St. Vincent de Paul and War Relief

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St. Vincent de Paul and War Relief

by Richard J. Kehoe C.M.

A popular picture of St. Vincent de Paul shows him with a scruffy child standing at his side and a infant nestled in his arms. The romantic myth of the saint walking the street of Paris at night in search of abandoned waifs to carry to the shelters he had created inspires this image. Much evidence reveals his action on behalf of neglected and poor children but nowhere does one find support for the saint personally saving individual children at risk.

If Vincent de Paul has earned the titles of "Father of the Poor" and "Apostle of Charity," he won them not because of his direct service of the needy but because of his indirect service, the creation of institutions to meet the needs of the underprivileged. He revealed this special genius clearly in his efforts to bring relief to Lorraine which was ravaged by war during his lifetime. He never visited this devastated province. Yet his correspondence details at length his efforts to relieve the sufferings of the people caught up in the maelstrom of war. During the first half of the seventeenth century the Thirty Years War ravaged Europe. At times French gold subsidized the Protestant forces in central Europe in the struggle to defeat the dynastic designs of the Hapsburgs to dominate Germany. In the 1630's the fortunes of war and political intrigue brought the conflict to the frontiers of France.

For ten years warring armies crisscrossed the Duchy of Lorraine in their effort to control this politically critical region. The young and irresponsible Charles IV, Duke of Lorraine, allied himself with Austria and Spain and sheltered French nobles, including the brother of Louis XIII, who fled to him after running afoul of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu. There they continued to hatch plots to bring down the formidable First Minister.

As early as 1629 Richelieu sent French troops into Lorraine to neutralize this threat on the eastern border of France. Three successive years of crop failures brought famine to the duchy. What little the people possessed was seized by the troops who lived off the land. In 1635 Swedish and imperial forces freed from conflict in Germany turned their eyes to hapless Lorraine in order to exercise their deadly profession. Some seven armies counting more than one hundred and fifty thousand strong wandered about the forlorn duchy dragging in their wake about fifty thousand women and camp followers.

The devastation was total. Entire villages lay desolate. The living fought among themselves and with animals for the few scraps of food they could scavenge, which included at times the bodies of the dead. Public records recount macabre horrors of mothers eating their own children, of brothers killing sisters for a loaf of bread. The grim reaper showed no discrimination, leveling nobles and peasants alike.

In 1635 St. Vincent de Paul sent Vincentians to Toul to take charge of the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, more of a refuge than a medical facility. From these men and Lorrainers who had fled to Paris Vincent became aware of the plight of the province. He called his followers to identify with the suffering of the inhabitants by prayer and sacrifice."This is a time to do penance since God is afflicting his people. Should we not be at the foot of the altar bewailing their sins? We are obliged to do so. But in addition, should we not retrench some of our usual food for their relief?" As a result for some three or four years Vincent and his community in Paris contented themselves with black bread at table.

Ever a man of action, the saint sought out Cardinal Richelieu whose orders had sent the troops into Lorraine and kept them there. Vincent implored him to make peace. The crafty statesman, who eyed the duchy for incorporation into France, demurred and replied, "Ah! Monsieur Vincent, I desire peace just as much as you. But peace does not depend on me alone."

In the face of the crisis the saint began to organize a relief mission. He collected money which he sent to the Vincentians in Toul to distribute. Aware however that a single donation would not meet the ongoing needs of the people he called a meeting of the ever generous Ladies of Charity in Paris and described to them the tragedy which had gripped Lorraine.

Rules were drawn up for a group which met monthly. The ladies solicited funds from their friends which assured a regular flow of relief for as long as the crisis lasted. But the needs in Lorraine outstripped their personal resources. Vincent turned to Louis XIII and his consort, Queen Anne of Austria. They responded generously. Their royal largesse loosened the purse strings of others who imitated them.

St. Vincent entrusted to his Vincentian brethren in Lorraine the distribution of the funds. The list of the cities supplied reads like a modern railroad schedule: Toul, Verdun, Nancy, Metz, Bar-le-Duc, Saint Mihiel. Monthly the Vincentians visited these cities to replenish their stores. The local church frequently served as the center for the distribution of supplies. Some local personage, the pastor or sheriff, signed receipts for the monies and goods received. The priests calculated the amount of wheat needed to provide a month's supply of bread. Their directives required that every week only a quarter of the wheat be baked in order to guarantee food for the entire month.

One of the Vincentians, Father Julian Guerin, C.M., described his stay in Saint Mihiel, a not insignificant city which had only surrendered to French forces in 1635. "I began as soon as I arrived to distribute alms. I find there is such a large number of poor people here that I cannot give something to each; there are more than three hundred in very great need. . . . More than a hundred . . . look like skeletons covered with skin and . . . they present such a horrible appearance that if Our Lord did not give me strength, I would not dare to look at them. Their skin is like black marble. . . . their eyes and whole countenance have a scowling appearance. . . . It is the most dreadful sight I have ever seen. They hunt about in the fields for roots which they cook and eat."

