In August, a group of DePaul faculty and staff retraced the history of St. Vincent de Paul in France. The Vincentian Heritage Tour included stops at St. Vincent’s birthplace, villages where he formed critical insights and churches where he preached. As tour participants learned about St. Vincent’s remarkable life, they gained a greater understanding and appreciation for his mission—a mission of service and charity that forms the foundation of DePaul’s educational approach. These trips are offered regularly, not only for faculty and staff, but also for students, university leaders and the Board of Trustees.
Paula Starkey (BUS MS ’15), director of development in DePaul’s Office of Advancement, shares excerpts of her Vincentian Heritage Tour travelogue. Below, learn how St. Vincent became an unforgettable saint, one who has come down in history as the “apostle of charity.”
Tuesday, Aug. 2
After months of special educational sessions on St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, as well as France in the 17th century, I’m heading to Paris with 26 faculty and staff colleagues from DePaul. Once we arrive, the Rev. Edward R. Udovic, C.M., secretary of the university, vice president for teaching and learning resources and senior executive for university mission, will lead us on a Vincentian tour of the country.
This complex houses a beautiful 19th-century chapel done in a neoclassical style. Above the altar, a lifelike wax effigy of St. Vincent contains his remains. The effigy also holds the crucifix given by St. Vincent to the dying Louis XIII, which was returned to the Vincentians by King Charles X. Across the courtyard, we visit a small museum. It features many of St. Vincent’s personal belongings, including his slippers, breviary and rosary, as well as personal effects of St. Louise de Marillac and other items from Vincentian history.
Friday, Aug. 5
“What must be done?” –Madame de Gondi to St. Vincent
Our day begins at Folleville, a small village in the Somme countryside, where the noble Gondi family, patrons of St. Vincent, owned a château. St. Vincent joined the Gondi household in 1613 as a tutor for the three Gondi sons, and he visited Folleville with them in January 1617.
At that time, St. Vincent heard the confession of a dying peasant. The man then told Madame de Gondi how he had been consoled by these sacraments as he faced death. The noble lady knew that few of the peasants in the countryside were well served by the Church. She felt this situation to be intolerable, and so she asked St. Vincent a question which changed his life: “What must be done?” That question remains important here at DePaul, as we continually ask, “What must be done? What must I do? What must you do? What must we do to ensure that the poor are well-served?”
On Jan. 25, 1617, St. Vincent gave a sermon in the church at Folleville on the sacrament of reconciliation. Subsequently, from 1617 to 1625, he worked to reform the churches on the Gondi lands throughout France. Thus began St. Vincent’s role as the great reformer of the Catholic Church in 17th-century France.
Saturday, Aug. 6
This morning, we start with a visit to the site of the priory of St. Lazare, the original headquarters of the Congregation of the Mission, which was also the home of St. Vincent during the latter years of his life.
A massive complex that consisted of buildings, farms and orchards, it was given to the Congregation of the Mission in 1632, and it was here that St. Vincent drew his last breath on September 27, 1660. Sacked on July 13, 1789 (one day before the Storming of the Bastille) in a prelude to the French Revolution, the site later served as a women’s prison and is now the location of a social services agency. The beautiful Church of St. Vincent de Paul was built nearby in the early 19th century to memorialize the Vincentian presence in the 10th arrondissement of Paris.
Monday, Aug. 8
“… One must be firm and unchanging with regard to the end but gentle and humble as to the means.” –St. Vincent de Paul
Our first stop in southwestern France is the berceau de St. Vincent de Paul (the cradle of St. Vincent, aka St. Vincent’s birthplace). Vincent was born on April 24, 1581, in the village of Pouy, not far from Dax. He was the third child of Jean de Paul and Bertrande de Moras, who would have six children total.
We visit a reconstruction of the single-story home where St. Vincent grew up (the original farmhouse collapsed some time before 1700).
At this property, which also included a granary, garden and stables, St. Vincent participated in family life by helping with chores, including tending the sheep flock. The current Vincentian complex on the birthplace site now includes a chapel, welcome center and bookstore, and a retirement home for poor, elderly local residents.
Next, we visit the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Though not the original church from the time of St. Vincent, the church’s baptismal font is the actual font where St. Vincent was baptized.
Tuesday, Aug. 9
We continue our exploration of the early life of St. Vincent in Toulouse. Our tour today includes a visit to the Collège de Foix, where St. Vincent lived while studying theology at the University of Toulouse.
We also visit the Basilica of St. Sernin, built in the 12th century, which is one of the stops on the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostela route in France. Our tour continues at the Couvent des Jacobins, where the Dominican monastic tradition was founded. The convent now houses the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Thursday, Aug. 11
“We will always be ready to render service … in the way our Rule allows: to go and instruct poor country folk, hear their general confessions, reconcile them with one another, settle their disputes and organize assistance for the poor…” –St. Vincent de Paul
A busy day is in store for us as we head to Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne to learn more about the second key insight that altered St. Vincent’s life. In 1617, St. Vincent temporarily left the Gondi family and became pastor at the Church of Saint André in Châtillon-les-Dombes (now Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne).
During mass one Sunday in August 1617, St. Vincent mentioned a sick family in need of assistance. Later that day, he discovered that numerous parishioners, inspired by his homily, have already come to the family’s aid with food, blankets, etc. St. Vincent was immediately struck by the people’s charity, care and humanity, noting that humans have a natural instinct for charity and an innate desire to help. However, he then went on to question whether this desire to help can be better organized to be more effective and sustainable.
His great insight from this example is that charity must be organized to ensure that it’s sustained and effective at providing continued good. Furthermore, charity must be both affective/personal, as well as effective/professional. It’s not a question of either/or but both/and. Thus, it was in Châtillon-les-Dombes that St. Vincent founded the first Confraternity of Charity, a group of lay people who help those in need. It was the development and application of this second great insight of 1617 that would ultimately lead St. Vincent to found the Congregation of the Mission.
Madame de Gondi convinced St. Vincent that he could do more good by using his talents to reform the church instead of limiting himself to one parish. Consequently, he returned to the Gondis and spent 1617-1625 traveling to all their lands to share his message and establish confraternities of charity. When Madame de Gondi saw the results of St. Vincent’s work, she gave him what would today be the equivalent of $2.5 million, which provided the financial basis for the founding of the Congregation of the Mission.
Sunday, Aug. 14
“I will always welcome joyfully any opportunity that comes my way to be of service to you.” –St. Vincent de Paul
It’s back to Chicago! Following a final breakfast at our hotel, we head to Charles de Gaulle-Roissy for some last-minute gift shopping at the airport, and then board our flight to return to the U.S. It’s been a whirlwind tour of France, but we all return energized by our new understanding of Vincentian insights and the call to serve others with professionalism and personalism. With the start of the 119th academic year at hand, we now more clearly see how the nearly 400-year-old mission of St. Vincent de Paul is still vital and active in Chicago on the campuses of DePaul University.