis­posed of, was allowed to pass out of the range of public interest. The number of the unfortunate babies found in the street increased as the years passed, but the sup­plies for their support did not increase in proportion. In the year 163810, the house in the Rue S. Landry was occupied by ” a certain widow,” who, with two servants under her, received and disposed of some 40o babies annually. It appears to be generally admitted by con­temporary chroniclers that of these the only survivors were those who were bought and nefariously substituted for others who had died. The rest were exterminated by various methods, most often by administering a soothing draught which effectually quieted their cries; but as they were sold to any buyer for a very small sum—about a franc—there were some whose fate was far less merciful.

The most familiar and the most picturesque presenta­tion of Vincent de Paul commemorates his action with regard to the deserted children of Paris. The suggestion that he rescued individual children and carried them through the streets to a haven of care and kindness is not borne out by evidence; but, if inaccurate in detail, it is founded on reality. In a very true sense he carried the foundlings from certain death to safe protection. The varied avocations of the Superior of S. Lazare took him to every part of Paris, and brought him into contact with all sorts and conditions of persons. In course of time his attention was directed to the horrible system in use at the Couche S. Landry. So abominable were the prac­tices of the widow and her servants that it is hard to understand M. Vincent’s delay in dealing with her. There was no sudden raid and summary expulsion of the offenders. M. Vincent adhered to his law of prudence, and by degrees withdrew the unhappy infants from hands unworthy to have care of them without any public sensation or excitement. Eventually he abolished the horror and organized a noble substitute, but he medi­tated on the best method of advance, and waited for God’s guidance long after he discovered the abuse, and when he began to act it was very slowly.

The Ladies of Charity were sentimental as well as generous, and here sentiment had full scope. He could rely on their support of his new enterprise. Each child rescued from the couche in the Rue S. Landry was saved from death, and—as they were all believed to be un-baptized—their salvation appeared to a true daughter of the Church to be not only for time, but also for eternity. A house was hired and made ready outside the Porte S. Victor, in the near neighbourhood of the Collège des Bons Enfants, and as a beginning twelve babies were established under the care of the Sisters of Charity. It seems to have been generally understood that this foundation was specially dear to the heart of M. Vincent. It is told of him that he would appear among the babies at all sorts of unexpected times, that he knew each individually, and mourned the death of any of them with a definite regret. That his adopted family should in­crease and the house in the Rue S. Landry become tenantless was his constant desire, and even the liberality of the Ladies of Charity could not keep pace with his enthusiasm.

If we remember that when the foundlings were under normal conditions the mortality among them was no longer great, and that almost every day brought a fresh claim, it is easy to understand that the most generous of women might draw back from so immense a burden. But M. Vincent’s persuasions at length proved irre­sistible; those who already gave so much taxed themselves further, and the Ladies and the Sisters of Charity undertook the entire charge of the foundlings in Paris. The Queen’s interest was aroused, and a subscription came from the royal purse. Mme. de Miramion, one of the most notable of that large-hearted band without whose help M. Vincent’s reforms must often have been baulked, gave lavishly, and the scheme was definitely set on foot.

For thirty years this immense burden was supported by those who made of it a labour of love. There could be no stronger tribute to the power that M. Vincent wielded than the fact of their perseverance in it. To him the life of each one of these children was precious.

There was, it must be acknowledged, a moment of crisis when the work had lost all novelty and the hearts of those who supported it were stirred by the miseries of the starving people in Lorraine. Money was needed to save those who suffered from the horrors of an invaded territory, and money that was spent in one direction could not be given in another. The expense of the foundlings was steadily on the increase; they were cost­ing 40,000 Iivres, and the Ladies of Charity were looking towards other fields.

M. Vincent summoned one of those assemblies which, under his management, seldom failed to fulfil their purpose. He gathered his Ladies of Charity and repre­sented to them the necessity of a definite decision.

” You are free, ladies,” he said; ” but before you make up your minds I ask you to consider what it is you have done, and what it is you are going to do. Your loving care has preserved the lives of a great number of children, who, without your help, would have been lost in time, and, it may be, also in eternity. These innocent beings have learnt as their first lesson to know and to serve God. Some of them are beginning to work and to be independent of anyone’s assistance. So good a beginning surely foretells results that will be even better.” But on this occasion the Ladies of Charity were unusually hard to convince, and M. Vincent was moved to make an appeal which has become celebrated. ” Remember, ladies,” he said, ” that out of compassion and charity you adopted these little ones as your children. You have been their mothers by grace ever since their natural mothers de­serted them. Make up your minds now if you will desert them also. You must cease to be their mothers and become their judges. It is for you to say whether they are to live or die. I will ask you to give your votes; it is time to pronounce sentence on them and to make sure that you have no mercy to spare for them. They live if you continue to take care of them; they must (on the other hand) perish inevitably if you give them up. It is impossible to deny what you know by experience to be true.”

M. Vincent won his cause; the resources of the Ladies of Charity were taxed a little farther, and the Foundling Hospital continued.

Not until 167o did the State resume its responsibility. The foundlings were provided for on the same founda­tion as the children of the Hospital of the Trinity, and the two establishments in the Faubourg S. Antoine and in the vicinity of the Hôtel Dieu ceased to depend on voluntary support. The relief to the resources of the Ladies of Charity was great, but so closely had their charge become interwoven with their life that, when it was withdrawn, they were resentful, and only resumed their visits to the children after a considerable interval. By that time M. Vincent himself had been dead for nearly ten years, and that extraordinary fervour of personal love and personal service which animated all who were within the range of his influence had become no more than a memory in the minds of a few. The principle of charity remained and bore good fruit, but the idea that Christ Himself was to be found in every suffering atom of humanity was no longer a burning truth that made all counter-argument or calculation frivolous. And the future of the foundlings was therefore safest with State officials who would now be impelled to do their duty by an awakened and watchful public.

  1. Abelli., vol. i., chap. xvi.
  2. See Revue des Deux Mondes, Mai, 1894: ” L’Assistance par le Travail,” Comte d’Haussonville.
  3. Félibien, “Hist. de la Ville de Paris,” liv. viii.
  4. See Caillet, ” De l’Administration en France sous Richelieu.”
  5. Félibien, ” Hist. de la Ville de Paris,” liv. xxix.
  6. Ibid., liv. xx.
  7. Félibien, “Hist. de la Ville de Paris,” liv. xxix.
  8. Félibien, ” Hist. de la Ville de Paris,” liv. xx.
  9. On “l’Ile de la Cité”near Notre Dame.
  10. Félibien, ” Hist. de la Ville de Paris,” liv. xx.

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