Earlier this year, I had the profound experience of traveling to France, specifically the cities of Paris and Avignon. This was my first time in the country, and in my quest to find places of historic Catholic significance, I discovered St. Vincent de Paul’s tomb along with St. Catherine Laboure’s incorrupt body, both of which were located in Paris.
Figure 1: Bones of St. Vincent de Paul encased in a wax figure of the saint. His heart is incorrupt and housed in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Photo by Dana Edwards Szigeti.
I had heard of these saints before, but I wanted to learn more about their lives. I knew the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was dedicated to serving the poor and that our family had made local donations to this organization. For a retreat, I had visited the seminary in Florida (my home state) which is named after St. Vincent, but I didn’t know the history behind the saint.
Born into a poor French peasant family, St. Vincent was educated by Franciscans and entered the priesthood. Just five years after his ordination in 1600, St. Vincent was captured and sold as a slave in Tunis. During his imprisonment, he vowed to God that he would devote his life to serving the poor if he escaped. Two years later, he escaped and led a life of establishing hospitals for the poor, ministering to convicts, reforming the clergy during a time when there weren’t many priests in France, and instructing and preparing young men for the priesthood. “Go to the poor,” St. Vincent said. “You will find God.”
In discovering more about this industrious saint, I was struck by how many more saints he formed and inspired.
As St. Louise de Marillac’s spiritual guide, St. Vincent encouraged her to pursue charitable works. Together with St. Louise, St. Vincent de Paul founded the Daughters of Charity in 1633. Their religious institution was the first non-cloistered religious order of women devoted to active works of charity. St. Louise trained young women not only in the spiritual life but also in the corporal works of mercy.
Figure 2: Remains of St. Louise de Marillac encased in her wax figure at the chapel of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Photo by Dana Edwards Szigeti.
The order established soup kitchens, organized hospitals for the needy, set up schools and homes for orphans, offered job training, taught young children, and even sought to improve prison conditions.
From the very beginning of the order’s founding, St. Louise dedicated it to the Blessed Mother.
In 1830, Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Laboure, a member of the Daughters of Charity, and entrusted her with developing the Miraculous Medal.
Figure 3: Incorrupt body of St. Catherine Laboure pictured to the bottom left; the blue chair on the right is the one in which the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Catherine. Photo by Dana Edwards Szigeti.
In 1833, St. Vincent de Paul admirer Blessed Frederic Ozanam founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in France. And during the nineteenth century, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded a community of sisters in the United States who then joined the Daughters of Charity in France, becoming the first community of the Daughters of Charity in America.
As we celebrate St. Vincent de Paul’s feast day on September 27, let us consider how our actions inspire those around us like St. Vincent’s did for future saints to follow. Let us pray and listen to the Holy Spirit and see his movement in both our lives and the lives of others. How might the Holy Spirit be calling us to model the patron saint of charitable societies? How might we be called to encourage others around us to be saints?
“Grace strengthens you in order to sanctify you and sanctifies you so that you might encourage others in the way of salvation.” – St. Vincent de Paul, III; 258
Figure 4: Eucharistic adoration in the chapel at the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity. Photo by Dana Edwards Szigeti.