Vincent Getting Away For Short Breaks

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Tom Davitt, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2009 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.
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Quite a number of years ago a confrere, in conversation, pointed out something which has stuck in my mind ever since. He remarked that Vincent was always the senior confrere in the community, apart from the short period when René Alméras, père, (1575-1658), was a seminarist, 02 March 1657 to 04 January 1658. He was always superior, or later superior general. The point being made by the confrere was that the only way Vincent related to other confreres was as their superior.

In the Common Rules, ch.VI, §3, he wrote that sick confreres “should be completely obedient to doctors and chaplains, as well as to the nurse and anyone else involved in their care”.

Vincent himself obeyed this idea, even before the Rules were written. Vincent and other confreres used to go to Forges-les-Eaux, a famous thermal spa in Normandy, still popular today. In the late 1620s Vincent tells Louise that it had been suggested to him, and he was urged to act on the suggestion, that he go to the spa the following day; the doctor advises him to go (29). The indication would seem to be that he was stricken with one of his periodic bouts of malaria. Coste dates this letter as between 1626 and 1629. In a later letter, dated by Coste as between 1636 and 1648, he tells Louise that spa waters have never done his fever any good, either in Forges or at home (394).

In 1630 an important figure, Brother Alexandre Véronne, (1610-1686), comes on the scene. He was born in Avignon. His father died when Alexandre was quite young, and his mother married again. Her new husband was a doctor, and he taught his stepson the rudiments of medicine and pharmacology. At the age of about fifteen he went up to Paris and worked in the Collège des Bons Enfants for five years before joining the new community in 16301. For the rest of his life he was the community infirmarian. When Alexandre told Vincent to do something with regard to health matters, Vincent obeyed. One of the things he was often told to do was to take a break down on the Saint-Lazare farm in Fréneville.


Fréneville is in the modern département of Seine-et-Oise, roughly seventy kilometers from Paris2. It was one of two farms given to Vincent by Madame la Présidente de Herse in 1635. She was a prominent Lady of Charity, and her name gets nearly half a page in the Index volume (XIV) of Vincent’s works. Vincent first mentions these two farms, though not by name, in a letter to Louise shortly after accepting the gift; he tells her he is going to take a look at them3. The first mention of Fréneville by name in his correspondence is in a letter dated 02 November 1636, which he writes to Louise from there on his way back from Orléans. He has no comment about the farm itself (248). As he received her letter there he must have been some time there already when he wrote. He mentions that he will be leaving in two or three days’ time. He writes to her again from Fréneville on 30 December 1636. He does not mention why he is there or whether he has been there all through November and December; it would seem more likely that he was on another visit there (258). At the end of April 1638 Antoine Portail is at the farm; Vincent wrote to him there from Paris. Only the end of the letter is extant, so we do not know why Portail was there (322).

On 8 May 1638 he wrote from Paris to François du Festel CM, and mentions at the end of the letter: “I have to leave this morning for Brie-Comte-Robert, and from there I’ll be able to go and have a break in Fréneville, getting home on the vigil of the Ascension”(322a)4.

The first letter from Fréneville in which he says he is there for his health is dated “The octave of Corpus Christi”, without giving the year. (In a footnote Coste says that the date was 10 June 1638). The letter is to Nicolas Marceille CM in Saint-Lazare, and Vincent draws on his own farming background to say: “you must not have the hay cut during the rainy weather, no matter what the workmen say”. He says he is going to take a laxative, unless something absolutely urgent necessitates his return to Paris (328).

On the same day he wrote to Jean Bécu CM, who was staying at the Gondi château in Montmirail, and gives the year as 1638. Bécu was giving a mission there and Vincent tells him that exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is not a universal custom, and Bécu is to fall in with the local usage. Towards the end of the letter Vincent says he is in Fréneville “with my little fever, by order of Alexandre” (329).

Fréneville Revisited

In the extant letters there is no further mention of Fréneville until 05 October 1644, when Vincent writes from Richelieu, where he was conducting a visitation, to Antoine Portail in Paris. Portail is to send 400 livres to Fréneville to pay the farmer for harvesting the corn. He says he found things in a mess in Richelieu, and will not be able to get away for three or four days. If there is any urgent need to contact him he will be in Fréneville on the 15th (725).

On the 14th he writes to Portail again, this time from Fréneville; he arrived the previous evening, in good form except for some problem with his teeth, which is clearing up. He is not sure whether he should go on to Fontainebleau, where the court is (727).

