St. Vincent was born in 1581 in the village of Pouy in Gascony, in the Province of Guyenne and Gascony, the Kingdom of France, to peasant farmers, father Jean and Bertrande de Moras de Paul. There was in the vicinity, a stream named the “Paul” and it is believed that this might have been the derivation of the family name. Vincent himself wrote the name as one word – Depaul, possibly to avoid the inference that he was of noble birth, but none of his correspondents did so. He had three brothers – Jean, Bernard and Gayon, and two sisters – Marie and Marie-Claudine. Vincent was the third child. At an early age, he showed a talent for reading and writing but during his childhood, his work was as a herder of his family’s livestock. At 15, his father sent him to seminary, managing to pay for it by selling the family’s oxen.
For two years, he received his education at a college in Dax, France adjoining a monastery of the Friars Minor where Vincent and others resided. In 1597, he began his studies in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Toulouse. The atmosphere at the university was anything but pious or conducive to spiritual contemplation. Fights broke out between various factions of students which escalated into armed battles. During the course of the unrest, an official was murdered by two students. Nevertheless, Vincent continued his studies and was able to help pay for his education by tutoring others. He was ordained on 23 September 1600 at the age of nineteen in Château-l’Évêque, near Périgueux. This was against the regulations established by the Council of Trent which required a minimum of 24 years of age for ordination and when Vincent was appointed parish priest in Tilh, it was appealed against in the Court of Rome. Rather than respond to a lawsuit in which he would probably not have prevailed, he resigned from the position and continued his studies. On 12 October 1604 he received his Bachelor of Theology from the University of Toulouse. Later he received a Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of Paris.
Abduction and enslavement
In 1605 Vincent left Marseilles by ship, on his way back from Castres, where he had gone to sell some property he had received in an inheritance from a wealthy patron in Toulouse, and was taken captive by Barbary pirates, who brought him to Tunis. De Paul was auctioned off as a slave to the highest bidder, and spent two years in bondage.
His first master was a fisherman, but Vincent was unsuitable for this line of work due to sea-sickness and was soon sold. His next master was a spagyrical physician, alchemist and inventor. Vincent became fascinated by his arts and was taught how to prepare and administer his master’s spagyric remedies. At that time, science and medicine were far more advanced in Muslim countries than in Europe, where medicine was little more than speculative medical quackery, the exception being those herbalists and traditional healers whose knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, fungi and minerals had been passed down through generations. These traditional healers, who lacked any formal education for the most part, were almost completely obscured by the pseudo-science of the “learnéd”.
The fame of Vincent’s master became so great that it attracted the attention of men who summoned him to Istanbul. During the passage, the old man died and Vincent was sold once again. Vincent’s new master was a former priest and Franciscan from Nice, named Guillaume Gautier. He had converted to Islam in order to gain his freedom from slavery and was living in the mountains with three wives. The second wife, a Muslim by birth, was drawn to Vincent and visited him in the fields to question him about his faith. She became convinced that his faith was true and admonished her husband for renouncing his Christianity. He became remorseful and decided to escape back to France with his slave. They had to wait ten months, but finally they secretly boarded a small boat and crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Aigues-Mortes on 28 June 1607.
Return to Europe
After returning to France, de Paul went to Rome. There he continued his studies until 1609, when he was sent back to France on a mission to King Henry IV; he served as chaplain to Marguerite de Valois. For a while he was parish priest at Clichy, but from 1612 he began to serve the Gondi, an illustrious family. He was confessor and spiritual director to Madame de Gondi. It was the Countess de Gondi who persuaded her husband to endow and support a group of able and zealous missionaries who would work among poor tenant farmers and country people in general.
In 1617, De Paul founded the “Ladies of Charity” (French: Dames de la Charité) from a group of women within his parish. He organized these wealthy women of Paris to collect funds for missionary projects, found hospitals, and gather relief funds for the victims of war and to ransom 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. From these, with the help of St. Louise de Marillac, came the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (French: Filles de la Charité).
In 1622 de Paul was appointed chaplain to the galleys. After working for some time in Paris among imprisoned galley-slaves, he returned to be the leader of what is now known as the Congregation of the Mission, or the “Vincentians”. These priests, with vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, were to devote themselves entirely to the people in smaller towns and villages.
He was zealous in conducting retreats for clergy at a time when there was great laxity, abuse and ignorance among them. He was a pioneer in clerical training and was instrumental in establishing seminaries.
Vincent de Paul died at Paris, 27 September 1660.
In 1705, the Superior-General of the Lazarists requested that the holy process of de Paul’s canonization be instituted. On 13 August 1729, Vincent was declared blessed by Pope Benedict XIII. He was canonized nearly eight years later by Pope Clement XII on 16 June 1737.
St. Vincent’s body was exhumed in 1712, 53 years after his death. The written account of an eyewitness states that “the eyes and nose alone showed some decay”. However, when the body was exhumed again during the canonization in 1737, it was found to have decomposed due to an underground flood. His bones have been encased in a waxen figure which is displayed in a glass reliquary in the chapel of the headquarters of the Vincentian fathers in Paris. His heart is still incorrupt, and is displayed in a reliquary in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris.
In 1737, his feast day was included in the Roman calendar for celebration on 19 July, because his day of death was already used for the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian. It was given the rank of “Double”, which was changed to the equivalent rank of “Third-Class Feast” in 1960. The 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar transferred his memorial to 27 September, moving Cosmas and Damian to 26 September to make way for him, as he is now better known in the West than they.
St. Vincent is honoured with a feast day on 27 September in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (USA).
One of the feasts celebrated by the French Deist Church of the Theo philanthropy was dedicated to Vincent de Paul.
In 1885, Pope Leo XIII named him patron of the Sisters of Charity. He is also patron to the Brothers of Charity.
St. Vincent de Paul is the patron of all works of charity. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, a charitable organisation dedicated to the service of the poor, was established by French university students in 1833, led by the Blessed Frederic Ozanam. The Society is today present in 132 countries.