The Establishment of the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission at Saint Lazare
This mystic Jerusalem began little by little to develop into a new city, built from living stones shaped by the practice of the appropriate virtues. It is true, however, that the College des Bons Enfants furnished neither the space nor the revenue to support any except a few persons. God came to the rescue in a manner that will surprise the reader, but in keeping with his infinite wisdom. While the good priest missionaries were occupying themselves solely with extending the kingdom of Jesus Christ and gaining souls for it, God’s providence arranged things to enable the community to establish itself in the house of Saint Lazare near Paris. 1
This was an ecclesiastical manor, seat of high, middle, and lower courts, in which besides a large expanse of land, buildings, and yards, all services and means of support for the new foundation could be obtained. The circumstances surrounding this transaction clearly show God’s hand. This was especially so since it took place contrary to all human expectations and even in the face of situations which, humanly speaking, should have made it impossible.
We cannot better realize what occurred than by the account given by Monsieur Vincent, 2 and confirmed after his death by the leading actor in this affair. His virtue and position as doctor of the Sorbonne and pastor of a parish in Paris merit credence. This individual was the late Monsieur de Lestocq, doctor of the faculty of the Sorbonne and pastor of Saint Laurent in Paris. He left us a written record in his own hand of these events. 3 We see in them how admirable was the guidance given the Congregation of the Mission, and how pure and disinterested was the part played by the one destined by Providence to bring this about.
An account of the events leading to the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission in the house of Saint Lazare near Paris, written and signed by the late Monsieur de Lestocq, doctor of the Sorbonne and pastor of Saint Laurent 4
Father Adrian le Bon, religious of the order of Canons Regular of Saint Augustine and prior of Saint Lazare, had some difficulties with his religious in 1630. These led him to think about changing his position for another benefice. Several were offered him, abbeys or other significant benefices, but his friends convinced him that it would be preferable to resolve the dispute within his own community. A conference among them, in the presence of four doctors, was proposed. He agreed to this, and the religious also agreed to attend. This conference was held at the home of a well-regarded and saintly doctor. The prior aired his complaints, and the religious replied, speaking through the sub-prior. It was agreed to draw up a formal rule of life for the future, governing their behavior. The prior persisted in his wish to leave his office. Hearing of the priests who devoted themselves to the mission under the direction of Monsieur Vincent, whom he did not know, he thought that perhaps they could be invited to the priory. In this way, the monks would share in the good being done in the Church.
As his neighbor and friend, I was invited to go along to meet with Monsieur Vincent to discuss this possibility. I pointed out to him how this thought must have come from heaven, for these good priests work for the welfare of the country people, so much in need of help, by instruction and help in confessing their sins. It seems they were ordinarily unable to do so to the parish clergy, either through ignorance or shame. I was able to speak this way of their work and reassure him, for I had seen it at first hand. Besides, I assured him that he would see a man of God among them, referring of course to Monsieur Vincent.
Together, then, we went to the College des Bons Enfants near the gate of Saint Victor to inform Monsieur Vincent of the reason for our visit. We told him that we had heard great things of the Congregation and of the work it did in favor of the poor peasants. The prior said he would gladly contribute to such a charitable work and proposed for this purpose giving the house of Saint Lazare to Monsieur Vincent for his use.
This generous offer astounded the humble servant of God, with the same effect as an unexpected clap of thunder. Upon seeing this, the prior remarked to Monsieur Vincent, “Monsieur, you tremble.” “Yes,” he replied, “your offer does astound me, for it appears so far beyond us that I dare not think of it. We are simple, poor priests. We live humbly, with no other purpose than to serve the poor country people. We are much indebted to you, Monsieur, for your good will and we thank you most humbly.”
In a word, he showed no inclination to accept the offer and seemed to suggest that any further discussion was out of the question. However, the pleasant and affable way he was received so touched the heart of Monsieur le Bon that he did not give up. He said only that he would give Monsieur Vincent six months to think it over.