On the next day he is still in Fréneville, and writes another letter to Portail. He refers to two students in Paris, whose health was giving cause for anxiety, but he was confident that Brother Alexandre was taking good care of them. One was Firmin Get, whose ordination was postponed. He later became a very prominent confrere and died in 1682; the other one died some months after Vincent’s letter. He says he himself is unwell, but hopes to leave for Fontainebleau in a few days time if his state of health allows him. He sends back a letter he had received from François Grimal, and asks Brother Alexandre to do what Grimal is asking about the bedclothes5.

On the 14th, before the two letters to Portail, he wrote to Jean Dehorgny in Rome (726). He thanks him for forwarding two letters; one of them was for the late Antoine Dufour, who had died earlier in the year. Coste has a very interesting footnote about Antoine Dufour (1613-1644). In 1643-44 he was superior in the Collège des Bons Enfants, and fell ill with some minor ailment, which was certainly not life-threatening. But he offered his own life in exchange for Vincent’s, whose state of health at the time was causing great worry. Abelly says that Vincent “had a serious and dangerous illness during 164[4]… The severity of this illness affected his brain and he was delirious for several hours”. Dufour’s health deteriorated unexpectedly, while Vincent’s improved. According to Abelly, one night those who were keeping vigil at Vincent’s bedside in Saint-Lazare heard three raps at the door, but when the door was opened there was not anybody there. Vincent interpreted this as a sign and sent for a student and asked him to pray part of the Office of the Dead; Dufour had just died elsewhere in the house6.

On the 21st Vincent was still in Fréneville, and wrote again to Portail. It is very much a business letter, asking Portail to see to certain payments and other arrangements. Vincent says he hopes to leave for Chartres the following day, a Saturday, or on the Monday, and on the way he will inspect another farm which has been offered to the community. He hopes to arrive back in Paris on Thursday, or Friday at the latest. His final remark before his signature is that his health is quite good (728).

The next letter from Fréneville is dated almost three years later, 26 June 1647; it is to Louise de Marillac. There is no indication in it why he is there, but he says he left Paris at such short notice that he had not had time to say good-bye to her. Perhaps Alexandre Véronne had ordered him away immediately. He expects to be back in Paris on Monday, or early on Tuesday, so obviously his stay was less than a week (965).

The next letter in which there is mention of Fréneville is un-dated, but Coste says it was written in October 1648; the reply to the letter shows this. It was written from Paris to Louise. He thanks her for some medicine which she had sent, and says he will use it. He had recently been in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the air there had done him good, and he felt better. He says he might go to Fréneville to visit the Daughters there; they had opened a house there the previous year. He says that the air there had always been good for his health. The several references to his health in this letter might indicate that Alexandre once again had intervened (1066).

Next we move on to February 1649; on the 4th he wrote to Louise from there. He tells her that he had been caught unawares by the sudden cold snap, and was unable to leave. He took the opportunity to give an impromptu mission sermon in neighbouring Valpuiseaux. It would probably have been around the start of Lent. He reports that the two Sisters have settled in. Once the weather improves he hopes to leave directly for Angers to visit the Sisters there (1088).

The following day, still in Fréneville, he wrote to Jacques Norais in Orsigny, an honorary royal secretary. He sympathises with him on the fact that Norais’ property in Orsigny had been looted, and mentions that what the Congregation’s farm there had suffered was nothing compared with what  Norais’ property has suffered (1089).

Nearly a week later he is still in Fréneville, from where he wrote to the Ladies of Charity on the 11th. He says that providence has separated him from them, but towards the end of the letter he explains that it is the cold weather that has kept him in Fréneville, not Alexandre. The letter deals with the problems caused to the Ladies by the internal political situation in France. More than six weeks earlier he had paid a visit to the court in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and after three or four days there he judged it prudent to absent himself from the capital, and make a round of all the houses of the Congregation, conducting visitations in each one. The spell of cold weather prolonged his stay at the farm (1090). He refers to the pillage of the Congregation’s farm in Orsigny.

He got away from there some days later and wrote from Orléans on the 25th to Denis Gautier, superior in Richelieu. He says the bad weather caused him to stay a month in Fréneville, but that he got away three days earlier. He again refers to the looting of the Orsigny farm, and that he had left Fréneville with a flock of two hundred and forty sheep saved from the Orsigny farm. He is heading for Le Mans to begin the visitation, and then intends going on to Angers in the hope of collecting some money which is due. From there he plans to go up to Brittany to the houses in Saint-Méen and Tréguier, returning via either Richelieu or Luçon. In Saint-Lazare the confreres are feeding two thousand poor people each day. Similar help is being given by the houses in Crécy, Troyes and Montmirail (1091).

