Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Founder of Hospitals

The man whose name has for three hundred years been bound up with the hospitals and nursing orders of France was born, in 1576, in the little village of Poy, not far from the Pyrenees. He had three brothers and two sisters, and when they were big enough they all went to work on their father's small farm. Vincent, who was the third son, was sent to keep the sheep. This was considered the easiest task to which a child could be put, and Vincent liked wandering after his flock through the green meadows or sitting under a tree while they were feeding, watching the shadows of the clouds on the distant mountains. When he grew older a younger brother took his place, and Vincent helped to sow the corn, to toss the hay, and to chop the wood for the winter. His father, Guillaume de Paul, was a good man and saw that his children went regularly to church, and were not behindhand in doing anything they could for a poor or sick neighbour; but of the whole six, none was so often found on his knees or so ready to carry some of his own food to his suffering friends as Vincent.

'You ought to send that boy to school,' said the curé of the parish one day to the farmer. 'Perhaps—who knows?—he may by and by become a priest.'

'Yes, father, I have been thinking of that,' answered Guillaume; 'and before many weeks had passed, Vincent's life in the fields was a thing of the past, and he was being taught to read and write, to study Latin, and all that had to do with religion, at the monastery of the Cordeliers in the town of Acqs. He loved his lessons and worked harder than any boy in the school, but, happy though he was, he must sometimes have longed for his old home and a ramble with his brothers and sisters in the meadows of Poy.

In four years his masters declared that he now knew enough to be able to earn his own living, and obtained for him a place as tutor to the children of Monsieur de Commet, a lawyer in Acqs. His pupils were very young, and he had a good deal of time to himself, and this he spent in the study of religious books, for by this time he had resolved to be a priest. At twenty he bade farewell to Monsieur de Commet, and set out for Toulouse, where after two years he was ordained deacon, and later entered the priesthood. But he did not give up his whole life to praying either in church or in his cell. As of old he went about among the sick, hearing their troubles both of mind and body, and easing both when he was able. Thus he grew to know their needs in a way he could never have done had he always remained within the walls of a monastery.

The young priest's life flowed on peacefully for the next five years, and then a startling adventure befell him. An old friend of his died at Marseilles, and Vincent received news that he had been left in the will a sum of fifteen hundred livres, which in those days was a considerable deal of money. Vincent's heart was full of gratitude. What could he not do now to help his poor people. And he began to plan all the things the legacy would buy till it struck him with a laugh that ten times the amount could hardly get him all he wanted. Besides, it was not yet in his possession, and with that reflection he set about his preparations for his journey to Marseilles.

He probably went the greater part of the way on foot, and it must have taken him about as long as it would take us to go to India. But he was a man who had his eyes about him, and the country which he passed through was alive with the history he had read. Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and the scandal, now two hundred years old, of the two popes, would be brought to his mind by the very names of the towns where he rested and the rivers which he crossed, but at length they were all left behind, and Marseilles was reached.

His business was soon done, and with the money in his pocket he was ready to begin his long walk back to Toulouse, when he received an invitation from a friend of the lawyer's to go in his vessel by sea to Narbonne, which would cut off a large corner. He gladly accepted and went on board at once; but the ship was hardly out of sight of Marseilles when three African vessels, such as then haunted the Mediterranean, bore down upon them and opened fire. The French were powerless to resist, and one and all refused to surrender, which so increased the fury of the Mohammedans that they killed three of the crew and wounded the rest. Vincent himself had an arm pierced by an arrow, and though it was not poisoned, it was many years before the pain it caused ceased to trouble him. The 'Infidels' boarded the ship, and, chaining their prisoners together, coasted about for another week, attacking wherever they thought they had a chance of success, and it was not until they had collected as much booty as the vessel could carry that they returned to Africa.

