St. Vincent was born of poor parents in the village of Pouy in France about 1580. Chosen as a tutor of the children of a wealthy man, Vincent was able to go to the University of Toulouse for theological studies. There he was ordained a priest in 1600. Five years after his ordination, while on a voyage by sea to Norbonne, he fell into the hands of African pirates and was carried as a slave to Tunis. His captivity lasted about two years, until Divine Providence enabled him to escape. After a brief visit to Rome he returned to France where he contributed greatly to the transformation of religious life.

Saint Vincent de Paul is thought of by most people, and rightly, as the great organizer of charity. He revolutionized the hospitals of France, following after the example of St. Camillus de Lellis in Italy. Vincent organized foundling hospitals and began the humane treatment of lunatics, after finding some of these unfortunates confined in the grounds of the priory of Saint-Lazare. He also cared for the galley slaves, and during the Thirty Years' War sent Sisters of Charity, a community he helped to found with Saint Louise de Marillac, to act as nurses in the army. There are, indeed, very few charitable activities which do not stem from Saint Vincent.

The congregation of men Vincent founded, which bore the title of "The Mission," were to preach in country places. Generally the care of the peasants had been left to their priests, who unfortunately had no qualification for preaching. The majority of priests had not been adequately trained for their office, and in some instances did not give good example to their flocks. The trouble was not so much corruption as ignorance, so Vincent came to the conclusion that if the spiritual standard among lay folk was to be raised, the clergy had to be renewed first. The Council of Trent had called for the establishment of seminaries, and Vincent led the way by starting a seminary at the College des Bons Enfants. At the insistence of the Bishop of Paris he arranged to give retreats to the young men who were about to be ordained. This last activity he accepted a little reluctantly, urging that the Congregation of the Mission was for preaching in country districts. "In the beginning," he confessed afterwards, "we did not think at all of serving the clergy; we thought simply of ourselves and the poor." However, he soon reached the conclusion that by doing something for the clergy, something would be done for the poor as well. With total confidence in God's providence, he proceeded. The success of these clerical retreats was such that he enlarged their scope by the establishment of the Tuesday Conferences.

Most remarkably, Vincent was by temperament a very irascible person. He said that except for the grace of God he would have been "hard and repulsive, rough and cross." But he became a tender and affectionate man, whose works of charity are impossible to enumerate. Though honored by the great ones of the world, he remained deeply rooted in humility. The Apostle of Charity breathed his last in Paris at the age of eighty. Pope Leo XIII made Saint Vincent the patron of all charitable societies. Outstanding among these, of course, is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded in 1833 by his admirer Frederic Oxanam.

Adapted from "A Treasury of Catholic Reading", edited by John Chapin, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy (1957) & "Saint Vincent," Catholic Online