Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 30

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Index of Abelly: Book One

The Establishment of a Foundling Hospital

Painters wishing to depict the virtue of charity often use the image of a woman with many breasts and several children in her arms and in her lap. If we wanted to represent the charity of Monsieur Vincent we could use the same symbol, for it is appropriate to the subject of this chapter. We shall see this saintly man as father provider, saving a great number of neglected and abandoned children, earning the right to be credited with saving countless lives. He provided a substitute for those cruel and inhuman mothers who abandoned and exposed their children in the persons of other charitable women who stepped in to rescue and nurture these poor unfortunate infants. This truly Christian undertaking began in this way.

The city of Paris is exceedingly large with an almost countless number of inhabitants. Of necessity there are a certain number of disorders among the people, not all of which can be prevented or remedied. One of the most pernicious of these is the abandonment of newly-born infants, whose life and even salvation is put in jeopardy. The unnatural mothers or others who are responsible for this crime against these innocent creatures, are not concerned about having them baptized into the state of grace.

It has been stated that every year at least three or four hundred abandoned children have been found in Paris or in its immediate suburbs. The commissioners of the Chatelet of Paris are responsible for picking up these children, reporting where they were found, and their condition.

They were first brought to a house called La Couche ["the bed"] in the Rue Saint Landry, where a widow and one or two servants received them and attempted to look after them. She was unable to attend to such a large number, nor was she able to find wet-nurses for all or to care for and raise those who were weaned. The cost of the enterprise was so much for her, that a large proportion of the children died of neglect. Sometimes the servants gave a drug to stop the children from crying, but this caused some to die. Those who survived were either given to whomever would come to claim them or sold for the trifling sum of twenty sous. They were bought to be nursed by women past the appropriate age, and their unhealthy milk caused the children to die. Others were to substitute for children in families who used them for evil purposes. On other occasions these children were bought for diabolic and magical rites. All these poor innocents seemed condemned to death, or worse, because nobody was seriously concerned about them. What is worse, some died without baptism. The widow who first took them in stated that she had neither baptized any children herself nor had them baptized by others.

This strange disorder in a city as prosperous as Paris, one well policed and Christian, deeply touched the heart of Monsieur Vincent when be became aware of the problem. Not knowing what course to take, he spoke to the Ladies of Charity. He encouraged them to go to the house which received these children, not so much to see if such evil existed, but rather to see if some way existed to remedy the sad situation. They were deeply moved at the sad plight of these poor innocents who in truth were more to be pitied than those massacred by Herod. Unable to take responsibility for all, they considered taking some at least, to save a few. They first agreed to care for twelve, but not knowing the designs of God upon any of them, they chose them by lot to honor divine Providence. In 1638, they were taken to a rented house outside the Saint Victor gate of the city, and placed under Mademoiselle le Gras' care, helped by several Daughters of Charity sent by Monsieur Vincent. At first they were fed with goats' and cows' milk, and later wet-nurses were provided.

These virtuous ladies took in others from time to time as their resources and devotion would allow, always by lot as in the beginning. Their burning charity made them hope to serve all the other children, but the expense of feeding and educating so many was beyond their resources. The impossibility of carrying out this desirable task confined it for the moment to their noble hearts, without their actually being able to carry it out.

After much prayer and lengthy discussion, a general assembly of the women was called at the beginning of 1640. <Ftn: CED XIII:779-85.> Monsieur Vincent spoke in terms born of his zeal, of the importance and necessity of this good work and the great service to God it would be to practice excellently a virtue so agreeable to him. A general resolution was adopted to undertake the nurture and education of these children. <Ftn: CED II:6-7.> To avoid haste, following the advice of their wise director, they resolved to begin slowly. This would be an experiment, with no formal obligation to continue, since they had only twelve hundred to fourteen hundred livres yearly of assured income. Later the king assigned them the alms of five of his large farms, which amounted to twelve thousand livres yearly, thanks to Monsieur Vincent's intervention with the queen mother. Nevertheless, since their expenses came to nearly forty thousand livres, the Ladies found it difficult to meet this obligation and feared they would be overwhelmed.

This caused Monsieur Vincent to call another general assembly around 1648 to decide if the Ladies ought to conclude their involvement or continue to care for these children. They were at liberty to take this decision, for no other obligation bound them except their own charity. He proposed reasons for and against. He recalled that they had been responsible for saving some five or six hundred children. Without their intervention, they would surely have died. Some of these children had learned a trade and others were about to. All had been taught to know and serve God. To judge by the past, it could be well imagined how great the fruit of their charity would be. Then, raising his voice, he finished with these words:

Your compassion and your charity, Ladies, has led you to adopt these children as your own. You have been their mothers according to grace, since their natural mothers have abandoned them. Do you too now want to abandon them? Do you want to stop being their mothers, to become their judges? Their life and their death is in your hands. I am now about to collect your vote. Now is the moment to read their sentence to see if you no longer want to have mercy on them. If you continue to care for them they will live, but if not, if you abandon them, they will surely die. You know from your own experience that this is the truth. <Ftn: CED XII:801. Coste corrects the date to 1647.>

His tone of voice gave no doubt of his own sentiments. The women were so moved by his words that they unanimously agreed to continue this charity no matter what the cost. The only question remaining for them was how to find the necessary means for carrying out this project.

Following this assembly the ladies obtained from the king the Chateau of Bicetre, where they housed the children for a time but later moved out. <Ftn: Located near Gentilly, this house had been built under Charles V and restored under Louis XIII to serve as a hospital for wounded soldiers.> Perhaps because the air was unhealthy or for some other reasons, the women brought the children back to Paris where they rented a large house in the Saint Lazare section of the city. The infants were cared for by ten or twelve Daughters of Charity. Several wet-nurses were engaged to live in this house to nurse the most recent arrivals, while awaiting other women from the country to come to take children home with them. <Ftn: In his solicitude Saint Vincent did not abandon these poor children. He arranged for the Daughters of Charity to visit them and their nurses, and, in 1649, sent a brother of the Congregation on a six-week tour to bring aid to these nurses in the villages where they lived.> These women received a monthly stipend for this care. Once the children were weaned they were returned to the house, and the Daughters of Charity took care of them. They were taught to speak, to pray to God, to know him, to love him, and to serve him. When they were a little older they were allowed to go to a small workshop. They would thus avoid idleness and await the day when divine Providence would bring about some way for them to leave the house, ready to earn their own livelihood.

These then are the fruits of this charitable work which has continued for more than twenty-five years under the wise direction of Monsieur Vincent and by the care and service of these virtuous women. Their charity has been so favorable and advantageous to the children that it could be said that they were happier in their abandonment than if they had been raised in their own families. We can presume these must have been either very poor or possibly very wicked. It seemed that God wished to confirm by the support of his grace the first principle of the entire enterprise. This had been said long ago by a prophet, that even if unnatural mothers would abandon their own children, God's paternal Providence would look after them. He would provide other better disposed mothers to love them and supply abundantly what their natural mothers failed to do. <Ftn: Isa 49:15.>

Index of Abelly: Book One