St Vincent de Paul

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Patron of charitable societies. Founder of the Vincentian Congregation and the Sisters of Charity. St Vincent was born in 1581 to a Gascon peasant family. He was educated by the Franciscans at Dax and then at Toulouse university. He was ordained priest at the very early age of 19.

While sailing from Marseilles to Toulouse in 1605, his ship was captured by pirates, and Vincent, along with the rest of the passengers were sold as slaves in Tunisia. After two years of great hardship, Vincent escaped to Avignon. The whole experience left him him with a deep love for the poor.

For a time he was court chaplain. In 1617 he became parish priest at Chatillon-des-Dombes. Throughout his life he combined a ministry to the rich and fashionable with a devotion to the poor and oppressed. As chaplain to the wealthy Gondi family, he was able to improve the lot of prisoners in the galleys and in 1622 he gave missions to the convicts at Bordeaux.

In 1625 he founded a congregation of priests who lived from a community fund and devoted themselves to work in small towns and villages.

In 1633 they were given the Paris priory church of St Lazare. That year, Vincent founded the Daughters, or Sisters, of Charity - the first congregation of unenclosed women to be devoted entirely to the poor and sick. The project with St Louise de Marillac was a great success, especially in providing hospital care for the poor.

Even in his own lifetime St Vincent was a legend. Clergy and laity, rich and poor, outcasts and convicts all experienced the charisma and selfless devotion of a man entirely consumed by the love of God and his neighbours.

He persuaded the rich to give large amount of money to many good causes. He provided alms for war-victims in Lorraine, sent missionaries to Poland, Ireland and Scotland, as far as the Hebrides. He rose to be an intimate adviser to the French royal family and used this position to set up many relief projects.

St Vincent was nearly 80 when he died on this day in 1660. He was canonised by Pope Clement XII in 1737. The charitable society, the SVP, for laypeople was founded in Paris in 1833.

In 1948, St Vincent's life was made the subject of a classic film: Monsieur Vincent, by Bernard Luc and Jean Anouilh.

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