M. VINCENT was passing one day through the streets of Paris on one of his errands of mercy when he saw a beggar mutilating a newborn baby in order to expose it to the public as an object of pity. Snatching the poor little creature out of the hands of its tormentor, Vincent carried it to the "Couche St. Landry," an institution which had been founded for the care of children left homeless and deserted in the streets.
The state of things in that household filled him with horror. The "Couche" was managed by a widow, who, helped by two servants, received about four hundred children within the year. These unfortunate little creatures, in a state of semi-starvation and utter neglect, were crowded together into two filthy holes, where the greater number died of pestilence. Of those who survived, some were drugged with laudanum to silence their cries, while others were put an end to by any other method that suggested itself to the wretched women into whose hands they had fallen.
The sight of the "Couche" was one that could not fail to rouse any mother's heart to indignation. Vincent took one or two of the Ladies of Charity to the place and let them judge for themselves. The result was a resolve to rescue the little victims at any cost.
It was not difficult to get possession of the babies; their inhuman guardians were in the habit of selling them for the modest sum of one franc each to anyone who would take them off their hands. But the cost of maintenance was a more serious matter. A house was taken near the Collège des Bons Enfants, and twelve of the miserable little victims were ransomed and installed there under the care of Louise le Gras and the Sisters of Charity.
But this was only a beginning. The work appealed all the more strongly to the Ladies of Charity for the reason that most of the babies were unbaptized. It was a question of saving souls as well as bodies, and every effort was made to empty the Couche. The Ladies, often at the cost of real self-denial, gave every penny they could afford; Louis XIII and his Queen, Anne of Austria, contributed liberally. In ten years' time Vincent's institution had grown to such an extent that it was able to open its doors to all the foundlings in Paris.
Four thousand children had been adopted and cared for, and the numbers were still increasing; finances had been stretched to the breaking point; there came a moment when it seemed impossible to meet the expenses any longer. The Thirty Years' War was raging, and the eastern provinces of France, which had served as a battlefield for the nations, were reduced to the utmost misery. There were many other claims on the purses of the Ladies of Charity; the time had come when it looked as if there was nothing to be done but sorrowfully give up an undertaking that was altogether beyond their power.
But the very thought of such a possibility nearly broke Vincent's heart; he determined to make one last effort, and, gathering the Ladies together, laid the case before them in all simplicity.
"I ask of you to say only one word," he said to them: "will you go on with the work or no? You are perfectly free; you are bound by no promise. Yet, before you decide, reflect for one moment on what you have done, and what you are doing. Your loving care has preserved the lives of a very great number of children, who without your help would have been lost in time as well as eternity; for these innocent creatures have learned to know and serve God as soon as they were able to speak. Some of them are beginning to work and to be self-supporting. Does not so good a beginning promise yet better results?
"Ladies, it was pity and charity that moved you to adopt these little ones as your children. You were their mothers by grace when their mothers by nature had deserted them. Are you going to abandon them now? If you cease to be their mothers you become their judges; their lives are in your hands. I will now ask you to give your votes: it is time for you to give sentence and to make up your minds that you have no longer any mercy to spare for them. If in your charity you continue to take care of them, they will live; if not, they will certainly die. It is impossible to deny what your own experience must tell you is true."
Vincent paused; his voice was trembling with emotion; he was answered by the tears of the assembly. It was decided that at any cost the Foundling Hospital must be supported. The work was saved. The practical question of expenses, however, remained yet to be faced, and although the King increased his subscription, the funds were still insufficient. But the Ladies made still greater sacrifices; the Sisters of Charity limited themselves to one meal a day, and Vincent, who had already reduced himself to the direst poverty, strained every nerve to help.
The Foundling Hospital was thus kept going until some years after Vincent's death, when the State took over the responsibility, and the work ceased to depend on voluntary support.
Of all the good works on which he had spent himself, this was the one, it is said, that appealed to him the most strongly. He knew every baby in the Foundling Hospital by name; the death of any one of them caused him a very real sorrow, and he would appear among them at the most unexpected hours. Their innocence and happiness rejoiced him, and he delighted in watching their pretty baby ways. At the sight of his kind, homely face, they would gather round him, clinging to his hands or his cassock, certain of a smile or a caress. He came across much that was neither innocent nor attractive in his dealings with the world; he was one who never judged harshly, and who could always see in man, however depraved, the image of his Maker; yet the innocence and purity of his own soul found their best solace in the company of these little creatures whom he had rescued from a double death. They were his recreation in the moments of depression which all who work for the welfare of mankind must experience and which are more intense in proportion as the zeal is stronger.
