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The Society of Saint Vincent De Paul in St Patrick's Kilsyth

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St. Vincent de Paul.
(1581 - 1660)
A Biography

Vincent de Paul belonged to a society quite different from our own and quite complex, and his era, though troubled, was very dynamic. He had contacts with many people, both clergy and lay. To understand him, therefore, it is recommended that the reader consult various works concerning the 17th century. These will help understand his complex personality, his human and Christian context, and the currents of the world in which he lived.


Icon of Saint Vincent de PaulVincent was born at Pouy, near Dax, in the spring of 1581, in a family of notable country people. The material situation of his time was precarious, since the region was only gradually recovering from the ravages of the Protestant bands of Jeanne d’Albret, mother of Henry IV. Dax alone had been able to resist them behind its ramparts. Vincent never alluded to these events and always preached a humble dialogue with Protestants. His father came from a family of notable country people, and his mother was the daughter of the owner of a small rural domain; the countryside was slowly recovering from destruction. A paternal uncle, a canon, was prior of a local hospice for travelers and poor pilgrims. His maternal uncles were magistrates, and his mother’s father owned a noble domain. His parents cultivated a modest property, but Vincent never mentioned this aspect of being a peasant. Were they poor? The answer must be yes, when compared with the townspeople of the large cities, but they were landowners and moved among their relations in various social levels.

His father sent him to study to be able to secure an ecclesiastical benefice, as his uncle had. His protector, an attorney at the presidial court of Dax, inspired in him the idea of the priesthood. He later stated that at that time he understood neither the greatness of this ministry nor its responsibilities. After his secondary studies at Dax, which lasted four years, he entered the university. He started probably at Zaragoza at the end of 1596 and then moved to Toulouse, from the end of 1597.

Apparently in a hurry to receive Holy Orders, he was ordained subdeacon and then deacon in 1598 and 1599 respectively, and at age 18, he obtained his dimissorial letters, allowing him to be ordained a priest by any bishop, since the see of Dax was vacant.

His new bishop arrived soon after, in January 1600, and starting in April he decreed the reforms of Trent for his diocese. He did so rigorously and without the agreement of his canons. In response, they blocked all activity at the cathedral. Vincent waited, but at the end of a year, since the situation was continuing, he went to receive the priesthood at the general ordinations of Périgueux, during the Ember Days of September 1600, at Château-l’Évêque. The ordinations were held there [and not in Périgueux] since Protestants had demolished the bishop’s residence and the cathedral of Saint-Étienne (not the current cathedral of Saint-Front).

He finished his studies at Toulouse in 1604 and received the baccalaureate in theology and the license to teach the Second Book of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, dealing with creation, sin, freedom and grace. He probably taught there until May or June 1605. Throughout his life he maintained his theological skills and his gift of teaching. At the time of the Jansenist problems, he drew up a short but magisterial treatise on grace.

After some adventures that he related in two autograph letters in which he asked his benefactor to send him his documents of ordination and his diplomas in theology, he explained his two-year silence. Captured by corsairs from the Barbary Coast and sold into the service of four different masters, a fisherman, an alchemist, the alchemist’s nephew, and finally a renegade Christian from Nice, who had taken up farming in the hills near Tunis, he was able to escape with him by sea to Avignon. There the renegade abjured his errors in the presence of the nuncio, who then became interested in Vincent’s knowledge of alchemy. He took Vincent with him to Rome in the autumn of 1607 in the hopes of obtaining for him a profitable employment.

Since his ordination letters lacked the bishop’s seal, Vincent had to request them a second time, from Rome, on 28 February 1608.

The extravagant style of his narrative has led some historians to look only in these letters and to doubt their veracity. Among other points, they note some dissimilarity between what Vincent wrote and the condition of the Turkish government on which North Africa depended, as well as the difficulties of crossing the Mediterranean.

Specialists have been able to answer these points, and a recent study shows that Vincent was well informed about the law of the land: G. Veinstein, L’Empire dans sa grandeur, in R. Mentra, Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman, Paris 1989, p. 190, who concludes, after reading Fr. Grandchamp, C.M., that Vincent showed an exact knowledge of the Ottoman government.

