Life of Saint Vincent de Paul: Chapter 4: The Galleys

[Saint Vincent de Paul]
M. de Berulle had certainly not exaggerated matters when he said that the parish of Chatillon-les-Dombes was in need of earnest workers. Vincent looked about him and set to work at once.

The first thing to be done was to clean out the church, which was in such a state of dirt and squalor that people had some excuse for not wishing to enter it. He then turned his attention to the clergy already there. They were ignorant and easygoing men, for the most part, who thought a good deal more of their own amusement than of the needs of their flock, but they were not bad at heart. Vincent’s representations of what a priest’s life ought to be astonished them at first and convinced them later – all the more so in that they saw in him the very ideal that he strove to set before them.

There was no presbytery at Chatillon, and to the astonishment of everyone, Vincent hired a lodging in the house of a young gentleman who had the reputation of being one of the most riotous livers in the town. He was, moreover, half a heretic, and Vincent had been warned to have nothing to do with him. But the new rector had his own ideas on the subject, and the ill-assorted pair soon became very good friends.

The change in the young man’s mode of life was gradual. His first step was to be reconciled to the Church, his second to begin to interest himself in the poor. Gradually his bad companions dropped away, until one day Chatillon suddenly awoke to the fact that this most rackety of individuals was taking life seriously – was, in fact, a changed man. The whole town was in a stir. Who was this priest who had so suddenly come among them, so self-forgetful, so simple, so unassuming, yet whose influence was so strong with all classes?

It was a question that might well be asked in the light of what was yet to come.

There lived near Chatillon a certain Count de Rougemont, a noted duelist, whose violence and immorality were the talk of the neighborhood. Having heard people speak of the wonderful eloquence of M. Vincent, this man came one day out of curiosity to hear him preach. Surprised and touched in spite of himself, he determined to make the preacher’s acquaintance and, hastening into his presence, flung himself on his knees before him.

“I am a wretch and a sinner!” he cried, “but tell me what to do and I will do it.” Raising him with gentle courtesy, Vincent bade him take courage, and spoke to him of all the good that a man of his position might do in the world. The Count, profoundly struck by the contrast between this man’s life and his own – the one so powerful for good, and the other so strong for evil – vowed to mend his ways. And he kept his word.

One by one he sold his estates to find the wherewithal for Vincent’s schemes of charity, and he would have stripped himself of all that he had, had not Vincent himself forbidden it. His sword, which had served him in all his duels, and to which he was very much attached, he broke in pieces on a rock. His great chateau, the walls of which had rung to the sound of wild carousals, was now thrown open to the sick and the poor, whom the once-dreaded Count insisted on serving with his own hands. He died the death of a saint a few years later, amid the blessings of all the people whom he had helped.

The ladies of the parish, to whom before Vincent’s arrival the hour of the Sunday Mass had seemed too long for God’s service and who had spent it chattering behind their fans, began also to realize that there was something in life besides selfish amusement. Some of them, moved by curiosity, went to see the new preacher, who, receiving them with his usual kindness and courtesy, drew a touching picture of the suffering and poverty that surrounded them and begged them to think sometimes of their less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Two of the richest and most fashionable ladies of the district, touched by Vincent’s words and example, gave themselves up entirely to the service of the poor, traveling about the country nursing the sick, and even risking their lives in the care of the plague-stricken. They were the forerunners of those “Sisters of Charity” who were in after years to carry help and comfort among the poor of every country.

One day, as Vincent was about to say Mass, one of these ladies begged him to speak to the congregation in favor of a poor family whose members were sick and starving. So successful was his appeal that when he himself went a few hours later to see what could be done, he found the road thronged with people carrying food and necessaries.

This, Vincent at once realized, was not practical. There would be far too much today and nothing tomorrow. There was no want of charity, but it needed organization. Sending for the two ladies, he explained to them a scheme which he had thought out on his way home. Those who were ready to help the poor were to band themselves together, each in turn promising to provide a day’s food for starving families.

Thus was founded the first confraternity of the “Ladies of Charity,” who were to work in concert for the relief of their poorer brethren. The association was to be under the management of the cure of the parish, and every good woman might belong to it. Its members were to devote themselves to the service of the poor for the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, their Patron. They were to tend the sick cheerfully and kindly, as they would their own children, not disdaining to minister to them with their own hands. The work developed quickly; confraternities of charity were soon adopted in nearly all the parishes of France and have since extended over the whole Christian world.