He was blamed one day, when the difficulty of providing for the foundlings was at its height, for having spent upon them alms destined for the support of the Mission.
"Ah!" he cried, "do you think Our Lord will be less good to us because we put the welfare of these poor children before our own? Since that merciful Saviour said to His disciples, 'suffer the little children to come unto Me,' can we who wish to follow Him reject these babies when they come to us?"
But if the foundlings had a large share of Vincent's heart, it was great enough for all who were in suffering or distress. The misery in the provinces of Lorraine and Picardy was hardly to be described; the people were literally dying of hunger. The Ladies of Charity had at first come nobly to the rescue, but the Foundling Hospital was now absorbing all their funds; they could do no more. Then Vincent conceived the idea of printing leaflets describing the sufferings of the people and what was being done to help them by the Mission Priests. These were sold at the church doors, in the public squares and in the streets, and people bought them with such avidity that Vincent soon realized a steady little income.
In days when there were no such things as newspapers, regular tidings from the provinces were as welcome as they were unexpected. "God showered such blessings on the work," says Vincent, "that the greater number of those who read these narratives opened their hands for the relief of the poor."
The next step was to institute in all the regions where famine was prevalent public soup kitchens, where nourishing soup, made at the lowest possible cost, was portioned out among the poor. Vincent himself gave minute directions for its making, prescribing the ingredients so that the greatest number of people might be maintained at the least expense.
In many places laid waste by fire and sword, the dead remained unburied for days or even weeks. Heaps of filth and garbage were left to rot at the doors of houses and in the streets; pestilence and fever reigned supreme. Here, again, the Priests of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity devoted themselves to the work that no one else would do. Organizing themselves into bands, they went about burying the dead, nursing the sick and cleansing the streets, many of them dying of the pestilence.
It was very necessary, moreover, to take steps to bring back some kind of prosperity to the devastated country. Seeds and grain were distributed among the peasants, who were encouraged to cultivate the land and taught the best methods of doing so. All these different undertakings were carried out with the regularity and practical common sense that were characteristic of the sons of St. Vincent de Paul, accustomed as they were to brave hardship and danger without a thought of their own safety.
If their Superior asked much of others, he himself set the example in generosity. It was said of him that he never could keep anything for his own use, either clothes or money; everything that came into his hands went straight to the poor. There were days at St. Lazare when it seemed uncertain where the daily bread was to come from, or whether it was to come at all; but Vincent put his trust in God, who never failed him, and he gave while there was anything to give.
Several times, while he was organizing relief for the eastern provinces, his heart almost failed him at the magnitude of the work he had undertaken, and it was at one of these moments that he dared to face the terrible Richelieu, to demand peace in the name of the suffering people.
"Monseigneur!" he cried, appearing before the great Cardinal with tears streaming down his cheeks, "give us peace! Have pity on France and give us peace." Richelieu's heart was certainly none of the softest, but even he seems to have been touched by this earnest appeal. At all events, he showed no anger.
"I wish for peace," he declared, "and I am taking means to procure it, but it does not depend on me alone"; and he dismissed Vincent with an unwonted urbanity. His was not the only hard nature that was softened by contact with St. Vincent de Paul. The love of this man for his fellow men was infectious, for it was born of his love for Christ.
WHEN Louis XIII was on his deathbed, with all the Bishops and Archbishops of France ready to offer him their services, it was M. Vincent, the humble Mission Priest, who prepared him to meet his God. During the last days of the King's life, Vincent never left him, and in his arms Louis XIII breathed his last. Then, having done the work for which he had come, Vincent slipped quietly out of the palace to hasten back to St. Lazare and his beloved poor.