Other narratives and studies have shown that escapes by sea, of all kinds, were common. See João Mascarenhas, Esclave à Alger, Récit de captivité, (1621-1626), Éditions Chandeigne, 1993, 1999, and Bartolomé Bennassar and Lucile Bennassar, Les Chrétiens d’Allah, l’histoire extraordinaire des renégats, XVIe-XVIIe s., Perrin, 1989 (which made use of hundreds of archival documents.). In these works, the ease of conversation between Moslem women and Christian slaves, which the adversaries of the captivity use as an argument for its lack of probability, was on the contrary quite frequent. Without denying the complexity of the question, one cannot prove that Vincent had lied.

In particular, it is important to read the captivity letters completely and attentively, and not just the narrative section. No one has really done this, apart from two authors which had especially studied the juridical competence of Vincent: J. B. Boudignon, Saint Vincent de Paul, modèle des hommes d’action et d’œuvres, 3 editions, Paris, from 1886 to 1896, and Canon Fournier, Saint Vincent canoniste, in his feast day panegyric on Saint Vincent, 19 July 1929, where he deplores the fact that Vincent’s biographers had only pointed out his prudence, his patience, etc., and not his technical competence (Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission, n° 375, Vol. 94:4 [1929] pp. 763-74, especially 767-72).

However, Fr. Pierre Coste, the editor of Vincent’s letters, in 1920 indicated in note 37 that the "Monsieur d’Arnaudin" to whom Vincent also wrote, as he said at the end of the first letter, and the "Monsieur De La Lande" to whom he also sent the second letter, are in all likelihood respectively Pierre D’Arnaudin, a notary, and Bertrand De Lalande, king’s counselor and lieutenant general of the presidial court of Dax (a tribunal just below the parlementary courts), asking him to forward the letter to the king’s attorney. Would he have written outlandish stories to these kinds of men, particularly since in France it would have been possible to verify the accounts because there were agreements with the Turks and a consulate at Tunis?

With a little awareness of the laws governing notaries, a person can examine the two letters and see that they have a juridical and official character, and that they agree completely with the regulations described in Claude de Ferrière, La science parfaite des notaires, Paris, 1682 and 1733. In Book VIII, chap. VI, vol. II, page 53, it is clear that, besides being requests for letters of ordinations and diplomas, each letter also requests an atermoiement, a word which means "a term or delay granted to a debtor to pay his creditors; this happens by an amicable agreement between a debtor and his creditors." This should take place in the presence of a notary. This is why, since Vincent was out of France Avignon being papal territory—he sent a copy to his notary. This letter has to acknowledge the debts and the reason for the delay in payment, and lastly, as with all notarial documents, the signature must be accompanied by a paraphe, a special flourish proper to each person used only for official documents. These two letters have their paraphes as did all of Vincent’s notarial documents, which he never used for personal letters to his ordinary correspondents. This has not been previously noticed, since the historians were working on edited copies, not on the manuscripts, and Coste did not note this in his edition.

In other words, although these letters contain stylish accounts, they remain official administrative documents and have to be taken seriously. Even if we are permitted to think that Vincent dressed up his text somewhat, as he did throughout his life, it must be admitted that the basis for this history is true, that he was a real captive and escaped, as did so many others, although not all were successful.

Besides, these two letters are full of information about Vincent. We see in them his temperament, his ease in developing relationships, his search for money, his attachment to his friends and family, his mastery of the French language in which he was a true author, the expression of his Christian faith, and his interest in research, such as into medicine and alchemy.

After one year in Rome, he arrived at the end of 1608 not in Dax but in Paris, probably for a temporary mission, since already in 1610 he had been hoping to return to his mother with a good ecclesiastical benefice. He was dealing with a ruined abbey, Saint Leonard de Chaume, near La Rochelle, which only involved him in lawsuits. However, it also gave him the opportunity of befriending a good priest and learning his pastoral conduct among the Protestants who did not fulfill the Edict of Nantes in the places granted them. Vincent remained, therefore, in Paris.

These years of trials and failures led him to reflect, and he frequented the pious company of Pierre de Bérulle, who was then reading Teresa of Avila (he already had the first edition in Spanish), Ignatius Loyola, Louis of Granada, Francis of Assisi, Lorenzo Scupoli, Francis de Sales, and others. This did not stop Vincent, however, from still looking for income.

He stayed at the Oratory, founded by Bérulle on 11 November 1611. Its spirituality was centered on Jesus Christ, incarnate son of God. At the Oratory there was a weekly spiritual conference, especially on the feasts of the liturgical year; the Eucharist was venerated; the Virgin Mary had her place, as Bérulle insisted, in the mission of the Church, and he mentioned the poorest of the poor. Vincent was his first disciple, along with François Bourgoing, and until his death he maintained the practice of the conferences and the main lines of Bérulle’s spirit. He was able to draw nourishment from various spiritual currents while centering on the humanity of Jesus, eternal son of God and perfect adorer of his Father, sent by him to become incarnate among us, to impregnate us with his "states" and his spirit, and to send us to continue his mission. Our modern day calls this the French School of spirituality, but it was not a rigid "school", since authors from all countries nourished it. Bérulle was very open, and his disciples were of various types.

In 1612 Vincent took possession of the pastorate of Clichy near Paris, replacing Bourgoing who had joined the Oratory. He found a modest income there, as well as the management of a parish, and seigniorial dues to pay and other income to receive. This allowed him to work on the church building, and his pastorate brought him especially the joys of a zealous pastor amid good people.

He remained faithful to his pastorate even after he entered the household of the Gondis at the end of 1613 to tutor their children. Their young age allowed him time for study, meditation, and preaching to the peasants of the numerous Gondi villages, whom he invited to make a general confession, according to the practice already in existence.

His rare remaining sermons date from this period, and they are already centered on the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist in an attitude of adoration. They also deal especially with the catechism and cite the example of Protestants, as well as those of the saints. We find in him a solid sense of the Church and of the bishop.

One day in January 1617, near Amiens, an old man who had made his general confession confided to Madame de Gondi his joy in being freed, before death, from the great sins that he had hidden until then. Here we see Vincent freed from the seal of the confessional, since the lady told the story and asked him to preach on this in the church of Folleville on 25 January. The effect was such that he had to ask the Jesuits from Amiens to come and help him hear confessions. Vincent discovered that a mission would do much better if a team gave it.

During this period, Archbishop De Marquemont of Lyons wanted to make Châtillon-les-Dombes (now Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne) a center for missions, since the region had suffered from the conquest of this part of Savoy in 1599 under Henry IV. This small town had been returned to the French partly in ruins, but it had bandaged its wounds, and the parish was vital, animated by the sermons of the same Father Bourgoing, now an Oratorian, in 1616. The archbishop asked Bérulle to found a local Oratorian community there. Since one had already been founded in Lyons in January 1617, it seemed that it would satisfy the archbishop for Bérulle to ask Vincent to go to Châtillon. Doubtless happy to escape his obligations toward the Gondis, Vincent agreed at once and took possession of the parish on 1 August 1617. The six priests there, members of a "society," a sort of chapter of canons, were strong, and Vincent was able to work with a team.

One Sunday, before Mass, someone asked him to invite benevolent parishioners to help a poor sick family. The women responded beyond all expectations. The only thing to do was to suggest that they organize their activity to allow it to continue. After a temporary regulation, three months of common reflection brought them to a true rule of spiritual and charitable life. It joined union with God to love of the neighbor in spiritual and corporal service, "with charity, humility and simplicity."

Nourished by spiritual reading, these Ladies of Charity were able to evangelize the sick and accompany the dying while helping their sick bodies, all the while carefully managing their own funds. This association still exists, but with a new name in France, "Saint Vincent Teams." They are united into the International Association of Charities.

The Gondis succeeding in having Vincent return for Christmas 1617. At Châtillon, his assistant took over the care of the Charity and was named pastor. Madame de Gondi then freed Vincent from his teaching duties, and, with other volunteer priests, he gave missions in the villages belonging to the family, in the Île-de-France, Champagne and Picardy, where the established the Confraternities of Charity of which Madame de Gondi was the linchpin. He met many other persons, including the widow Louise de Marillac, who little by little became involved with the Charities.

In 1622, Francis de Sales had him named superior of the Visitation nuns in Paris, succeeding in that task Charles de la Saussaye, whom Francis named in 1619, at the time of the foundation of this monastery, and who died in December 1621. Vincent remained their superior until his death. In that period, he founded three other Visitation monasteries and regularly gave them spiritual conferences. He also did his best to raise money for them, as he did for other communities.

As for the missions, his collaborators grew tired, since they all did not have the same options or perhaps the same endurance. Struck by Matthew 25:40, what you have done to the least of my brethren, that you have done to me, Vincent believed that Jesus was really in the poor. He honored Jesus as much in the poor as in acts of devotion, something he did not reject, but did not multiply, either.

Three companions seemed determined. Madame de Gondi persuaded him to join with them "for the salvation of the poor souls, to honor the mystery of the Incarnation, the life and the death of Jesus Christ, for the love of his most holy mother." Funds were handed over on 17 April 1625, but on 23 June, Madame de Gondi died, worn out in the service of the poor. The first three confreres joined Vincent on 4 September 1626. This Congregation of the Mission intended to preach the gospel to the poor following Jesus, who proclaimed this his mission in Luke 4:18. It grew rapidly and spread out beyond the lands of the Gondis.

Vincent and his missioners emphasized especially the Trinity, creation, the end of man, which is heaven, but they could not omit teaching about the Incarnation and the life of Jesus, the sacraments, sin and the final judgment. Although he had written, in the draft of a sermon, "to draw souls from sin and to attract them to good," he soon corrected it to read: "to attract souls to heaven." This was his typical emphasis, since he knew well that all are sinners. To a dying brother, perhaps weighed down by his sins, he declared: "The throne of [God’s] mercy is the greatness of the sins to be forgiven." We are here far from a terrifying deity. The missioners preached on morals in the early morning, calling this the "sermon," and on doctrine in the evening, something they called "the great catechism."

Various bishops, and then Adrien Bourdoise and Bérulle, had opened seminaries to better form priests, but without evident success. Vincent saw the need for good pastors to maintain the results of the missions, realizing that many candidates would dislike being closed up to study for a lengthy period. At the suggestion of the bishop of Beauvais in 1628, he simply began retreats of two weeks’ duration to prepare candidates for ordinations. For this, they received conferences on doctrine, morals, and pastoral ministry, in particular the administration of the sacraments, and they had practical exercises.

This was perceived to be so fruitful that these exercises for the ordinands were requested almost everywhere. In a short period they could only be refreshed in the rudiments of the faith and inculcated with a sense of adoration. The missioners invited them to let themselves be impregnated with the acts, the virtues and the sentiments of Jesus, with love for the Eucharist, and with care for a worthy apostolic life. In his expression, this was "reverence toward His Father and charity toward mankind."

Portrait of St Vincent de PaulMany participants asked to have their formation continued in the same active way, and beginning in 1633, the Tuesday Conferences began. In these, the priests shared what they had accomplished on the subject adopted the preceding week. He asked them to read a passage of the Gospel every day, adoring the truths in it, entering into the sentiments of these truths and determining to practice them. One of them, Jean-Jacques Olier, worked out this formula: "Jesus in our spirit, in our heart and in our hands." Their spirit was "to honor the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, his eternal priesthood, his holy family, and his love for the poor." In their turn, these young priests preached missions. One of these was Bossuet, who began his long service as a preacher during a mission given in Metz.

In the meantime, the former leprosarium of Saint-Lazare, north of Paris, a seigniory with "high, middle and low jurisdiction," had been handed over to the missioners, not without some obstacles, and from this place comes the community’s popular name of Lazarists. Here is Father Vincent, now a feudal lord, with dues to gather, having to manage the Saint-Lawrence Fair under his jurisdiction, and passing judgment with lay personnel (a bailiff, judge and sergeant-at-arms.) No one could have imagined this. He made the best of it all, for the sake of the poor.

The Charities grew rapidly. In Paris, the Ladies of Charity did not prove equal to the task and so used their servants to help them, something that clearly was not their vocation. Beginning in 1630, while he was helping Madame de Villeneuve in founding the Daughters of Providence, established to help young women in danger, some good village girls came forward to serve the poor under the direction of the Ladies. The best known of these was Marguerite Naseau, who died from contact with a plague-stricken woman in the spring of 1633. Louise de Marillac agreed to handle this work, and she assembled them at length, on 29 November 1633, founding thereby, with Vincent, the Daughters of Charity. They would have the same spirit as the Ladies: "to honor Our Lord Jesus Christ and his holy mother in their spiritual and corporal service of the sick poor," by instructing them in the things necessary for salvation, with charity, humility and simplicity.

They had no sooner started in the parishes of Paris that they were requested nearly everywhere. Beginning in 1632, the troops of Louis XIII and Richelieu with the support of Protestant Swedes, had invaded Lorraine. Its duke had welcomed Gaston d’Orléans, Louis XIII’s brother and Richelieu’s sworn enemy, and he had given Gaston his sister in marriage. Refugees soon flocked to Paris, and they had to be helped. Vincent did so with the baron of Renty and the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, whose members sent aid to the area around Nancy. Later, he sent the Daughters to the armies to care for the wounded in Champagne and Picardy.

In 1634, he supported the Augustinian sister Geneviève Bouquet in reforming the hospital Sisters of the Hôtel-Dieu of Paris, and Madame Goussault in founding the Ladies of Charity at this same hospital. Their gifts extended to Lorraine and then to other entire provinces, together with other gifts. They always collaborated with the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, and Charles Maignart de Bernières, one of whose daughters was a nun at Port-Royal, handled their accounts.

In 1635 Vincent sent missioners to Toul, and from 1639 to about 1645, each month convoys left with aid for the Lorrainers. These missioners accompanied the columns of refugees streaming to the cities, especially to Paris. In Paris, another work was that of the abandoned infants, the Foundlings. His Daughters became their mothers beginning in 1638, generously supported by the Ladies.

Beginning in 1641, he worked on the major seminaries of Annecy, Cahors, etc. The houses for rural missions became numerous, as did the houses of the Sisters.

To help this world to live, he ran farms, and the king granted him taxes on royal domains, tolls, etc. He invested also in several companies of coaches, portions of which were granted to one or other religious communities. Perhaps some reduced prices were granted to the missioners, to the Daughters and to the Ladies for their various trips.

He brought all this together in the spiritual life: a fiscal manager was the image or the actualizing of Providence. Just as the divine persons of the Trinity watched over the world in their dealings among themselves, so the servants of the poor should join contemplation and interior dialogue with God to their work. They should manifest God’s charity and providence to the poor.

Father Vincent became a well-known person. In vain he appealed to Richelieu for peace. After the death of Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, the regent of France , would summon him to the Council of Conscience, a kind of ministry of ecclesiastical affairs, to handle nominations to dioceses, abbeys, professorates of theology at the Sorbonne, etc. More than once he would have to resist Mazarin, not always successfully. Many notable persons appreciated, advised and aided him financially.

Then the danger of Jansenism appeared. Vincent had already noted it in his friend Saint-Cyran, and he then became embroiled in the struggle with other theologians and bishops, leading up to the papal condemnation of the Five Propositions. His friend Nicolas Cornet derived these from several student theses at the Sorbonne, and they seemed to be found also in the book Augustinus, by Cornelius Jansen, a theologian from Louvain.

But, while struggling against this teaching, according to which Jesus Christ did not die for all but only for the predestined, Vincent still refused to attack persons. When he had to submit to questioning on 31 March, and 1 and 2 April 1639, at the time of the internment of Saint-Cyran, he regularly responded evasively. Nevertheless, through the Daughters of Charity, through him and through the Ladies of Charity, gifts passed from Marie de Gonzague, who became queen of Poland , to Mother Angélique Arnauld, abbess of Port-Royal des Champs, to care for all the poor in the surrounding villages. Even more, he never became embroiled with his colleague Maignart de Bernières in the help given to Champagne, Picardy and the Île-de-France. The same was true with priests and bishops who favored Jansenism. He continued to invite them to submit to Rome’s judgment. Jansenius had written in two places in his book that he would submit to Rome, but he died before the book appeared and Rome rendered its judgment. His disciples, however, did not follow him on this point.

In these same years, he founded rural missions in Corsica, Italy , Scotland , Ireland and Poland . He also finally attained in two stages his great dream of a distant mission. The first step was in the world of Islam, by supporting Christian slaves captured in Tunis and Algiers in 1645. The second was his pride and joy, Madagascar , in 1648. Unfortunately, he experienced the death of several missioners, either during their journey or in Madagascar . This happened at the same time that plague was decimating his confreres in Genoa, and while Cromwell’s persecution was ravaging his men in Scotland and Ireland . His faith had suffered a great shock, but he turned back for support to the beginnings of the Church, which God built despite the apparent destruction of the martyrs.

In 1649, it was the Fronde and its attendant evils, from Champagne in the east to the doors of Paris, and even south to Aquitaine. Vincent went to Saint-Germain to suggest that Mazarin resign to secure peace, but in vain. After a prudent escape, almost a Far West escapade on horseback in midwinter with his secretary Brother Ducournau, he helped in the negotiations for reconciliation, but he would never be summoned back to the Council of Conscience.

All the while participating in several missions, despite the problems he had with his legs, Vincent continued to form his disciples. Despite the sack of the libraries and the archives of Saint-Lazare by the revolutionaries on 13 July 1789, we still have two volumes of around 400 pages with his conferences to the missioners, and two volumes of 700 pages with conferences to the Sisters, besides eight volumes of his letters.

He never wrote books, but he wanted to bequeath a summary of his manner of living following Christ the worshipper of the Father and the evangelizer of the poor. After working for ten years with his confreres, he finally distributed the little volume of the Common Rules in 1658. It is a well-constructed synthesis on four main lines: the Trinity, the source from which all has come and to which all will return; the Incarnation, since Jesus is the center and the "prototype of all human states and conditions;" the Eucharist; and the Virgin Mary. Practice relies on four basic virtues: search for the glory of God, and for the will of God; abandonment to Providence; and the charity of Jesus Christ which impels us; and on five virtues which facilitate missionary contact: humility, simplicity, meekness, forgetfulness of self (which he called mortification) and zeal. "If love is a fire, zeal is its flame." Everything is animated in prayer.

His study and experience, with those of his confreres and the sisters, come out in this short text (although some out-of-date points have caused them to be neglected today), and in his commentaries on the rules. His conferences are dense and present a profound teaching, clothed in a vibrant and sometimes sparkling style. One can perceive in them a mystical experience that he modestly always tried to hide. After asking the sisters: "Do you know, my Daughters, whether God wants to make Saint Teresas out of you?" he then spoke about infused contemplation and pure love. It seems that he was speaking of his own experience, but here we are trespassing onto his private life.

During the last months of his life he was confined to his room because of sores in his legs, but he continued to run his families, thanks to his faithful brother secretaries. One of his confreres kept a careful record of his final weeks.

According to the customs of the period, his liver, intestines and heart were extracted and put aside, and his body was buried in a space under the choir of the chapel, the following day, the 28th. Henri de Maupas du Tour gave his funeral oration on 23 November at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, Paris.

After several years, his confreres held hearings with the survivors in various regions, and this continued as they prepared the process of his beatification, which began officially only in 1705. The beatification took place on 21 August 1729. On 25 September, his coffin was opened, and the distribution of relics began, since custom insisted that some go to the pope and to various authorities. Finally, two miracles out of six were recognized, and his canonization was celebrated on 16 June 1737, together with those of Francis Regis, Juliana Falconieri and Catherine of Genoa (Catherine Fieschi).

At the Revolution, the motherhouse (Saint-Lazare), which fed some 800 poor each day, was sacked on 13 July 1789. Then his bones were hidden, and the Congregation was at length suppressed in France in 1792. Since Saint-Lazare had become a women’s prison, Louis XVIII, in 1817, turned over to the Lazarists (Vincentians), the Hôtel de Lorges, 95 rue de Sèvres, where the remains of Saint Vincent remain in a shrine ordered by the archbishop of Paris, thanks to a national appeal, and where they were placed in 1830.

Besides the Ladies of Charity, now the Saint Vincent Teams, the Sisters of the Christian Union, the Congregation of the Mission (Lazarists), all founded by him, other institutions claim his spirit: the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Religious of Saint Vincent de Paul, and many women’s congregation. In Paris in the nineteenth century, there was even a Masonic lodge of Saint Vincent de Paul, patron of philanthropists. In 1885, after many requests, Leo XIII named Vincent patron of works of charity.

St Vincent De Paul
by Bernard Koch, C.M.

God BlessYou!