Pilgrimage series: Congregation of the Mission
Editor's note: Eighteenth in a series on the sacred places and tombs of saints included in The Compass pilgrimage to Rome and Paris that retired Green Bay Bishop Robert Banks will lead May 3-13. (More information on pilgrimage)
By Tony Staley
of the Mission
What: Vowed community of men St. Vincent de Paul founded to evangelize the poor and form the clergy
Feast: Sept. 27
On the fourth day back in France, the pilgrims will go to the Congregation of the Mission in Paris, where they will see the incorrupt body of St. Vincent de Paul.
Vincent, whom we know best for his concern for the poor, was equally interested in their spiritual and physical well-being. Besides founding hospitals and orphanages, he started the Congregation of the Mission in 1625 to train the clergy and to evangelize the poor, including in mission countries. They are better known in English-speaking countries as Vincentians and in other countries as the Lazarites.
In 1633 Vincent and St. Louise de Marillac founded the Sisters of Charity. They were the first Vatican-approved non-cloistered order of women religious "whose convent is the sickroom, whose chapel is the parish church, whose cloister is the streets of the city."
Vincent was born into a peasant family in Pouy, France. He was ordained in 1600 after attending the University of Toulouse. Initially, he wanted to find a position as a priest that would provide him with a large income so he could care for the family.
In 1605, Vincent went to Marseilles to collect an inheritance and disappeared. He reappeared in France in 1607 and wrote a series of letters detailing his capture by pirates, who sold him into slavery. He eventually tried to destroy those letters and modern biographers have discredited the story.
Vincent served briefly in 1609 as chaplain to former Queen Marie of Valois, before he was assigned to a parish at Clichy, near Paris, an assignment he enjoyed.
The following year he became a chaplain and tutor in the household of the rich and influential Philippe-Emmanuel Count de Gondi, the general of the galleys.
Vincent began ministering to galley slaves and, after hearing a peasant's confession, decided to preach missions to the poor with financial help from Mme. de Gondi. Vincent thought this work was bringing him too much attention, so he asked for a transfer to Bresse. While there he converted several Protestants and started the first charitable conference to aid the poor.
At the Gondis' request, he returned to them and in 1617 resumed preaching missions to the poor. Five other priests soon joined him. In 1625, the Gondi family financed his efforts to found the Vincentians, who worked with peasants and in seminaries.
In 1632, the canons regular of St. Victor gave St. Lazarus priory in Paris (a former lazarhouse or hospital for lepers) to the congregation, thus the name Lazarites. That house is still their headquarters. The Vincentians soon spread throughout France.
Next, Vincent started parish confraternities and asked Louise de Marillac to organize rich Parisian women to raise money to help the poor, leading to the founding of the Sisters of Charity.
Vincent also ransomed 1,200 Christian slaves being held in northern Africa, provided relief for victims of war, wrote on spiritual topics, opposed Jansenism and sent his priests abroad to preach missions.
In 1816, the congregation came to the United States to work in what is now Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois. They operate three colleges in the U.S., DePaul University, Chicago; Niagara University, Lewiston, N.Y.; and St. John's University, New York City.
In 1833, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, a 20-year-old university student in Paris, founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society to empower lay people to work among the poor.
Sources: All Saints, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Catholic Encyclopedia, Dictionary of Saints, http://en.wikipedia.org, Praying with Vincent de Paul, Saint of the Day, Saints for Our Time, 365 Saints, World Book Encyclopedia, http://svdpusa.org and www.vincenter.org.
(Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.)
Next: Basilica du Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart)