St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)
Saint Vincent de Paul, who founded the Daughters of Charity, was born in 1581 in a small, poor village in France to a peasant family. At an early age, he showed a talent for reading and writing. At 15, his father sent him to school, managing to pay for it by selling the family’s oxen. A good ecclesiastical career, his father believed, would enable de Paul to be financially independent and to help support his family. De Paul was ordained as a priest at the age of 19.
In 1605, de Paul found himself in great debt, and traveled to Marseilles to collect an inheritance. On the way home at sea, de Paul was captured by a group of Barbary pirates. In 1605, the pirates auctioned de Paul off as a slave to the highest bidder, and the future saint spent two years in bondage. Ultimately, the story goes, he became the property of an apostate Christian, whose wife aided in the escape of all his slaves.
Back in Paris, de Paul was driven to succeed and craved the company of high society. Deeply ambitious, de Paul came under the guidance of Father de Burulle, an influential priest in Paris. While working in Paris, de Paul met a theologian in the midst of a crisis of faith. Sensitive to his suffering, de Paul offered counseling.
“In every bed of the hospital with the eyes of faith you will see Jesus.” – St. Vincent de Paul
“If you help the poor and the needy, God will always provide you with the help you need.” – St. Vincent de Paul
“Your patients need a share of your joy.” – St. Vincent de Paul
For the sake of this friend’s soul and his own peace, de Paul offered God a bargain: he begged for peace for his friend, even if the price would be for de Paul to experience the same spiritual trial. God took him at his word. While the theologian had his faith restored, de Paul entered a bleak period in which he doubted his faith in God and himself. As a means of diverting himself from his spiritual crisis, de Paul began visiting the poor.
For the next four years, de Paul struggled with his faith. The resolution he ultimately embraced would be surrendering his life’s ambition of living out his priesthood in comfortable wealth. He made a pledge to God to serve the poor, relinquishing his quest for power and prestige.
From here, de Paul’s ministry would grow. “Before we can save the souls of the poor,” de Paul said, “we must give them a life worthy of the name.” This meant food, shelter and nursing the sick. In 1617, he founded the Ladies of Charity from a group of ladies within his parish. He organized these wealthy women of Paris to collect funds for missionary projects, find hospitals, and gather relief funds for the victims of war and to ransom 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. It was not unusual during those years to find him elbow-deep in dishwater, washing bandages for the sick, or ladling out soup for the poor.
One of the Ladies of Charity, Louise de Marillac, took 12 peasant girls in 1633 to work among the poor. She called them the Company of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul Servants of the Poor. They were the first uncloistered community of religious women.
The Daughters went on to become involved in hospitals, prisons and the care for abandoned children. By 1780, there were 430 houses of the Daughters of Charity in France, 20 in Poland and one in Spain. Today, the Daughters of Charity currently number 27,223 members in five continents with 81 provinces.
Vincent de Paul, who died in 1660, was declared Patron Saint of all works of charity by Pope Leo XIII and was canonized June 16, 1737.