It was a once in a lifetime trip for four SCNs, Elaine McCarron, Paula Merrill, Lilly Luka Vayampallitharapel, and Lucy Puthukkat, chosen to travel to France to learn more about St. Vincent de Paul.
The four found themselves in awe at almost every turn.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were founded in the tradition of St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660). Born to a peasant family in France, Vincent studied humanities and theology. He devoted his life to the oppressed, the sick, the poor and the imprisoned. He was the founder of many seminaries throughout France as well as the Daughters of Charity.
When the first four members of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth made their religious vows, Feb. 2, 1816, they took the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and perseverance according to the Rule of St. Vincent de Paul.
Sister Elaine recounts the experience of traveling to France:
Sister Paula Merrill and I were surprised in October 2010 to have our names drawn as winners of a two-week trip to France. The object of our journey was to walk in the footsteps of our patron, St. Vincent de Paul. We joined 23 pilgrims on a tour sponsored by De Paul University in Chicago. Two priests of the Congregation of the Mission, founded by St. Vincent, guided us through France, which is close in size to the state of Texas.
France of the 21st century is, as it has always been, a beautiful and interesting country. It has a long history of painters, poets and writers. It is the country of the impressionist painters, and great writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.
The government has a minister for bread which is considered a national treasure. Also, there is great importance given to preserving the French language, another national treasure.
Flowers are beloved by the French and towns try to have the most beautiful hanging plants and gardens. The government assigns a number to a town from one to five to denote the beauty of its flowers, five being the most beautiful. It is also a country that has experienced many tragic wars but none so terrible to the French as World War I. Within the country, its churches, parks and monuments abound with memorials of the First World War. To some that may sound strange as we are closer to the tragedies of World War II but the loss of French lives in World War I overwhelmed the country.
France today is not the Christian country it was at the time of St. Vincent de Paul. The Catholic churches are owned by the local civil authorities who are responsible for repairs and upkeep. Most of the churches are museums but some are operating parishes. Some churches are world renowned works of art such as Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres.
In addition to the churches, there are other signs of France’s Christian past. Towns in the countryside marked the end of their boundaries with a huge crucifix and many remain today. France gave the Catholic Church great saints. St. Vincent De Paul, Apostle of the Poor, is among the most well-known. There is an enormous face of Vincent made out of strips of metal on the outside wall of a building in Paris, from a distance it resembles a painting. Streets are named for him and places, important in his life, are marked with plaques. His work with the poor and unfortunate is not forgotten even after the passing of four centuries.
Vincent was born at Pouy, Gascony in 1580. He was the third child of a peasant family comprised of four sons and two daughters. Vincent described the humble life of his own family with so much reverence that one knows that happiness as well as poverty filled his early life. He always had love and devotion for his parents and siblings. Vincent said of himself that in his early days he was a herder of animals. In the countryside where he lived, shepherd boys looked after their flocks from stilts. This perch allowed them a great view of the sheep. Today, there are pictures of the boys on stilts sold in the shops.
Vincent decided early to become a priest. Unlike many of the priests in his time he received an excellent theological education in Southern France partly in Toulouse. A series of events led him to the de Gondi family. Vincent was employed as a tutor to their children and confessor to Madam de Gondi. She was a pious woman in charge of the spiritual well-being of the peasants in their vast estates. On one of the de Gondi’s estates at Folleville, he preached in the church, and began giving missions in the parishes on the estates. His need for help with the popular missions gave birth to a community of priests and brothers, the Congregation of the Mission. The community is viable today with many members all over the world.
As a parish priest at Chatillon, Vincent told the congregation that someone had informed him that morning of a very sick family in need of food, clothes, everything imaginable to sustain life. After Mass, Vincent gathered provisions and with two men made his way to the house of the sick family. Soon he met many people from church who heard his preaching, they were also on the way to the same house with necessities. That incident, many believe, changed Vincent’s life and his entire focus turned toward the poor.
Vincent knew that alone he could not alleviate the sufferings of the poor. He turned toward aristocratic ladies to assist him, the Ladies of Charity. Many were willing and did good things but some were not skilled and did not know how to help the poor and sick. A few even began to send their servants to assist the poor. Today, the Ladies of Charity are a vibrant group and continue their work with the poor. With the help of St. Louise De Marillac, Vincent founded the Daughters of Charity. They were mostly peasant young women and under the formation of Louise and Vincent grew in holiness. Today, their assistance to the poor is legendary throughout the world. At one time, every hospital in France was staffed by the Daughters of Charity. They became the largest community of women religious in the Church. Many years after Vincent’s death, the well-known St. Vincent de Paul Societies were founded by Frederic Ozonan whom the Church honors as a saint. These societies do much good for the poor and unfortunate.
One day in 1646, Vincent, who gave frequent conferences to the Daughters, said to them: “In serving the poor, you serve Jesus Christ. O my daughters, how true that is—you serve Christ in the person of the poor. That is as true as the fact that we are here in this room.”
No one on earth, not royalty, the wealthy, or any famous person captured the attention and devotion of Vincent de Paul as did the poor. In them, he found Jesus Christ.
Sisters Elaine, Paula, Lucy, and Lilly returned from their pilgrimage renewed and inspired. They have been sharing their experience with members of the SCN family.