Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 06

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Delinquents and disturbed persons at Saint Lazare

After discussing the missions in Chapter One of Book Two, we spoke in the four following chapters of the four great works which, fortified by the spirit of God, Monsieur Vincent labored at with such zeal and blessing for the service of the ecclesiastical state. We refer to the ordination exercises, the clerical conferences, spiritual retreats, and the seminaries. We may call them four mystic rivers. They flow from the same source and continue flowing to water and nourish the garden of the Church. We will now turn to those other activities he undertook, moved by this same Spirit, who extended his influence far and wide.

We will begin with one that might seem the least esteemed in the eyes of men, but very useful to the general welfare of society. Also, it is most precious in the sight of God, since humility and charity are virtues most pleasing to him. In this work they shine forth in a special way. This humble and charitable work of which we speak, adopted by Monsieur Vincent from his first days at Saint Lazare, was to receive at Saint Lazare two special sorts of persons. The first concerned delinquents who had become the sorrow of their parents by their unruly behavior, the disgrace and ruin of their families by their association with bad company. They were often given to all sorts of vice, licentiousness, and debauchery, and ended miserably.

Their families used every effort to bring them back to reason, but finally decided the only recourse was to deprive them of the liberty they had used so poorly. They were shut up in Saint Lazare, with the consent of the local magistrates at the charge of their parents. They were not allowed to see anyone from outside, except with the consent of those who had committed them. Their fate was not divulged to anyone, except to those obliged to look after them. The brothers of the Congregation took charge of their physical needs, while the priests cared for their spiritual needs. The brothers took care of their meals and other exterior wants. The priests visited, consoled, and exhorted them to change their way of acting, to abandon vice, and to give themselves to good and to virtue.

The priests pointed out the evil consequences of a disorderly life, both in this life and the next, and the corresponding advantages of honor and salvation to obedient sons, of wise men who feared the Lord. Their isolated and humble condition helped to open their eyes to their state, as did the good spiritual reading given them.

These delinquents were usually confined until some signs of a true conversion appeared in them, such as a disposition to live better and behave themselves more reasonably in the future. Even so, before leaving they had to attend spiritual exercises, to prepare themselves for making a good general confession, and to receive worthily the sacred body of Jesus Christ in communion. Several managed to lead a good Christian life, and employed their time well. Some profited from this stay at Saint Lazare so much that upon their release they rose in the legal profession to judgeships or other offices of importance, and with the grace of God, succeeded well.

Let us hear a priest of singular piety, well informed on these matters:

I have always considered it as an illustration of the great graces given by God to this saintly man that the late Monsieur Vincent in his zeal opened the doors of his house at Saint Lazare to all sorts of persons, to win them for God. This included debauched and incorrigible young men, to the great relief of their parents, who otherwise would have had no place to send them. He received them and treated them with such respect and consideration that they were soon living almost like religious, in a building of their own, following a regular program of activities. Some profited so much that upon leaving, they went to monasteries to embrace the religious life.

Besides these delinquent youths, others at Saint Lazare were mentally deranged. These were a burden on their parents and a shame to their families, but Saint Lazare was without doubt doing a great service to the public. At a reasonable cost, these delinquents could be housed, fed, and cared for with great charity. Monsieur Vincent took special care of the delinquents and for the mentally disturbed who were in his care as superior of Saint Lazare. This is how he once spoke to his community on this matter:

I recommend to the prayers of the Company the boarders we have here, both those troubled in mind, and those not. Among others, there is a priest who was in some mental difficulty, but recovered. Unfortunately, he has relapsed once again. This difficulty comes from an excess of black bile, which sends acrid vapors to his brain. He is so weak that he falls victim to this disorder. This poor man feels his sickness coming on (as he told me himself). It begins always with a deep depression which he finds he cannot overcome. Those in this condition surely deserve our compassion. They are certainly not capable of sinning, for they are not in command of themselves, and have neither judgment or freedom. They should be happy if they are stricken while in the state of grace. If on the contrary they should happen to be in a state of mortal sin, they are greatly to be pitied.

The others here, who have their faculties but who use them poorly, give me the opportunity to remark there are many rebellious and debauched youth in the world today. A short while ago an official of a sovereign court [1] complained to me of a nephew of his. He is an unruly young man who several times threatened to kill him if he did not give him some money. When a judge in the city suggested he be sent to Saint Lazare, where he would be taught his duty, he stated he had no idea we took such people here. He thought there ought to be four such places in Paris like Saint Lazare to take care of all who should be confined.