Some remarks made by the King during his illness and certain other words of Vincent's were remembered by the Queen, Anne of Austria, who had been left Regent during the minority of her son. Richelieu was dead, and Mazarin, his pupil, a crafty and unscrupulous Italian, had succeeded him as chief Minister of State. His influence over the Queen was growing daily, but it was not yet strong enough to override all her scruples. She was a good-natured woman, quite ready to do right when it was not too inconvenient, and it was clear to her that of late years bishoprics and abbeys had been too often given to most unworthy persons. In France the Crown was almost supreme in such matters; the Queen therefore determined to appoint a "Council of Conscience" consisting of five members, whose business it would be to help her with advice as to ecclesiastical preferment.
Mazarin's astonishment and disgust when he heard that Vincent de Paul had been appointed one of the number were as great as Vincent's own consternation. The responsibility and the difficulties which he would have to face filled the humble Mission Priest with the desire to escape such an honor at any price; he even applied to the Queen in person to beg her to reconsider her decision.
But Anne was obdurate, and Vincent was forced to yield. "I have never been more worthy of compassion or in greater need of prayers than now," he wrote to one of his friends, and his forebodings were not without cause. If Mazarin had been unable to prevent the Queen from naming Vincent as one of the Council of Conscience, he had at least succeeded in securing his own nomination. In the cause of honesty and justice, and for the Church's welfare, the Superior of St. Lazare would have to contend with the foremost statesman of the day, a Minister who had built up his reputation by trading on the vices of men who were less cunning than he. Well did Vincent know that he was no match for such a diplomatist; but having once realized that the duty must be undertaken, he determined that there should be no flinching.
He went to Court in the old cassock in which he went about his daily work, and which was probably the only one he had. "You are not going to the palace in that cassock?" cried one of the Mission Priests in consternation.
"Why not?" replied Vincent quietly; "it is neither stained nor torn."
The answer was noteworthy, for a scrupulous cleanliness was characteristic of the man. As he passed through the long galleries of the Louvre he caught sight of his homely face and figure in one of the great mirrors that lined the walls. "A nice clodhopper you are!" he said amiably to his own reflection, and passed on, smiling.
Among the magnificently attired courtiers his shabby appearance created not a little merriment. "Admire the beautiful sash in which M. Vincent comes to Court," said Mazarin one day to the Queen, laying hold of the coarse woolen braid that did duty with poor country priests for the handsome silken sash worn by the prelates who frequented the palace. Vincent only smiled—these were not the things that abashed him; he made no change in his attire.
At first it seemed as if his influence were to be paramount in the Council. Nearly all the priests of Paris had passed through his hands at the ordination retreats and those who belonged to the "Tuesday Conferences" were intimately known to him. Who could be better fitted to select those who were suitable for preferment? Mazarin, it is true, objected to the Council on principle, but that was simply because he considered that bishoprics and abbeys were useful things to keep in reserve as bribes for his wavering adherents. Certain reforms on which Vincent insisted were not to his mind either, although he offered no opposition. It was not his way to act openly, and he bided his time; the wonder was that Vincent was able to do what he did so thoroughly.
In the meantime it began to dawn upon the public that the Superior of St. Lazare was for the moment a man of influence. It was already well known that he was a man of immense charity, with many institutions on his hands, several of which were in urgent need of funds. It seemed a very simple thing to offer him a large sum of money for the poor on condition that he would put in a good word for a brother or a nephew who was just the man for a bishopric or anything else that might offer.
Vincent's reception of these proposals was disconcerting. "God forbid!" he would cry indignantly. "Better that we should all go without the barest necessities of life."
Some would come with a recommendation from the Queen herself, which made things doubly embarrassing; but in spite of everything Vincent remained faithful to his first determination to choose for bishoprics no priests save those worthy of the position by reason of their virtue and learning.
Now, it was exceedingly unpleasant for needy noblemen to be obliged to sue to a peasant priest in a shabby cassock for the preferment of their relations; but it became quite intolerable when the shabby priest refused to listen.
"You are an old lunatic," said a young man who had been refused a benefice through Vincent's agency.
"You are quite right," was the only answer, accompanied by a good-natured smile.
Another day a gentleman who had come to recommend his son for a bishopric was so angry when Vincent explained that he did not see his way to grant his request that he answered the "impertinent peasant" with a blow. Vincent, without the slightest allusion to this treatment, quietly escorted him downstairs and saw him into his carriage. Insulted another day in public by a magistrate whose interests he had refused to forward, the Superior of St. Lazare made the noble answer: "Sir, I am sure that you try to acquit yourself worthily in your office; you must allow me the same freedom of action in mine."