The reports from the other cities and towns in Lorraine told similar tales of heartrending want. As difficult as it is to believe the towns were better off than the villages and hamlets of the countryside. A town's walls provided some security against the marauding armies. The Vincentians were able to establish permanent centers behind the walls of places like Toul, Saint-Mihiel, Nancy, Verdun and Metz, where they organized a regular rhythm of relief without fear of interruption. The main roads leading to these centers were relatively safe so that money and supplies could be sent with security.

Outside these population centers the need was even greater. In the open country and unwalled towns and villages bandits and soldiers [synonymous terms in those days] wandered freely. Here the Vincentians could not establish regular centers from which to operate for they would invite plunder. Another kind of operation was needed.

In his community the saint found just the right person to staff such an operation. He selected Brother Matthew Regnard, C.M., nicknamed "Reynard" [French for fox] because of his legendary craftiness. Between 1639 and 1649 Brother Matthew made fifty-three sorties into Lorraine in various disguises to bring money to out-of-the-way places which the regular relief services could not reach. He was never robbed although his letters and reports relate many escapes which he owed to his wit, intelligence and sangfroid.

He traveled in disguise, usually in disheveled attire with a old wallet which contained large sums of money, at times as much as thirty thousand livres. Eighteen times he nearly lost his life or his purse, or both. The money he carried whetted the appetites of the highwaymen in Lorraine. He even gained a reputation among them which only heightened his danger. He wrote an account of his adventures which perished when the Vincentian Motherhouse was destroyed in the opening days of the French Revolution. Some stories have survived.

Once with thirty-four thousand livres in his purse he was surprised by a horseman with pistol in hand. He was ordered to walk before his captor to a clearing where the robbery could be carried out more easily. The brother kept his eye on the bandit and when the latter turned his head, he dropped his purse. He then turned toward the horseman and began making profound bows at the same time digging his heels into the ground. The would-be robber probably thought that he had snared a mad man. After searching the "fox" and finding nothing he rode off. Brother Matthew then retraced his steps and retrieved his wallet near where his heel marks began.

The brother frequently brought funds to isolated religious houses where the religious remained out of fidelity to their vocation. His letters report their plight. One convent had existed on half rations of bread for a year and a half, a half-ounce of meat three times a week, and a soup made of salt and herbs which contained some meat on Sunday. What compounded the misery of the countryside is summed up by one of the religious aided by this relief. "What has most distressed us is that when our garden was well stocked, the soldiers came and took everything away, even pulling up the roots. . . . They also carried off a goat and a calf."

Every war produces refugees and the war in Lorraine proved no exception. At times Brother Matthew returned to Paris with an empty purse and a train of refugees. In fact the depopulation of Lorraine was due more to emigration than to the death. Children deprived or separated from their parents were especially at risk. Brother Matthew shepherded these waifs to the capital where St. Vincent and the Ladies of Charity cared for them in their facilities and trained them to become self supporting.

Individuals who managed to reach Paris went directly to St. Lazare with letters of introduction to St. Vincent. Two arrived with a letter from the Rector of the college at Nancy which stated: "Everybody here regards you as the refuge of the poor and afflicted, and hence many have come and asked me to recommend them to you. . . . Here are two whose virtue and rank will rightly incline your charitable heart to come to their assistance." Vincent offered them food, clothes and lodging and helped find positions for them.

in 1645 the fighting in Lorraine ceased and normalcy began to return. When the refugees began to leave Paris Vincent supplied them with funds for their journey and even supported them during the first months at home.

This relief mission to Lorraine only ceased in 1649. For fourteen years Vincent had organized, fostered and directed a relief effort which saved the lives of thousands of people. Although he never set foot in the duchy, Lorrainers regarded him as a savior. They nurtured this memory and a century and a half later erected an altar in the cathedral of Verdun dedicated to "the great benefactor of Lorraine."

St. Vincent lived at a time when governments did not see as their task relief efforts like that in Lorraine. Modern governments now undertake relief missions and frequently call upon lawyers to administer them. These public interest lawyers can find in the saint a model to imitate. Vincent pursued his mission in the face of policies which only prolonged the tragedy. He never lost sight of his goal, the alleviation of suffering. He left to politicians and diplomats the solution of the problem. He did not lose heart when the relief became drudgery and collaborators became disheartened. He served as an advocate for Lorraine by circulating letters which described its plight. He accepted the asceticism of the administrator who never experiences the satisfaction that the hands-on relief worker receives when he or she gives a loaf of bread to a starving family. With the receipts collected from his Vincentian agents he provided his donors with an accounting of the funds he had received. Vincent's relief work on behalf of Lorraine might well win him a new title, the "Apostle of War Relief."