Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 42

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Index of Abelly: Book One

The Help Given by Monsieur Vincent to the Poor of Paris and Several Other Places During the Troubled Times of 1652 and Later

We have spoken in an earlier chapter of the charity rendered by Monsieur Vincent to the poor of Lorraine, Champagne, and Picardy. New troubles arose in the kingdom in 1652, and these gave new opportunity for much wider scope to his charity. <Ftn: The battles of the second phase of the Fronde, occasioned by the return of Mazarin to the court, December 1651. The battles came to the area around Paris.> God willed that the merits of his faithful servant should be increased, as well as those of all the other virtuous people who cooperated in obtaining the spiritual good and the corporal relief of the poor. Here is how these things came about.

The stationing of the army near Paris caused great desolation and misery everywhere. The town of Etampes suffered particularly because it had been under siege for a long time, and would be again several times afterward. The people of the town and neighboring villages were in a pitiable state of depression and poverty. Most were sick and were reduced to skin and bones. No help was to be found, no one to offer even a glass of cold water. To add to the troubles of the town, it had been taken and retaken until finally the plague struck. This happened chiefly because of the corpses thrown on the dung heaps. The rotting flesh of both men and women, mingled with that of horses and other animals, gave forth such a stench that no one dared come near.

Monsieur Vincent became aware of the miserable condition of the town and its environs. He immediately contacted the Ladies of Charity, who responded with their usual generosity, and he sent several members of the Congregation to provide spiritual and physical help to these poor and abandoned people. One of the first things they did was to bring in some strong helpers with wagons, to clean up all the dung heaps and sweep up the city. All this cost a good bit, as can be imagined. In addition they gave a decent burial to the poor half-decomposed bodies and then perfumed the streets and houses so that they could again be lived in. They set up soup kitchens in Etampes as well as in some other nearby towns which the missionaries judged to have been badly treated by the army or where the people were in the worst straits. Besides Etampes, Guillerval, Villeconnin, Etrechy, and Saint Arnoult sent their needy to be fed. At Palaiseau the soldiers had been particularly vicious, requiring a soup kitchen there as well. Many of the parishes were without pastors, who had either died or perhaps had fled. The priests of the Mission could not manage both the spiritual and corporal help so badly needed. Monsieur Vincent sent the Daughters of Charity to handle the soup kitchens and other bodily help, including the care of a great number of poor orphans of the region. These latter were housed together in a building in Etampes. Meanwhile, the fathers crisscrossed the area, visiting and consoling the poor, saying mass for them, giving instruction, and administering the sacraments, all done with the approval of the superiors.

All this activity in favor of the poor was given at a price. There was the extreme fatigue, not to mention the danger of contracting the very illnesses they were seeking to alleviate, due to the ever-present danger of infection. And so it happened. Several of the missionaries fell ill and soon succumbed. <Ftn: Jean David, who died at Etampes, Francois Labbe, and Edmonde Deschamps, were taken to the chateau de Basville near Etampes, and cared for by president Lamoignon. Jacques de Lafosse, the other missionary, was carried back to Saint Lazare by his companions on a stretcher. Others are mentioned in the saint's letters.> Who could doubt that their death was precious in the eyes of the Lord? These men who had striven so courageously for his glory, who had persevered in an inviolable fidelity to his holy will by their prompt and perfect obedience, and who had then happily finished their course, would certainly have received their crown of justice from the God of all mercy.

Several Daughters of Charity, after much suffering brought about by their service to the poor, also offered their lives with great courage to God and undoubtedly shared the glory of the same crown as the priests. <Ftn: In particular, Sister Marie Joseph, mentioned by Saint Vincent in a conference to the Daughters of Charity, June 9, 1658, CED X:510.>

While Monsieur Vincent was thus occupied with these matters, God allowed another situation to arise which gave him further opportunity to exercise his charity. The armies descended upon Paris, causing havoc in all surrounding villages and towns. When it was reported to this "father of the poor" that the people of Juvisy and the surrounding country were in a desperate state, he immediately sent some of his priests with alms to distribute to the most needy. When it became apparent that the desolation was widespread, for the region had been pillaged and the people very badly treated by the soldiers, and that most of the inhabitants were in a very grave and even extreme condition, Monsieur Vincent and several other men and women joined forces to help these poor people. In view of the great expense involved in providing what was needed, their charity, or rather the God of all goodness, suggested to them that they should organize a storehouse for goods. People of all conditions were invited to bring furniture, clothing, tools, provisions, and whatever else they could spare. It was almost impossible for most families to donate money, for it was a time when money was very difficult to obtain.

We should not fail to mention that it was particularly Monsieur du Plessis-Montbard who should receive credit for this charitable storehouse. He was the first to propose the plan, and he saw to it that it was carried out. <Ftn: Christophe du Plessis, baron de Montbard, a lawyer of the Parlement of Paris, one of the most active members of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, and one of the most charitable men of his time. He contributed greatly to various hospitals, dying May 7, 1672. His Magasin charitable was also the title of a publication designed to inform the public and encourage contributions to this work. CED IV:540.> We shall speak more of this in Book Two. <Ftn: Ch. 11.>

These storehouses were an endless source of help to them for six or seven months. All manner of goods were distributed: clothes, linen, furniture, utensils, tools, medicines, grain, peas, butter, oil, fruit, and other things necessary for life. Even such things as vestments, chalices, ciboriums, liturgical books, and other sacred ornaments and linens were given out because many of the churches had been looted. All these items were centrally collected and then distributed in an orderly fashion. The fathers of the Mission went from village to village in wagons loaded with food and used clothing to be given according to each one's needs. Also, it should be added that a daily distribution of soup helped save the lives of innumerable starving families who did not even know how to begin to find bread to live.