Vincent and his fellow-captors had all this while been cherishing the hope that, once landed on the coast of Tunis, the French authorities would hear of their misfortunes and come to their aid. But the Mohammedan captain had foreseen the possibility of this and took measures to prevent it by declaring that the prisoners had been taken on a Spanish ship. Heavy were their hearts when they learned what had befallen them, and Vincent needed all his faith and patience to keep the rest from despair. The following day they were dressed as slaves and marched through the principal streets of Tunis five or six times in case anyone should wish to purchase them. Suffering from wounds though they were, they all felt that it was worth any pain to get out of the hold of the ship and to see life moving around them once more. But after awhile it became clear that the strength of many was failing, and the captain not wishing to damage his goods, ordered them back to the ship where they were given food and wine, so that any possible buyers who might appear next day should not expect them to die on their hands.

Early next morning several small boats could be seen putting out from the shore, and one by one the intending purchasers scrambled up the side of the vessel. They passed down the row of captives drawn up to receive them; pinched their sides to find if they had any flesh on their bones, felt their muscles, looked at their teeth, and finally made them run up and down to see if they were strong enough to work. If the blood of the poor wretches stirred under this treatment they dared not show it, and Vincent had so trained his thoughts that he hardly knew the humiliation to which he was subjected. A master was soon found for him in a fisherman, who wanted a man to help him with his boat. The fisherman, as far as we know, treated his slave quite kindly; but when he discovered that directly the wind rose the young man became hopelessly ill, he repented of his bargain, and sold him as soon as he could to an old chemist, one of the many who had wasted his life in seeking the Philosopher's Stone. The chemist took a great fancy to the French priest and offered to leave him all his money and teach him the secrets of his science if he would abandon Christianity and become a follower of Mohammed, terms which, needless to say, Vincent refused with horror. Most people would speedily have seen the hopelessness of this undertaking, but the old chemist was very obstinate, and died at the end of a year without being able to flatter himself that he had made a convert of his Christian slave.

The chemist's possessions passed to his nephew, and with them, of course, Father Vincent. The priest bore his captivity cheerfully, and did not vex his soul as to his future lot. The life of a slave had been sent him to bear, and he must bear it contentedly whatever happened; and so he did, and his patience and ready obedience gained him the favour of his masters.

Very soon he had a new one to serve, for not long after the chemist's death he was sold to a man who had been born a Christian and a native of Savoy, but had adopted the religion of Mohammed for worldly advantages. There were many of these renegades in the Turkish service during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and nearly all of them were men of talent and rose high. Vincent de Paul's master had, after the Turkish manner, married three wives, and one of them, a Turk by birth and religion, hated the life of the town where she was shut up most of the day in the women's apartments, and went, whenever she could, to her husband's farm in the country, where Vincent was working. It was a barren place on a mountain side, where the sun beat even more fiercely than in Tunis; but at least she was able to wander in the early mornings and cool evenings about the garden, which had been made with much care and toil. Here she met the slave, always busy—watering plants, trimming shrubs, sowing seeds, and generally singing to himself in an unknown tongue. He looked so different from the sad or sullen men she was used to see that she began to wonder who he was and where he came from, and one day she stopped to ask him how he happened to be there. By this time Vincent had learned enough Arabic to be able to talk, and in answer to her questions, told her of his boyhood in Gascony, and how he had come to be a priest.

'A priest! What is that?' she said.

And he explained, and little by little he taught her the doctrines and the customs of the Christian faith.

'Is that what you sing about?' she asked again. 'I should like to hear some of your songs,' and Vincent chanted to her 'By the waters of Babylon,' feeling, indeed, that he was 'singing the Lord's songs in a strange land.' And day by day the Turkish woman went away, and thought over all she had heard, till one evening her husband rode over to see her, and she made up her mind to speak to him about something that puzzled her greatly.

'I have been talking to your white slave that works in the garden about his religion—the religion which was once yours. It seems full of good things and so is he. You need never watch him as you do the other men, and the overseer has not had to beat him once. Why, then, did you give up that religion for another? In that, my lord, you did not well.'