But Vincent's strangest adventure was with a Court lady of high rank, a certain Duchess in the household of the Queen. Catching her royal mistress in an unguarded moment, this lady succeeded in inducing the Queen to promise the bishopric of Poitiers to her son, a young man of very bad character. The Queen's courage, however, failed her at the prospect of breaking the news to M. Vincent, and she commissioned the Duchess to let him know of the appointment. Off went the great lady to St. Lazare, and, flouncing into the Superior's presence, haughtily declared her errand. Vincent, aghast, begged her to sit down and talk the matter over, but Madame declined curtly. She was in a great hurry, she replied; the Queen had spoken; there was nothing more to be said. She would be obliged if he would make out the deed of nomination and take it to Her Majesty to sign.
What was to be done? To resist would only provoke; submission seemed the wisest, if not the only course.
Next morning at an early hour M. Vincent made his appearance at the palace with a roll of paper in his hand and was shown into the Queen's presence.
"Oh," said Her Majesty, not without some embarrassment, "you have brought me the nomination of the Bishop of Poitiers." Without a word, Vincent handed her the roll, which she proceeded to unfold.
"Why," she cried, "what is this? It is blank! The form is not drawn up at all!"
"If Your Majesty's mind is made up," said Vincent quietly, "I must beg you to write down your wishes yourself; it is a responsibility which my conscience forbids me to take." Then, noticing the hesitation of the Queen: "Madame," he said hotly, "this man whom you intend to make a bishop spends his life in public houses and is carried home drunk every night. That his family should want to get him out of Paris is not surprising, but I ask you if an episcopal see is a fitting retreat for such a person."
Convinced by Vincent's vehement presentation of the facts of the case, the Queen consented to revoke the nomination, but she openly confessed to him that she had not courage to face the Duchess. "Suppose you go and make my peace with her," she said pleasantly, despatching the unfortunate Vincent on this very disagreeable errand.
He was shown into the lady's presence and carried out his mission with the greatest possible tact, but the Duchess could not control her fury. Seizing a heavy stool, she flung it at the head of the unwelcome messenger, who bowed and retired from the house with the blood streaming from a wound in his forehead. The brother who had accompanied him and who was waiting in the antechamber, justly indignant, begged to be allowed to give the great lady a piece of his mind. "Come on," said Vincent; "our business lies in another direction." "Is it not strange," he said, smiling, a few moments later, as he tried to staunch the blood with his handkerchief, "to what lengths the affection of a mother for her son will go!"
Such incidents did not pass unnoticed by Mazarin, who looked with jealous eyes on Vincent's influence with the Queen. As time went on he resolved at any cost to rid the Court of the presence of this man, whose simple, straightforward conduct baffled the wily and defeated their plans; but an attempt to get him ejected from the Council met with such stormy opposition that the Prime Minister determined to change his tactics. There was no man whom he revered or admired so much as M. Vincent, he declared enthusiastically; no one who was of such use in the Council of Conscience.
But the summoning of the Council rested with Mazarin, and the intervals between its meetings became longer and longer. Anne of Austria's sudden spurt of energy—she was a thoroughly indolent woman by nature—began to die out as she became accustomed to her new responsibilities; she was only too glad to leave all matters of State to a man who declared that his only desire was to save her worry and trouble. In course of time the Council of Conscience ceased to meet, and the distribution of bishoprics and abbeys fell once more into the hands of Mazarin, who used them, as of old, for his own ends.
Vincent de Paul, in bitter grief and sorrow, was forced to witness an abuse that he had no longer any power to check. "I fear," he wrote in after years to a friend, "that this detestable barter of bishoprics will bring down the curse of God upon the country." A few years later, when civil war, pestilence and famine were devastating France, and Jansenism was going far to substitute despair for hope in the hearts of men, his words were remembered.
Nihil Obstat: Francis M. Canon Wyndham
Imprimatur: Edmund Canon Surmont
July 2, 1919
JOHN CARDINAL FARLEY
Archbishop of New York
NEW YORK, September 19, 1912