We must thank God, gentlemen, for confiding the care of the mentally ill and the delinquents to the care of this Community. We did not seek this service. It was given us by God in his Providence, just as he has given us everything else in our Company. I must tell you that when we first came here, the prior was caring for two or three mentally disturbed people. As we took over the house, these persons became our responsibility. In those days there was a lawsuit that would decide whether we would have to leave Saint Lazare or not. I remember wondering what, if we had to leave here, would most bother me about it and what would most displease me. It seemed to me then, it would be losing the opportunity to care for and serve these poor unfortunate people whom we had inherited when we came.

My brothers, it is no small thing, as some think, to take care of the afflicted, for this is pleasing to God. Yes, it is one of those services most pleasing to him, this taking care of the mentally deranged, because there is little natural satisfaction in it. It is done quietly, for even those we serve are hardly aware of what we do for them. Let us pray God to give the priests of the Company a taste for this sort of work when they are assigned to it, and that he strengthen our poor brothers and help them by his grace in the work and care they expend for our boarders. Some are sick in body, the others sick in mind; some are dull, and others flighty; some are insane, and others vicious. In a word, all have needs, but the one group through infirmity, the other through vice. The one group of boarders come here in the hope of a bodily cure. The other group is sent here to amend their evil ways.

Have courage then, my brothers. Did you know that in former times there were popes who cared for animals? Yes, in the times of the emperors who persecuted the Christians in their head and in the members, they forced the pope to look after the lions, leopards, and other such beasts kept for the amusement of the unbelieving princes. These beasts were fitting images of their own cruelty! The popes took care of these beasts. The men you have charge of are certainly not animals, but in a way they are worse than animals because of their debauchery.

God willed these saintly persons, the fathers of all Christians, to experience these humble and extraordinary trials to make them sympathetic to the abject sufferings of their spiritual sons and daughters. When anyone has endured weaknesses or suffering himself, he is so much more sensitive to the troubles of others. Those who have lost their belongings, their health, or their honor, are much better prepared to console others in trouble than those who have not experienced these losses themselves.

I recall someone telling me once of a great and saintly person, a man of a strong and steady disposition. He was gifted in mind and feared no one, hardly ever tempted. For all that, however, he found it difficult to support the weak, console the sorrowful, and help the sick, for he had never experienced these things himself.

You are aware that our Savior took all miseries upon himself. "We have a pontiff," Saint Paul says, "who knows how to sympathize with our weaknesses, for he has experienced them himself." [2] Yes, O Eternal Wisdom, you took all our poverty upon your innocent self! You must know, gentlemen, that he did that to sanctify all the afflictions to which we are subject, and to serve as the prototype of all states and conditions of humankind.

O my Savior, you who are Wisdom uncreated, you have accepted and welcomed our miseries, our confusions, our humiliations, our infirmities, save only ignorance and sin. You willed to be a scandal to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles. You even allowed yourself to appear as a fool, yes, our Lord permitted himself to be regarded as insane, for it is reported in the Gospel that some felt he had become mad. Exierunt tenere eum; et dicebant quoniam in furorem versus est ["They came to take charge of him, saying, He is out of his mind"]. [3] The apostles themselves sometimes looked upon him as giving way to anger, for he appeared so to them, leading them to declare he had compassion on all our infirmities, and sanctified all our afflictions and weaknesses. He thus taught them, and us also, to be compassionate toward those who suffer these same afflictions.

Let us bless God, gentlemen and my brothers, and thank him for having called us to care for these poor people, deprived of sense or of right conduct. In serving them we become abundantly aware of the extent and variety of human misery. We become better able to serve our neighbor, for we will better fulfill our obligations towards them if we know from personal experience what they suffer. I beg of those in this service to our boarders to continue with much care for them. I beg the Company to pray often to God for them, and to appreciate any occasion you have to exercise your patience and charity towards these poor people. [4]

Perhaps some would say, Monsieur, we have plenty of other work without taking on this. Indeed, we have nothing in our rule about receiving the mentally deranged at Saint Lazare, or those other troubled spirits who can be such little devils.

