These little gems of handwritten notes – rare nowadays in our fast-paced culture of emails, texts, and online messaging – are treasured heirlooms that we still can view today. Some of the best-preserved are those of one saint, St. Vincent de Paul. We know him best as the namesake of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that feeds and clothes the poor with individualized attention throughout our nation.
While St. Vincent did not establish this order, it was started out of devotion to his message. Through his letters, we catch a glimpse at the heart of his message that his followers used to establish this Society. We have these letters of concern, instructions, and prayer all written in St. Vincent’s hand and preserved for us to ponder at DePaul University in Chicago.
DePaul University’s collection of the letters of St. Vincent represents the largest of the saint’s handwritten documents outside Europe. The letters were written between 1641-1660 when St. Vincent’s influence made him one of the most prominent figures in the Catholic Church. Anyone is now able to view them online here.
By 1640, Vincent was a leading figure in the French Counter-Reformation and had already founded the Ladies of Charity, a lay-women’s group devoted to the poor as well as the Daughters of Charity, a women’s religious group with professed vows that brought us St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint. In addition, his own order of priests known as the Vincentians had been in service for fifteen years.
St. Vincent started his priesthood as chaplain to a queen, Margaret de Valois of France, but soon felt called away from court to help the poor and suffering. He pulled people out of the rubble of despair and poverty, going into the streets and rescuing starving infants and children. This is why statues of the saint often depict him holding a baby or with children by his side and why he is known as “The Apostle of Charity.”
He was also a defender of Catholic doctrine and confronted the heresy of Jansenism that confused the faithful in France for 70 years about free will and God’s salvation and grace. In one of his hand-written letters we see him addressing a book causing confusion about the Eucharist, giving us a unique picture of St. Vincent’s clear mind and decisive teaching:
“My reply to that letter, Monsieur, is that what you say about certain persons benefiting from this book in France and Italy may be true, but that for a hundred in Paris whom it has helped…there are at least ten thousand it has harmed.”
We also see his deep care and concern for the superiors of his various orders. In a letter dated March 5, 1660, he encourages one with these words, “As for the troubles you fear you are bound to encounter in the possession of your garden, that will be as God pleases, for both our person and our possessions belong to Him. We must entrust ourselves absolutely to His Providence and remain at peace.”
In Paris, in the shrine dedicated in his honor, you can climb a set of stairs behind the altar that holds St. Vincent de Paul’s ornate casket. These stairs have been climbed by thousands of pilgrims wanting to catch sight of the man who inspired so many to a deeper faith and a deeper love for the less fortunate. His face has been reconstructed of wax to give the faithful a true picture of what he looked like. By the time of his death on September 27, 1660, St. Vincent de Paul was one of the most revered figures in France who had spread his message of charity through Europe, North Africa, and Madagascar. He is still touching lives more than 400 years after his death.
The Church gives us these little treasures. The tombs of the saints, relics of their bones, and the preservation of hand-written notes allow us to get the know the types of people they were. It makes the saints all the more human to us, showing us they had days just like us: “Free your mind from all that troubles you, God will take care of things. Trust in him, I beg you, and you will have the fulfillment of what your heart desires." (St. Vincent de Paul, Letters)