When at last peace was partially restored to the country, the number of poor people had enormously increased, and the charities that already existed were unable to cope with the misery and poverty in Paris. It was at this time that Vincent conceived the idea of founding a house of refuge for old men and women who had no means of gaining a livelihood. The foundation was placed in the charge of the Sisters of Charity. Work was provided for those who were able to do it; the proceeds went to keep up the establishment.
So successful was the venture and so happy were the poor creatures who found a comfortable home and kind treatment in their old age that the Ladies of Charity determined to found an institution on the same lines for all the beggars of Paris. A large piece of ground that had been used for the manufacture of saltpetre was accordingly obtained from the King, who also gave a large contribution of money toward the undertaking. The hospital, known as “La Salpetriere” from the use to which the ground had formerly been put, was soon in course of building, but the beggars who were destined to 1711 it, many of whom were worthless vagabonds, showed very little desire for being shut up and employed in regular work. Vincent would have preferred to begin in a small way with those who were willing to come in; but the Ladies of Charity, in their enthusiasm, declared that it would be for the beggars’ own good to bring them in by force, and the King was of their opinion. The Salpetriere was soon crowded, while the sturdy rascals who infested the streets and begged under pretense of infirmity were suddenly cured at the prospect of leading a regular life and working for their living. Begging, at the risk of being taken off to the Salpetriere, soon became an unpopular occupation, and the streets of Paris were a good deal safer in consequence.
In 1658, two years before his death, Vincent de Paul gave to the Congregation of Mission Priests its Rule and Constitutions. It was the work of God, he explained to them; there was nothing of his own in it. If there had been, he confessed humbly, it would only make him fearful lest his touch might spoil the rest. Those who listened to him and who had been witnesses of his long and holy life, his wisdom and his charity, knew better.
Saint Lazare was a center where all fervent souls zealous for the service of God and the good of others met to find counsel and inspiration at the feet of its holy founder. Letters from all parts of the world and from all kinds of people in need of help and counsel kept the old man continually busy during the time he was not giving instructions, visiting the sick, or receiving those who came to ask his advice. He rose at four o’clock to the very end of his life and spent the first hours of the day in prayer, and this in spite of the fact that the last years of his life were years of acute bodily suffering.
His legs and feet, which for a long time had caused him great pain, became so swollen and inflamed that every step was torture. Ulcers, which opened and left gaping wounds, next made their appearance. It was said that in earlier years he had taken the place of an unfortunate man who had been condemned to the galleys and who was in consequence on the verge of despair, and that the malady from which he suffered had been caused by the heavy fetters with which his legs had been chained to the rowers’ bench. It was several months, ran the tale, before his heroic action had been discovered and he was set at liberty, to bear for the rest of his life the penalty of his noble deed. When asked if this story were true, Vincent would change the subject as quickly as possible – which to those who knew how eagerly he always disclaimed, if he could, any action likely to bring honor to himself, seemed a convincing proof of its truth. With the greatest difficulty he was induced during the last years of his life to have a fire in his room and to use an extra coverlet, though he reproached himself bitterly in his last conferences to the Mission Priests and the Sisters of Charity “for this immortification.”
But there were sufferings harder than those of the body. Mazarin was still in power; the “accursed barter of bishoprics” was still going on; and Vincent was forced to witness the very abuses against which he had fought so bravely during the brief time of his influence at Court.
The year 1660 brought two great sorrows: the death of M. Portail, the oldest and best beloved of Vincent’s companions at Saint Lazare, and that of Louise le Gras, the devoted Superior of the Sisters of Charity and the woman who would become known as Saint Louise de Marillac. “You are going a little before me,” he wrote to the latter when he heard that her life was despaired of, “but I shall meet you soon in Heaven.” He was unable to go to her, for he could scarcely walk and was racked with fever. He would struggle on his crutches as far as the chapel to hear the Mass that he could no longer say and then go back again to his room, where he sat at a little table, working to the last, with a gentle smile of welcome for all who sought him.
The letters written during the last days of Vincent’s life are full of the same good sense, the same lucid clearness of thought, the same sympathy and knowledge of the human heart that always characterized him. Two months before his death he gathered the Sisters of Charity together and gave them a conference on the saintly death of their Superior. With touching humility he asked his dear daughters to pardon him for all the faults by which he might have offended them, for any annoyance that his “want of polish” might have caused them, and he thanked them for their faithful cooperation in all his schemes of charity.
It was now such agony for him to walk to the chapel that his sons begged him to allow them to fit up a little oratory next to his room where Mass might be said, but Vincent would not hear of it. Then they implored him to allow himself to be carried in a chair, but, unwilling to give others the trouble of carrying him, he evaded the question until six weeks before his death, when he could no longer support himself on his crutches. During the nights of anguish, when his tortured limbs could find no rest on the hard straw mattress which he could never be prevailed upon to change for something softer, no complaint ever passed his lips. “My Saviour, my dear Saviour” was his only exclamation. On the days that followed these sleepless nights of pain, he was always smiling and serene. In spite of the weakness that oppressed him, he had help, advice and sympathy for everybody.
His reward was close at hand. On the 26th of September, 1660, having been carried to the chapel for Mass and Holy Communion, he was taken back to his room, where he fell asleep in his chair from sheer exhaustion, as he had so often done before. The brother who had charge of him, thinking that he slept longer and more heavily than usual, awakened him and spoke to him. Vincent smiled and answered, but instantly fell asleep again. The doctor was sent for, and roused him again. Once more the same bright smile lit up the old face; he answered, but had not sufficient strength to speak more than a few words. In the evening they gave him the Last Sacraments, and he passed the night in silent prayer. In the early morning one of the priests who belonged to the “Conferences,” and who was making a retreat in the house, asked the dying man to bless all the priests for whom he had done so much and to pray that his spirit might be with them. “May God, who began the good work, bring it to perfection,” was the humble answer.
A little later he was heard to murmur softly, “Confido” – “I trust”; and with these words on his lips, as a child puts its hand into that of his Father, he gently gave up his soul to God.