Vincent de Paul was born in Pouy, France, in 1581, the third child of six. His father was a farmer, not rich nor without any means.
It was not easy to climb the social ladder without a certain level of wealth, and the easiest way to accomplish this was joining the clerical order. That is what Vincent chose. He studied theology meanwhile earning some money. His life was devoted to following this career and earning money through clerical labour. He was ordained a priest in 1600.
In this period of his life he was searching, living without much certainty. His strong point was the ability to relate to people of influence both in clerical and political circles.
Church of Clichy
He became a parish priest in Clichy. Even though he enjoyed the work and was successful, we see him after some time as a teacher with the Gondi family in Follevile. Madame de Gondi needed him as her spiritual guide. She pointed out to him the needs of the people around them ‘poor and desolate’. The very fact that she knew the needs of the people proves she was involved. She speaks to him about the need of a poor peasant living nearby Gannes. Vincent pays him a visit and the man is clearly relieved to be able to speak about his problems.
The foundation of the Congregation
On January 25, 1617, feast of the conversion of St. Paul, Vincent gave his famous sermon in the church of Folleville. This experience he sees as the starting point of the Congregation of the Mission, being only formally confirmed in 1625. The Congregation will devote itself mainly to the salvation of the poor and rural people.
During the short time as a pastor in Chatillon-les-Dombes Vincent was directly in touch with the poor and the sick. He called on everyone to help him and founded organizations (charités) to create a well-organized way of helping. From that time onwards he launched one initiative after the other to help especially the poor, both spiritually and physically.
Apart from founding the Congregation of the Mission, he also co-started the Filles de la Charité, Daughters of Charity, for practical work in the field of caritas. The two congregations spread all over France and everywhere lay movements were founded.
Vincent’s attention wasn’t limited to France. His matter-of-fact and practical attitude made him send priests to Tunis in 1645, to Algeria in 1646, and to Madagascar in 1648. Poland followed in 1651 and he sent priests to Ireland and Scotland as well.
The Congregation of the Mission, its members being called ‘Lazarists’ after Saint Lazare, a center for lepers in Paris, expanded steadily and worldwide. After its liquidation at the time of the French revolution it rose up again, and spread with renewed élan through many parts of the world during the 19th century.