The exertions of the missionaries were so extreme in this dedication to the poor, and the illnesses they contracted so serious, that four or five died and several others were sick for many years. <Ftn: CED IV:432-36.> Although Monsieur Vincent felt these losses deeply, for these good fathers were his spiritual sons, he nevertheless praised and blessed God that they had worked and suffered so much for the members of the body of Christ with such courage. They had completed their lives gloriously on the field of battle, their arms in hand. He knew full well that such a death is not death at all but entrance into a new and happier life in full possession of Him who is the source and principle of all true life.

Besides the help to those who lived in the villages outside of Paris, others were fleeing before the army and had come to the capital for refuge. Among these were many women and young girls, and even some religious women. Monsieur Vincent found a way to group a certain number of them together and to find places of refuge for them. He requested some Ladies of Charity to undertake this work with one group of women in each house. After seeing to their bodily nourishment Monsieur Vincent urged that those who cared for the displaced persons should use the opportunity to conduct a sort of mission for them. In it they would receive instruction, badly needed by some, on what was required for salvation and how to make a good confession, and how to put themselves in a worthy state to offer prayers for peace and tranquility in the kingdom. He advised also that a retreat for religious should be given as well. On this question he wrote of all the troubles of the times to a doctor of theology of the University of Paris, who at that time was in Rome: <Ftn: Jerome Lagault.>

I have no doubt that you are aware of how things are. I want simply to tell you about carrying of the shrine of Saint Genevieve in a solemn procession to beseech God to bring a halt to all public suffering through the intercession of this saint. This ceremony brought together more devout people than have ever before been seen in Paris. The result of this was that on the eighth day the duke of Lorraine, who already was in the city and whose army was at its gates, turned about just as the king's army was about to fire upon his men, and withdrew to his own lands. Meanwhile the discussions with other princes <Ftn: The Prince de Conde and the Duke of Orleans.> continue on the question of peace, and we hope, through the goodness of God, that these talks will be successful. We devoutly wish that his justice will be appeased by the great charity shown to the bashful poor of the city as well as to the poor country people who have taken refuge here. Every day fourteen or fifteen thousand people are fed who otherwise would have died of hunger. Besides, eight or nine hundred young girls have been gathered together in several houses. Some poor women religious refugees are being placed in houses also, even in some suspected places, it is said. A monastery is being used for this purpose where they will be well looked after. That is the news, Monsieur, and although it goes against our agreement to put nothing in writing, how could I not publicize the grandeur of God and his mercies! <Ftn: CED IV:400-03.>

We must not forget that it was the Daughters of Charity who distributed the soup, while the Ladies of Charity took an active part by their alms, sharing in all the great works of charity. Since the poor were spread out to all parts of Paris, especially the outlying districts, Monsieur Vincent had a particular concern for the welfare of those who lived near Saint Lazare. These people, some seven or eight hundred, came every day to his door both in the morning and afternoon to receive food and to participate in the same practices that are followed on the missions. After preaching to them, the men and boys were brought into the cloister of Saint Lazare and then divided into nine or ten groups or "academies." A priest was assigned to each group for instruction, while at the same time other priests spoke to the women and girls in the church. Monsieur Vincent himself participated in this work and shared in catechizing the poor.

It pleased God to shower his blessings on all these charitable activities begun by Monsieur Vincent, so much so that they have continued when other troubles arose, even after the death of this great servant of God. He seemed, like another Elijah, to have left his mantle not only to the members of his own Congregation but also to all the other virtuous people who joined him in fulfilling his mission of charity. Such an occasion arose in the beginning of 1661 when it was decreed that lace making would no longer be allowed. Previously, this had been a source of livelihood for many. Now, with its prohibition, many were reduced to great want and suffering. At the same time the price of wheat shot up. Also, in July and August of the same year an epidemic developed in the countryside which made it impossible for many to work at the harvest. As a consequence the price of bread and other foodstuffs increased significantly. The vicars general of Paris commissioned several priests of the Congregation of the Mission to make a survey of the entire diocese on the condition of things. They found that there were more than eight thousand sick in the eighty parishes they visited, and similar conditions existed elsewhere. These people, consequently, were mostly without any means of subsistence. Entire families were stricken and the scarcity of food was evident everywhere. In face of this, the same remedy was applied as during the lifetime of Monsieur Vincent. The Ladies of Charity led the way in collecting food and other necessities, and with the help of the alms they received they were able to aid the poor everywhere.

The famine of 1661 continued during the following year as well, not only near Paris but also in several other provinces: Maine, Perche, Beauce, Touraine, Blaisois, Berry, Gatinais, and elsewhere. The Ladies of Charity felt in their hearts the same sentiments that had moved Monsieur Vincent to undertake the relief of the poor in all sorts of circumstances with indefatigable charity. These holy women carried out these projects, especially the feeding of the hungry. God blessed their efforts so that they, together with the help of the missionaries of Monsieur Vincent, rescued from death a large number of the poor of every age, gender and condition. Without it, they otherwise would surely have been lost. The alms they distributed from 1660, the year of Monsieur Vincent's death until now, 1664, came to more than five hundred thousand livres.

Index of Abelly: Book One