The renegade was silent, but in his heart he wondered if, indeed, he had 'done well' to sell his soul for that which had given him no peace. He, too, would talk to that Christian slave, and hear if he still might retrace his steps, though he knew that if he was discovered death awaited the Mohammedan who changed his faith. But his eyes having been opened he could rest no more, and arranged that he and Vincent should disguise themselves and make for the coast, and sail in a small boat to France. As the boat was so tiny that the slightest gale of wind would capsize it, it seems strange that they did not steer to Sicily, and thence journey to Rome; but instead they directed their course towards France, and on June 28, 1607, they stepped on shore on one of those long, narrow spits of land which run out into the sea from the little walled town of Aigues-Mortes. Vincent drew a long breath as after two years captivity he trod on French soil again. But he knew how eager his companion was to feel himself once more a Christian, so they only waited one day to rest, and started early the next morning through the flowery fields to the old city of Avignon. Here he made confession of his faults to the Pope's legate himself, and was admitted back into the Christian religion. The following year he went with Father Vincent to Rome, and entered a monastery of nursing brothers, who went about to the different hospitals attending the sick and poor.

It is very likely that it was Father Vincent's influence that led him to take up this special work, to which we must now leave him, for on the priest's return to Paris, he found a lodging in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, close to the Hôpital de la Charité—the constant object of his care for some months.

From Paris he turned south again towards his own country, but when near Bordeaux he was accused by a judge, who was living in the same house, of a theft of four hundred crowns. The robbery was due to the judge's own carelessness in going out with so large a sum upon him, but this did not strike him; and though, of course, he could prove nothing, he lost no opportunity of repeating the falsehood to everyone he met. After denying the story Vincent let the matter drop, and went quietly about his own work, and, at the end of six years, his innocence was established. A man of the town was arrested on some charge and thrown into prison. Here, filled with remorse, the thief sent for this very judge, and confessed that it was he who had robbed him as he was passing along the street. Bitterly ashamed of his conduct, the judge, on his part, proclaimed the facts, and thus Vincent was justified in the belief that, as he had said from the beginning, 'God would proclaim the truth when He thought good.'

Humble and unobtrusive as he was, the priest's fame had reached far, and he was pressed by one of the most powerful of French churchmen to accept the care of a village on the outskirts of Paris. While there he worked hard for the bodies and souls of his people, till the parish which seems to have been somewhat neglected was completely changed. Then a post of another kind was offered him, and though he would much rather have remained where he was, he would not disobey his superiors.

Sadly he bade his people farewell and went to educate the children of the Comte de Joigny, General of the French galleys. But he was only there a few months, during which his time was as much occupied in preaching to the peasants, by the desire of Madame de Joigny, as in teaching her children. Great was the good lady's sorrow when Vincent was snatched away on a mission to the inhabitants of a wild and ignorant part of France, though she gave him a considerable amount of money for their benefit. Later she made him head of a mission-house, founded and endowed by herself and her husband for the benefit of their own people, so that their poor tenants and peasants might never be in the state in which they had been discovered by the priest when he first visited and came to Joigny.

After awhile Vincent returned to the house of the Joignys, where he chiefly lived when he was not absent on special missions.

The earliest of all the miserable and helpless classes of beings to attract the attention of Father Vincent were the galley-slaves, heretics sometimes, and generally the lowest sort of criminals, whose lives were spent in every kind of iniquity. However wicked they might have been before they were chained together in the darkness of the galleys, or thrown together in the horrible prisons (which must have killed many of the weaker ones), they were for the most part far worse when they came out, from what they had learned from each other.

'Once criminals, they must always be criminals,' said the world, and turned its back on them, but Vincent de Paul thought otherwise. The first thing he did on returning to the house of their 'General,' the Comte de Joigny, was to visit these rough men scattered about in the prisons of Paris. They were not easy to make friends with, these galley-slaves, and were suspicious of kind words and deeds, because they had never known them; and the priest soon understood that if he wished to make an impression on them, he must collect them all under one roof where he could see them daily and begin by caring for their bodily comforts. So, after obtaining leave from Monsieur de Gondi the Archbishop of Paris, and brother of the Comte de Joigny, he collected subscriptions, found a house, and soon, for the first time in their lives, the galley-slaves knew what it was to feel clean and to have real  beds to sleep in, instead of damp and dirty straw, if not stone floors. Little by little they were won over; the few rules made by the priest were broken more and more seldom, and when he felt he had gained their confidence he told them a few simple things about their souls.