To this I would reply that our rule must be the example of our Lord, who willed to be surrounded by lunatics, demoniacs, the crazy, the tempted, and the possessed. These people were brought to him from everywhere to be delivered and cured, which he did with great goodness. Why then would we be blamed if we attempted to do the same thing that he found so fitting? If he received the outcasts and possessed, why should we not do so too? We do not go out looking for these people, they are brought to us. Who knows whether his Providence might not wish to use us to cure the ills of these poor people. The Savior was so sympathetic that he seemed to be numbered among them, as I just mentioned. O my Savior and my God, give us the grace to look on these things in the same light in which you saw them. [5]

A priest, an official of the house, one day reported to Monsieur Vincent that one of the delinquents seemed to be making no progress in reformation, although he had been in the house a long time. He felt it would be better if the boy were returned to his parents, rather than that he be kept any longer. He was threatening to do harm, and he was bound to do something bad, sooner or later.

Monsieur Vincent quickly silenced the priest: "You must recall, Monsieur, that the main reason we have taken these boarders into our house is to exercise our charity towards them. Now will you tell me, is it not a great charity to keep this man? If he were let go, he would simply cause trouble to his parents all over again. He was sent here with permission of the courts, for he is a bad influence they could do nothing with. He was sent here to give a bit of peace in their family, and to see if God would use us to bring about his conversion. To release him now, in his present disposition, would be to cause trouble in his family all over again. For the moment they are enjoying some respite from his evil ways. His threats must not be taken too seriously, for by the grace of God no harm has come to the Company because of him, and we hope none will come in the future. Remember, Monsieur, this boy blames his father and mother for his being here. He knows they sent him, and not us."

Monsieur Vincent often asked his community to pray to God for this undertaking, and for those who worked in caring for the boarders. One day he said, "Otherwise, God will punish us. Yes, we could expect his curse to fall upon the house of Saint Lazare if we neglected the care we should show towards these poor people. I recommend above all that we should feed them well, at least as well as we do our own community." [6]

The prayers and charitable concern of this gentle priest for these men lacking in either their behavior or their judgment gained the consolation of seeing many happy results of his care. The public noticed the improvements in a certain number of these boarders. Besides the relief enjoyed by the families in seeing these persons cared for at Saint Lazare, protected from the dangers or the temptations of the world, some were converted from their evil passions, such as drunkenness, impurity, or other serious failings. After a certain time at Saint Lazare, some acquired an abhorrence of these vices, chose to renounce their life of debauchery, and began to live wisely and circumspectly. Several joined the more austere religious orders to lead a life of penance as reparation for past failings. Others joined other communities devoted to the service of God and the neighbor. Still others became secular priests, or undertook public service as laymen. Lastly, some entered the business world or other secular pursuits, where they began and continue to live exemplary lives.

Some left off their stealing, their assaults, their blasphemies or other horrible crimes, and by the mercy of God were converted, and have since lived virtuously. Among others, one, who became a religious, returned often to Saint Lazare to express his appreciation for what had been done for him.

Others had stolen from their own homes, and hidden their spoils in a secluded spot. These had freely and frankly revealed where they had hidden their ill-gotten goods, out of sorrow for the trouble they had caused their parents, and with a resolve to amend themselves.

Some so forgot themselves as to have struck their parents, both father or mother. Some others had even attacked their parents, or had threatened to kill them. Upon leaving Saint Lazare they appeared in tears before them, begging forgiveness for their crime, and in future lived up to their good resolutions.

Several young men who had forsaken their schoolbooks for a life of debauchery were committed to this school of penance. Afterward, they returned to their regular classes with much success. It is extraordinary that several had almost a complete change of heart when they were sent to Saint Lazare. The charitable care they experienced enabled them to leave in an entirely different frame of mind, as good as new. They are today good members of society.

All these good things happened with a large number of people, most of whom came from the upper classes of society, and this over thirty years or more. It seemed that God was pleased, and is still pleased, to grant his mercy and grace through the mediation and charity of his servant, Vincent de Paul. In imitation of Jesus Christ he consorted with sinners and the weak to hasten their cure of both soul and body. Monsieur Vincent could well be called, as a distinguished person once did, the "refuge of sinners." But at this, the humble priest protested that this name belonged to the Son of God alone, and to his merciful mother. [7]


  1. A general name for a court of last resort.
  2. Hbr 4:14.
  3. Mark 3:21.
  4. CED XI:20-24. Abelly adds the following section from another conference.
  5. CED XII:88.
  6. CED XI:331.
  7. As in the Litany of Loreto, recited in honor of Mary.

This page:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter Six
Delinquents and disturbed persons at Saint Lazare

Index of
Abelly: Book Two/Chapters Five through Ten

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two