He reached Le Mans and from there wrote to Antoine Portail, in Marseille, on 04 March. He explains that Portail has not received any letters from him for the previous one or two months, because the postal system has broken down. He explains about his enforced stay of a month in Fréneville, saying that he had planned to spend only two or three days, bringing the flock of sheep and two horses saved from the pillage of Orsigny. Soldiers stole horses from a farm not too far away, so he decided, in spite of the weather, to bring the sheep to a safe refuge four or five leagues distant. He continued with the two horses to Le Mans, arriving on the 2nd. On the evening of the third he opened the visitation. In the middle of the month he hopes to go to Brittany and then Richelieu. If God safeguards his health he intends then going south to Marseille, where he will meet Portail. A map of France will show the extent of his travels; from Brittany to Marseille is roughly the entire length of France from north to south. He mentions the loss of crops in Orsigny and Saint-Lazare, and the cessation of rents. This necessitates drastic reductions in the numbers of confreres in the Paris houses, sending them to Richelieu, Le Mans and elsewhere. He refers to between two and three thousand being fed each day in Saint-Lazare (1093).

Fréneville No More

Volume XIV of the Coste set, which is the index volume, shows no further references to Fréneville in the letters after Letter 1093, dated 04 March 1649. This is quite extraordinary, as the Congregation continued in possession of the farm until it was confiscated by the revolutionary government on 19 November, 17927.

However, in November 1652 Vincent wrote from the farm in Orsigny to Brother Nicholas Sené, who was in Lagny, and towards the end of the letter mentions that “The doctor has sent me to Orsigny to take the air for a while, because of my little fever which troubles me at night” (1577).

In November 1655 he tells the Duchess of Aiguillon that he has been advised to take the air for a while, though he says he seldom gets any relief. He hopes to go to Rougemont or Orsigny, getting back on Friday (1862).

There are many later references to Alexandre Véronne in the correspondence. Sometimes Louise wanted to borrow him, and she sometimes referred to him in connection with Vincent’s various health problems. Vincent often reports back to her on the state of his health, and in some cases Alexandre is mentioned in this context. On 25 November 1656 he tells her: “My little cold is getting better, thank God, and I am doing all I can about it: I don’t leave my room; I take a sleep every morning; I eat everything I’m given. And each evening I take a sort of julep which Brother Alexandre gives me” (2173). While Alexandre is mentioned specifically in connection with the julep, I would think that he probably also ordered the other matters.

There is a later letter to Louise, headed “Tuesday evening”, which Coste places in January 1659, which has the sentence “Brother Alexandre wanted me to take some little thing which he will give me tomorrow”. One can picture Alexandre telling him: “I want you to take this tomorrow”, and Vincent being, perhaps, somewhat reluctant. The context is that he is thanking Louise for the remedies which she has suggested, but he says that Monsieur Dalancé8 has told him a few days previously that frequent laxatives are not the correct solution to the particular ailment which he has (2773). Perhaps Vincent was wondering whether he should say to Alexandre “But the doctor says…”

  1. In Miroir du Frère Coadjuteur de la Congrégation de la Mission, Paris 1875, pages 145-358 consist of some introductory matter to over 200 pages of a very hagiographical life of Alexandre Véronne, written by Brother Pierre Chollier CM in 1688, two years after the death of Alexandre. This biography was circulated to all houses of the Congregation. Together with some other senior brothers he was given permission to read the New Testament in the vernacular (Letter 2623).
  2. Colloque 40, pp. 255 & 259-60.
  3. Letter 203. For the rest of the article letters will be identified by their number in the Coste edition, in brackets after their mention in the text. The English translation retains Coste’s numbering.
  4. This letter is in the Supplément, Vol. XV, published as Mission et Charité, 19-20, 1970. It is incorporated in the English translation of the complete works in its correct chronological position, as number 322a.
  5. This letter is not in the Coste set. It was published in the Supplément, Vol. XV, pp. 52-3. It is incorporated in the English translation in Vol. II, as number 322a.
  6. Abelly: Vie de Vincent de Paul, Paris 1664, livre I, ch. 50, pp. 244-5. Coste (II, 481, n. 2) corrects Abelly’s 1645 to 1644. That Dufour died in Saint-Lazare, and not in the Bons Enfants, is in Catalogue du Personnel de la Congrégation de la Mission (Lazaristes), depuis l’origine (1625), jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1911, p. 204.
  7. Rybolt, J E: In the Footsteps of Vincent de Paul, Chicago 2007, p. 148.
  8. In a footnote to this letter Coste mentions that Dalancé was a famous surgeon.

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