After this he again asked me to go with him to see Monsieur Vincent to make the same offer. He stressed that God was moving him to give up the priory in favor of the Congregation of the Mission. For my part, I begged Monsieur Vincent not to let this opportunity pass, but this did not change his mind. He insisted on the small number of priests in the community only recently founded, that he did not relish the publicity, that this would be talked about, that he did not appreciate the notoriety, and lastly, that he did not deserve such a favor of the prior.
At this moment, Monsieur le Bon heard the dinner bell ring. He asked Monsieur Vincent if he and I might dine with Monsieur Vincent and the community. The modesty of the priests, the reading at table, and the sense of good order everywhere so impressed Monsieur le Bon that he continued to press Monsieur Vincent. This continued for more than twenty separate meetings in the space of the next six months. As a good friend of Monsieur Vincent I felt free enough to say that I thought he was resisting the Holy Spirit, that he would have to answer to God for his refusal, seeing that it gave him an opportunity to establish and perfect his Congregation.
I can not begin to tell you how insistently we acted. Jacob did not show greater patience in his quest for Rachel or insist so strongly for the angel’s blessing than did the prior and I to have an affirmative answer from Monsieur Vincent. We besought him more earnestly than the Canaanite woman did the apostles. Finally, a year later, the prior said to him: “Monsieur, what sort of man are you? If you do not want to discuss this business any more, will you at least tell me of someone whose advice you respect? Someone you have confidence in? What friend do you have in Paris whom we could speak with? I have the agreement of all my religious, but only yours is lacking. No one who wishes you well is advising you against accepting this offer.”
Monsieur Vincent then mentioned that Monsieur Andre Duval, doctor of the Sorbonne, a holy man who had written the lives of several saints, was a friend of his. 5 “We will do what he advises.”
The prior went to see him, explained the matter, agreed upon all conditions, 6 and finally drew up the accord between the prior and the religious of Saint Lazare on the one hand and Monsieur Vincent and the priests of the Congregation of the Mission on the other, dated January 7, 1632. 7 Monsieur Vincent had at last given in to all the importunities, by myself among others, and could have said on this occasion: Raucae factae sunt fauces meae [“My throat is parched”]. 8 I would gladly have carried on my own shoulders the father of the missionaries to Saint Lazare and force him to accept. He, however, did not look at the exterior or the advantages of the place and all the outlying buildings and property. During the negotiations he had not even come to inspect the property. It was not the good location that attracted him but only God’s will and the spiritual good to be done there.
After all conceivable objections, he finally accepted it for that reason alone. The following day, January 8, 1632, he came, and all passed off with gentleness and to the satisfaction of the whole house.
It will then be seen that digitus Dei hic est [“the finger of God is here”], 9 and that it was the promised land to which Abraham had been led. Monsieur Vincent was that true Abraham, great servant of God, whose children were destined to fill the promised land, and whose family would live for the ages.
The pastor of Saint Laurent sent the foregoing account to the successor of the late Monsieur Vincent, 10 the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission, accompanied by the following letter, dated October 30, 1660:
Monsieur, the wish you expressed to have an account of the events leading Monsieur Vincent and his Congregation to Saint Lazare, together with my respect for his memory, have led me to prepare an account, which I enclose. Monsieur, I recount only the hundredth part of what took place, for I cannot detail all the pious conversations between the prior of Saint Lazare and me with the late Monsieur Vincent for more than a year and on thirty separate visits. We had thousands of occasions to discuss various objections and dispose him to accept Saint Lazare.
Most other persons would have been delighted to accept such an offer, but he refused. That is the way it is with many good projects. Moses refused to go to Egypt, or Jeremiah to the people, but despite their excuses God chose them and sent them on their mission. Their vocation was divine and miraculous, in which nature had no part. My account cannot do justice to this affair, of which God was the author and finisher. I could only sketch out these events. Let he who would, supply for my silence. Believe me when I say that I venerate the memory of the late Monsieur Vincent and count it a blessing to have been known and loved by him.
