St. Vincent was born in France in 1580 and died at the age of 80.
Ordained at 20, he gave his life to helping the poor.
His life story reads like a catalogue of the poorest, the suffering and the most abandoned in society whom he helped. One is almost breathless reading through his activities and the organizations he founded to help each and everyone who needed help.
Sold as a slave
His own life had taken an unusual twist, which may have helped to determine the course of his charities. At the age of 25, he was captured by pirates and sold as a slave. He began to minister to convicts who lived in the most degrading conditions. He built hospitals to care for those who were too ill to continue rowing large sea vessels.
As a young parish priest, he became spiritual guide to a noble lady and an educator for her young children. She encouraged him to begin giving missions to the peasants on her estates. Her encouragement led him in 1625 to found the Congregation of the Missions (Lazarists or Vincentians) to evangelize the rural areas.
However, he quickly realized that educated priests were needed to maintain the good work of evangelization. So in 1628, he organized days of recollection and retreat for candidates for ordination. At first, only 10 days long, he gradually extended them until they continued for two or three years.
Founded seminary training
So he is the originator of major seminaries for the study of theology as well as minor seminaries for the study of philosophy and the humanities. By the time of his death, he was directing 11 seminaries. Prior to the French Revolution, his congregation was directing a third of all the seminaries in France.
At the same time, he realized that parish priests needed to continue their education and so he gave them religious conferences, as well as retreats which included laymen. At no financial cost to them, more than 800 laymen participated yearly and thus a true Christian spirit developed among the masses.
With St. Louise de Marillac, Vincent established the Sisters of Charity in 1633, an order that visited the poor. He recruited other young women to care for the sick and for newborns who had been abandoned by their parents. It was due to the financial generosity of these highly-placed women that Vincent was able to carry out his works.
Thanks to the suggestion of these women, he established a hospice for older poor people where they could live and work. This sheltering of 40,000 poor was considered one of the greatest works of the 17th century.
He started a newspaper to publicize the need for financial assistance for his many charities.
In addition, he encouraged the establishment of groups to bury the dead and to clean accumulated dirt which caused the plague. He organized soup kitchens, even indicating in detail what should be served in the soup. These efforts were often headed by members of his two religious congregations.
Shelter for the innocent
His works were not restricted to Paris. During the war, he brought 200 young women to Paris and sheltered them in convents to protect them from the brutality of the soldiers. He also sheltered a large number of children. He even looked after displaced nobility who had taken refuge in Paris. He helped English and Irish Catholics who were in need after being forced out of their country. He sent missionaries to Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland and Madagascar.
He was most interested in helping the some 30,000 Christian slaves in northern Africa who had been captured by the Turks and treated as beasts of burden. He sent priests and brothers to minister to them. By the time of Vincent's death, they had ransomed 1,200 slaves while they themselves endured many hardships.
During his life, he wrote at least 30,000 letters, advising and helping people. He encouraged and helped a number of religious orders in their efforts at reform and was a spiritual guide to others.
A prayerful soul
Vincent was greatly esteemed by all, but he remained simple and humble directing all his efforts to the poor and the good of the Church. In spite of what must have been an extremely busy life, he led a prayerful and profoundly spiritual life. He was canonized in 1737. His feast day is Sept. 27.
Is it any wonder that the St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded some 200 years later in 1833, was named after him? It tapped into the dedication of the laity and thus broadened the scope of service to the most needy. Today, large numbers of active members in almost every country in the world continue to follow in St. Vincent's footsteps.