The de Gondis, in the meantime, had discovered the place of Vincent’s retreat and had written him several letters, piteously urging him to return. They had succeeded in enlisting as their advocate a certain M. du Fresne, a friend of Vincent’s, who had promised to plead their cause and who set about it with a shrewd common sense that was not without its effect. The work at Chatillon, he represented to Vincent, could be carried on by any good priest now that it had been set agoing, whereas in refusing to return to the de Gondis he was neglecting an opportunity for doing good on a very much larger scale. Helped by their money and their influence, not only their vast estates, but Paris itself, lay open to him as a field for his labors. Moreover, he had taken his own way in going to Chatillon; was he sure that it was God’s way?

Vincent was humble enough to believe that he might be in the wrong. He consented to go to Paris to see M. de Berulle and to allow himself to be guided by his advice. The result was a foregone conclusion, for the de Gondis had won over de Berulle completely to their side. The next day Vincent returned to the Hotel de Gondi, where he promised to remain during the lifetime of the Countess.

Delighted to have him back at any price, Vincent’s noble patrons asked for nothing better than to further all his schemes for the welfare of the poor and infirm. Confraternities of charity like that of Chatillon were established on all the de Gondi estates, Madame de Gondi herself setting the example of what a perfect Lady of Charity should be. Neither dirt, discourtesy nor risk of infection could discourage this earnest disciple of Vincent. In spite of weak health she gave freely of her time, her energy and her money.

M. de Gondi was, as we have already seen, General of the King’s Galleys, or, as we should now say, Admiral of the Fleet. It was no easy post in days when the Mediterranean was infested with Turkish pirates, to whom the royal ships had to give frequent chase; but the General had distinguished himself more than once by his skill and courage at this difficult task.

The use of steam was as yet unknown, and the King’s galleys were rowed by the convicts and prisoners of France, for it would have been impossible to find volunteers for the work. Chained to their oars night and day, kept in order by cruel cuts of the lash on their bare shoulders, these men lived and died on the rowers’ bench without spiritual help or assistance of any kind. The conditions of service were such that many prisoners took their own lives rather than face the torments of such an existence.

As Vincent went about his works of charity in Paris it occurred to him to visit the dungeons where the men who had been condemned to the galleys were confined. What he saw filled him with horror. Huddled together in damp and filthy prisons, crawling with vermin, covered with sores and ulcers, brawling, blaspheming and fighting, the galley slaves made a picture suggestive only of Hell.

Vincent hastened to M. de Gondi and, trembling with emotion, poured forth a description of the horrors he had seen.

“These are your people, Monseigneur!” he cried; “you will have to answer for them before God.” The General was aghast; it had never occurred to him to think of the condition of the men who rowed his ships, and he gladly gave Vincent a free hand to do whatever he could to relieve them.

Calling two other priests to his assistance, Vincent set to work at once to visit the convicts in the Paris prisons; but the men were so brutalized that it was difficult to know how to win them. The first advances were met with cursing and blasphemy, but Vincent was not to be discouraged. With his own gentle charity he performed the lowest offices for these poor wretches to whom his heart went out with such an ardent pity; he cleansed them from the vermin which infested them and dressed their neglected sores. Gradually they were softened and would listen while he spoke to them of the Saviour who had died to save their souls. At Vincent’s earnest request, money was collected among his friends and patrons, and a hospital built where the prisoners condemned to the galleys might be nursed into good health before they went on board.

In due time the rumor of the good work that was being done reached the ears of Louis XIII, who promptly made Vincent de Paul Almoner to the King’s ships, with the honors and privileges of a naval officer and a salary of six hundred livres. This enabled Vincent to carry his mission farther afield, and he determined to visit all the convict prisons in the seaport towns, taking Marseilles as his first station.

Here, where the conditions were perhaps even worse than in Paris, Vincent met them in the same spirit and conquered by the same means. The fact that he had once been a slave himself gave him an insight into the sufferings of the galley slaves and a wonderful influence over them. Accustomed as they were to be looked upon as brutes, it was a new experience to be treated as if it were a privilege to be in their company. This strange new friend who went about among them, kissing their chains, sympathizing with their sufferings and attending to their lowest needs seemed to them like an Angel from Heaven; even the most hardened could not resist such treatment.

In the meantime, through the generosity of Vincent’s friends, hospitals were being built and men and women were offering themselves to help in any capacity in this work of charity. Many of these earnest Christians gave their very lives for the galley slaves; for fevers, plague and contagious diseases of every kind raged in the filthy convict prisons, and many priests and lay helpers died of the infection. Yet other devoted workers were always found to take their place, and the work which Vincent had inaugurated thrived and prospered.