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St. Vincent de Paul was born to a poor peasant family in the French village of Pouy.
He did so well learning at the hands of Franciscans that he was hired to tutor other children. He used the monies he earned teaching to continue his formal studies at the University of Toulose, where he studied theology and was ordained in 1600.
In 1605, while on a ship traveling from Marseilles to Narbone, he was captured, brought to Tunis and sold as a slave. Two years later, he and his master managed to escape and both returned to France.
St. Vincent went to Avignon and later to Rome to continue his studies. While there he became a chaplain to the Count of Goigny and was placed in charge of distributing money to the deserving poor. He became pastor of a small parish in Clichy for a short period of time, while also serving as a tutor and spiritual director.
From that point forward he spent his life preaching missions and providing relief to the poor. He even established hospitals for them. This work became his passion. He later extended his concern and ministry to convicts. In order to reach more people, he founded the Ladies of Charity, a lay institute of women, to help, as well as a religious institute of priests — the Congregation of Priests of the Mission, commonly referred to now as the Vincentians.
In Vincent’s day many priests were neither well-formed nor faithful to their way of life. He helped reform the clergy through the presentation of retreats and later by helping develop a precursor to our modern day seminaries. At one point his community was directing 53 upper level seminaries. His retreats, open to priests and laymen, were so well attended that it is said he infused a “Christian spirit among more than 20,000 persons in his last 23 years.”
The Vincentians remain with us today with nearly 4,000 members in 86 countries. In addition to his order of Vincentian priests, St. Vincent co-founded the Daughters of Charity along with St. Louise de Marillac. There are more than 18,000 Daughters today serving the needs of the poor in 94 countries.
He was 80 years old when he died in Paris on Sept. 27, 1660. He had “become the symbol of the successful reform of the French church.”
St. Vincent is sometimes referred to as “The Apostle of Charity” and “The Father of the Poor.”