By Sunnie Lain, Director of Conferences and Community Outreach.
Most people have heard of St. Vincent de Paul, but not too many know very much about him or his life. Here are five things that you may not know:
5. St. Vincent de Paul spent the first twenty years of his life seeking fame and wealth.
Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in France in 1580. Although he later achieved fame for his dedication to the poor, his early life was spent attempting to escape his humble roots. His family shared his ambition, hoping that a career in the priesthood would better the family fortune. On one occasion, while he was still in the seminary, he refused to see his father who had come to visit him because he felt embarrassed by the shabbiness of his father’s appearance. Vincent became a priest at the young age of 19, and he spent most of his early priesthood mingling with members of the elite. He was very well liked because of his charm, intelligence, and sense of humor.
4. St. Vincent de Paul was captured by pirates.
In 1605, Vincent was returning home by boat from a trip. He had been on his way to sell some property he had received in an inheritance from a wealthy patron. While travelling, he was captured by pirates, who brought him to Tunis in Northern Africa. He was sold into slavery and he remained a slave for two years. During this time, he prayed to God, telling Him that if his life would be spared and he was freed, he would devote the rest of his life to the service of the poor.
3. St. Vincent de Paul was a community organizer.
After his eventual escape from Africa, Vincent was sent to serve a church in rural France. The poverty he found there shocked him—it was not uncommon for people who were unable to find work in his poor community to die from starvation. He began to take stock of his resources, and his former connections with the wealthy and influential led him to seek their financial assistance. He met with his affluent friends and inspired them to organize into groups going from house to house requesting furniture, food and clothing. They were extremely successful in their efforts, and other parishes began to seek him out to learn how they could organize in the same way. Soon, churches all over France were using the same techniques Vincent had created to help their neighbors in need.
2. St. Vincent de Paul was a legend in his own time.
As time went by, Vincent realized that the mistakes of his young life, especially his focus on wealth and fame, had been caused by a poor faith foundation. As a result, he founded an order of priests, the Vincentians, who received thorough training and who pledged to devote their lives to the spiritual and material needs of the poor. Later, along with Louise de Marillac, he founded the Sisters of Charity. He then expanded his work, founding hospitals, orphanages and homes for people who were mentally ill. He also devoted his last years to serving prisoners and slaves, sharing with them his story of hope as a former slave himself. He was very well known throughout Europe in his own time. He died on September 27, 1660, and he was made a saint in 1737.
1. St. Vincent de Paul did NOT found the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was not founded until more than 150 years after St. Vincent’s death. When Frederic Ozanam founded the Society, he named it after St. Vincent de Paul. Ozanam was devoted to St. Vincent, who is the patron saint of charitable societies, and he modelled the Society on his call to “see Christ in the poor and to be Christ to the poor”. The members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul continue to honor his life and legacy.
“It is not sufficient for me to love God if I do not love my neighbor. I belong to God and to the poor.”
–St. Vincent de Paul