Such is the authentic testimony, having many details which the pious reader will realize that it can bear the weight of the spiritual shrine mentioned in the previous chapter. It shows the degree of virtue and perfection to which the grace of Jesus Christ had raised Monsieur Vincent. We can see how his heart was detached from all self-interest, all human respect. He looked to God alone in all his activities, wanting to hear only those propositions most advantageous to his glory and most in conformity to his holy will.
One circumstance we ought not pass over. It will allow us to see not only the perfect detachment this great servant of God had from all temporal things and material advantages but also the exactness and fidelity which he and his confreres maintained, including the least things that might contribute to the good order of their Congregation and to the quality of the service he proposed to render to God.
Once the main articles of agreement had been worked out, one remained which seemed small enough, but not to Monsieur Vincent. The prior hoped that his religious would share the dormitory with the missionaries. He thought that it would cause no harm to the one group, but be a source of edification to the others by the good example his religious would have in the practice of the virtues and in the regularity of Monsieur Vincent and his followers. This wise superior would not agree, foreseeing the problems that would arise, leading to the loss of the good order established among the missionaries. He asked the pastor of Saint Laurent to represent to the prior that the priests of the Mission remained in silence from night prayer until after dinner the following day, at which time an hour of conversation followed. Again, they observed silence until after supper, to be followed by another hour of conversation. After this, they spoke only when it became necessary, and then in a low voice. He was convinced that if silence were taken from a community, disorder and confusion would surely come in to take its place. He remarked once to someone, if you see a community which observes silence exactly, you may be sure it observes the rest of the regulations equally well. On the contrary, where silence is not observed it is almost impossible for the other rules to be followed. It is likely that the religious would not want to be bound by such a strict rule of silence. This, in turn, would almost surely lead to the loss of this practice among the missionaries.[/note]
Thus Monsieur Vincent besought Monsieur de Lestocq to present his thoughts to the prior, as we find in one of his handwritten letters. 11 He continued by proposing a compromise, that the religious should live apart from the dormitory, but stated his position clearly in these remarkable words: “I would prefer to remain in our deprivation rather than depart from the designs of God upon us.”
He remained so firm in this position that the provision had to be stricken from the agreement before he would consent to the other articles. He preferred to lose all the great temporal advantages that might come to him rather than agree to something which would block the spiritual progress of his Congregation. What made him firm and even inflexible on this point was his esteem and love for solitude and interior recollection. The missionaries needed this especially, since they were exposed by their vocation to all sorts of distracting influences. He used to say on this subject, “True missionaries ought to be like Carthusians in their houses and like apostles outside them.”
After signing the agreement by which Monsieur le Bon ceded the priory, the house, and dependencies of Saint Lazare to the Congregation of the Mission, the archbishop of Paris conferred it as a benefice under his control, by letters dated December 31, 1631. 12 Our Holy Father, Pope Urban VIII, confirmed this by a bull, March 15, 1635, but it was not drawn up until April 18, 1655. 13
The provosts of merchants and magistrates of Paris also approved the establishment of the missionaries in the house of Saint Lazare. The king gave his approval by letters patent, which were given to the Parlement for its consent. However, a certain well-known religious community opposed the move, alleging that the property belonged to them. 14 This position was rejected by an official decree, so that the letters of the king could be registered on September 17, 1632. We should not fail to remark that while the case was being heard in court, Monsieur Vincent remained in mental prayer in the Sainte Chapelle at the palace. He was totally indifferent as to the outcome of the affair.
