Review of The Life of S. Vincent de Paul

The Life of S. Vincent de Paul. Edited, with an Introduction, by the Rev. F. Wilson, M.A., Vicar of Rownhams, Prebendary of Sarum, and Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Salisbury. Rivingtons.
Examiner, 21 March 1874, 290-91.

[NOTE: Blind wrote this review while at work on her “Memoir” of David Friedrich Strauss, whose The Old Faith and the New” A Confession she had translated. This helps explain why an antitheist like Blind would be drawn to a biography of a Catholic priest, since her work on the Strauss translation involved research into the early history of Christianity. In addition, as Blind writes here, St. Vincent’s devotion to and activism on behalf of the outcast, enslaved, and poor “must infallibly attract even those who would entirely disagree with his theological tenets.”]

     The life of S. Vincent de Paul was one well-deserving a biographer, not only on account of its intrinsic character, but also because of the interest attaching to the period in which that life was passed. It can hardly be said that the task has been satisfactorily performed in the present volume. The historical events are barely indicated, and yet a sketch of the wars, famines, and insurrections of the Fronde, by which France was devastated, would have given a somber, nay lurid coloring to the background, serving to throw into yet brighter relief the benevolent character of the hero of the story.  The story itself might also have been narrated with greater conciseness and in a more felicitous style; for it abounds in picturesque incidents which, if well told, could not have failed to charm and impress the imagination. Such, for example, is Vincent’s capture by a Turkish brigantine and bondage in Barbary. The interest which he inspired in one of the wives of his master, and her influence in procuring his release, almost reads like a romance. On the whole, although the biographer has not made the most of his materials, the book is a fairly readable one.

      Vincent de Paul, born in 1576, was the son of a peasant farmer possessing a small strip of land in a village lying at the foot of the Pyrenees. In his boyhood he was employed in tending his father’s sheep, but the latter, being struck by his son’s unusual intelligence, determined to educate him for the Church, hoping he might thus eventually rise to eminence and be the means of enriching his family. Had he lived his expectations would have been disappointed in this respect, as Vincent steadily refused to apply the revenues of the Church to private ends. For the distinguishing traits of his character are a rare disinterestedness joined to practical ability and profound goodness of heart. He gave a signal proof of compassionate tenderness by submitting, when chaplain of convicts, to voluntary captivity in order to rescue a young galley-slave who was broken-hearted at being torn from his destitute wife and children. It may seem improbable that Vincent, who had preserved a strict incognito in order to investigate the state of the galleys, should have been able to prevail on the officer in charge of the gang to let him take the young man’s place. But the biographer records the story as one attested by trustworthy witnesses; and if this is so, the reality view with that ideal goodness shadowed forth by Victor Hugo in the well-remembered figure of his Bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu.

     The first work of importance in which Vincent engaged was the institution and direction of a society of Mission priests, which he, with two of his companions, started on the humblest scale. They chiefly devoted themselves, in imitation of the apostles, to the lowliest offices, journeying from village to village in order to minister to the wants of the sick and afflicted. Others, attracted by their remarkable zeal, gradually recruited their numbers, and in 1626 the growing society was formally approved by the Archbishop of Paris. In the following year Louis XIII, by his letters patent, granted to the Associate permission to establish themselves in any part of his kingdom, and finally the richly endowed Priory of S. Lazarus, situated on the outskirts of Paris, was transferred by a deed of gift to Vincent and his community.

     The fame of S. Vincent, however, principally rests on his having been the founder of sisterhoods. This also was not as scheme deliberately conceived and matured, but sprang from the practical needs around him, and grew from insignificant beginnings till it became one of the most prominent features of ecclesiastical organization. The pitiable state of the sick poor first suggested to Vincent the idea of persuading ladies of wealth and piety to devote some of their time to the alleviation of the misery around them.  But he soon discovered that the work thus undertaken was subject to frequent interruptions. He saw that if the thing was to be done at all it had to be done by unremitting labor and self-sacrifice. On one of his many missions in the country he remembered having come across a poor girl, earning her scanty pittance by keeping cows, but so eager for knowledge that she used to stop all wayfarers in order that they might give her a little instruction in reading. The knowledge she owed to the generosity of others she was eager to impart on those less fortunate than herself; and she had thus made herself the voluntary instructress of the village children. This was the very person that Vincent had wanted. He invited her to come to Paris. And the ardour with which she entered into his charitable plans surpassed even his expectations.  Day and night this noble-hearted woman devoted herself with heroic courage to the care of the poor, the infirm, and the sick, till at last—stricken by the plague caught from one of her patients—she fell a victim to her labor, but not before she had wrought a marvelous change in the whole organization of charity. Amongst other instructions Vincent gives the following advice to this first society of sisters:—

They will remember that, although they are not nuns, that condition not being suitable for the works of their vocation, nevertheless for the very reason that they are more exposed than those that are cloistered and enclosed, they have need of a higher virtue than if they were professed in a religious order. For instead of a convent they have only the dwelling of the sick; for a cell, some poor chamber; for a chapel, the parish church; for a cloister, the streets of a town; for enclosure, obedience; for a gate, the fear of God; for a veil, holy modesty.

     Vincent, it should be remembered to his honor, founded another institution as human in its tendencies as that of [291] the sisterhoods. This was an asylum for foundlings. The age being one of peculiar immorality and licentiousness, the sight of infants exposed in the streets of Paris was too common to excite even compassion. Many perished, many entrusted to private care by the policed suffered from neglect and ill-treatment. Vincent’s Ladies’ Association for the Care of Foundling Children strove to remedy these abuses, and as the undertaking assumed ever larger proportions, a small donation was obtained from the Crown to the amount of 12,000 francs.

     At outbreak of the insurrection of the Fronde, Vincent went to St. Germain’s in order to try and effect reconciliation between the Queen and Parliament. His efforts proved ineffectual, he started on a visitation tour to various houses of his Order, preaching at the different villages through which he passed, and meeting with several perilous adventures, owing to the unsettled state of the country. In consequence of the fatigues he underwent he fell dangerously ill, suffering thenceforth for many years from ague and low fever. During the last two years of his life he almost entirely lost the use of his limbs, and his brethren used to carry him into the chapel, the only place whither he would suffer any one to take him. But though in constant pain, he continued to the last performing all the duties of his office. He died in 1660, in his eighty-sixth year.

     Vincent’s devotion to the cause of the suffering and the poor must infallibly attract even those who would entirely disagree with his theological tenets. Such a man, whatever the creed he professes, cannot fail to ennoble it. And if, on the one hand, the Church of Rome rouses our profound abhorrence for having instituted the Inquisition, it conciliates us, on the other hand, as being the originator of hospitals, alms-houses and orphan asylums, and as having been the spiritual mother of men like S. Vincent, and women like Madame de Ohantal, who spent themselves freely and unconditionally in the service of suffering humanity.