The archbishop looked on with amazement. Obedience from the worst and most lawless of men, he would never have believed it! But there it was, an undoubted fact, and the archbishop craved an audience of the king, Louis XIII., in order to tell him the marvellous tale, and to ask his permission to establish similar houses all over the country. The king, who was not easy to interest, listened eagerly to Gondi's words, and in February 1619 he issued an edict, nominating Father Vincent de Paul royal almoner of the galleys of France.

His new post compelled Vincent to travel constantly, and in 1622 he set out for Marseilles to examine into the condition of the large number of convicts of all sorts in the city. The better to learn the truth he avoided giving his real name, but he went into all the prisons, and even, it is said, took the place of one of the most wretched among the criminals and was loaded with chains in his stead. That may not be true, but at any rate the story shows what was felt about him, and he did everything possible to inspire their gaolers with pity and to ensure the prisoners being kindly treated. When they were ill besides, their state was more dreadful still, and it was then that he formed the plan of having a hospital for the galley-slaves, though he was not able to carry it out for many years.

The Comtesse de Joigny died in June 1625, two months after her mission-house was opened. Father Vincent then went to live with his priests, the 'Lazarists,' as they came to be called, where, besides teaching and preaching both in the country and at home, they formed a society for looking after the sick and poor in every parish. Girls were educated by the Association of the Dames de la Croix—the Ladies of the Cross—and the older women served in the hospitals in Paris, notably in the largest of all, the Hôtel Dieu. In addition to those already in existence, through Vincent's influence and under his direction, were founded the hospitals of Pity, of Bicêtre, of the Salpétriere, and the world-famous Foundling Hospital or Enfants-Trouvés. These deserted babies, usually put hastily down at the door of a church or of some public place, died by hundreds. Some charitable ladies did what they could by adopting a few, but this only caused them to feel still more terribly the dreadful fate of the rest. Vincent appealed for help to the queen, Anne of Austria, and she persuaded the king to add 12,000 livres to the amount privately subscribed by the friends of the priest, and in the end he made over to them some buildings near the forest of Bicêtre. But the air was too keen for the poor little creatures, or at any rate it was thought so—for in those days fresh air was considered deadly poison—and they were brought to the Faubourg, St. Lazare in Paris, and entrusted to the care of twelve ladies till two houses could be got ready for them.

Once set on foot the hospital of the Enfants-Trouvés was never allowed to drop, and always reckoned the Kings of France among its supporters.

It was enough for a man to be poor and needy for him to excite the sympathy of Vincent de Paul, and when he happened to be old also the priest felt that he had a double claim. Almshouses, as we should call them, soon followed the hospitals; while the women were placed under the protection of Mademoiselle le Gras, foundress of the Order of Les Filles de la Charité—the Daughters of Charity—a society which also undertook the education of the foundlings.

When one reads of all the work done by Father Vincent one feels as if each of his days had a hundred hours instead of twenty-four. The various institutions he established, many of which flourished vigorously till a few years ago, when they were put down by the State, were always under his eye and in his thoughts. Nothing was beyond his help in any direction. While, on the one hand, he was collecting immense sums of money in Paris—it is said to amount to £80,000—for the people of Lorraine who had been ruined by the wars, and were in the most miserable state, on the other he was trying to revive in the clergy the love of their religion. This was perhaps the harder task of the two, for ambition and desire for wealth filled the hearts of many of the greater ecclesiastics and shut out everything else. But the king and the queen stood by him, and after Louis XIII's death, in 1642, when Anne of Austria became regent, she made him a member of the Council of Conscience, and never gave away a bishopric or an important benefice without first consulting him.

But strong though he was by nature, the life of constant activity of mind and body, which Vincent de Paul had led for sixty years, wore him out at last. At the age of eighty-four a sort of low fever seized him, and he had no longer power to fight against it, though he still rose at four every morning to say mass, and spent the rest of the day in prayer and in teaching those who gathered round him. He knew he was dying fast, perhaps he was glad to know it, and in September 1660 the end came. His work was done. The fire of time has tried it, 'of what sort it is,' and we may feel sure that it abides, as St. Paul says, 'on its foundation,' and that when the day comes 'he shall receive a reward.'