This is what he wrote to a virtuous friend in whom he had complete confidence:
You are well aware that the Religious of N. N. are disputing our accepting Saint Lazare. You would hardly believe the way I have treated them, in keeping with what the Gospel ordains. They have no case, as Monsieur Duval has assured me, along with others who know the situation. By God’s grace I remain as indifferent to this as to anything else I have ever been involved with. Please thank God with me for this grace. 15
Another matter connected with this case is still worthy of comment, for it shows the marvelous detachment of this great servant of God. Upon taking possession of Saint Lazare he accepted the care of three or four demented persons committed by their families to be housed in the priory. It is impossible to overstate the charity with which Monsieur Vincent looked after, by himself or others, these persons who offered so little natural satisfaction. They were incapable of recognizing the care being taken of them and in fact were usually unclean, embarrassing, and occasionally even dangerous. Seeing the possibility of his eviction from the house of Saint Lazare by the opposing religious community, well-regarded and with friends in the right places, he began to prepare as was his custom for whatever outcome the trial might bring. He set himself to consider what do, as he told a confidant later. Yet he thought nothing of the new home, an ecclesiastical manor house, so commodious and advantageous to his Congregation, situated at the gates of Paris. His only concern was for the mentally disturbed persons he would have to leave behind. He thought more of the service he rendered them, or rather Jesus Christ in their person, than he did of all the other advantages of the house, which he looked on with complete indifference. How different his sentiments from those of worldly people, and how much more elevated his thoughts than those of ordinary men. He regarded it as foolish to be attached to earthly things and regarded serving the demented as the highest wisdom. He regarded service given from love of Jesus Christ as a great treasure he hated to lose and thought nothing of losing what he had just begun to enjoy, and which was so suitable for the upkeep and support of his new Congregation. What good reason the holy apostle had to say that God was pleased to confound the wisdom of the world! To be wise in the eyes of God it sometimes becomes necessary to become foolish in the eyes of men.
Acquaintances of Monsieur Vincent could testify that he saw as fully and clearly as could be hoped for from a person in his position. There was no frivolity or undue vehemence in his person. His conduct was founded not on simple human reasoning but on the maxims and truths of the Gospel. These were engraved on his heart, and he took them as the foundation of his life and had them ever present to his mind. He conformed himself in all things to the doctrine and example of Jesus Christ, and in keeping with this as much as humanly possible he fled from all vainglory or ostentation. On the contrary, he embraced with enthusiasm humility, abjection, contempt, and self-denial, and similar practices. He did this to resemble more closely him who was God by nature yet made himself a man, subject to the opprobrium of men and rejection by the people.
In this spirit Monsieur Vincent obtained the peaceful possession of Saint Lazare and wished to continue this service of humility and charity, although he was under no obligation to do so. He continued to receive in the house those rejected by the world, whom no one wanted to care for. He looked on them as the sick members of Jesus Christ, and in this view he provided them with every service and every corporal and spiritual help of which they were capable of receiving.
- Saint Lazare was situated on the road from Paris to Saint Denis, in what is today the faubourg Saint Denis. It was probably on the site of the ancient abbey which Saint Gregory of Tours mentioned in Book 6, ch. 11 of his history, the abbey governed by Saint Domnolus. It was eventually transformed into a leprosarium at the time of the Crusades, when this disease was spreading quickly through Europe. By the seventeenth century, there were no more lepers interned there, and the house was occupied by some canons of Saint Victor, religious who followed the rule of Saint Augustine.
- CED V:533-34.
- Guillaume de Lestocq was the pastor of Saint Laurent from 1628 until the day of his death, May 9, 1661. He was the main instrument in achieving the union of the Congregation of the Mission with the Priory of Saint Lazare.
- CED XII:244-48.
- Andre Duval, 1554-1638, was doctor of the Sorbonne, author of several learned works, friend and advisor of Saint Vincent, who never took important decisions without consulting him. He was so upset at seeing his portrait in one of the rooms at Saint Lazare that he insisted with Saint Vincent that it be removed. See J. Calvet, “Un confesseur de Saint Vincent,” Petites Annales de Saint Vincent 4 (May 1903):135.
- CED VIII:358-62.
- CED XIII:234-44.
- Ps 69:4.
- Exod 8:19.
- Rene Almeras, 1613-1672, nephew of Madame Goussault, and a civil lawyer, left everything to enter the Congregation in 1637. He was ordained a priest in 1639. The saint entrusted him with many important positions, such as the director of the novitiate, and superior in Rome.
- CED I:137-41.
- CED XIII:271-76. Abelly’s text reads 1632, a typographical error.
- On January 8, 1632, the first decree of union was approved by the archbishop of Paris, and by letters patent signed by the king. CED XIII:248-54, 372-80.
- The religious of Saint Victor. CED I:148-49.
- CED I:151-52.