In centuries during which only the nobility had the means to provide their children with educations and with respectable careers, Vincent’s breakthrough from a peasant upbringing was exceptional. Born in 1581 as one of seven children of peasant farmers, Vincent learned the basic Humanities from Franciscans who were open to the poor. Then, while holding a tutor’s position in Toulouse, he learned enough Theology to obtain ordination to the priesthood from a kindly bishop.
In sailing to Marseille in search of some financial standing, his ship was captured by north African slavers who sold Vincent to a business man. Two years into that enslavement, Vincent converted his master, who then deposited him penniless on the southern coast of France. Vincent, on hearing that Rome still kept a papal delegate in Avignon, walked to Avignon where he managed to find a place in the archbishop’s household.
He took a chance of accompanying that prelate to Rome. Then, after some idle months in 1609 Vincent worked his way into the entourage of Rome’s delegation to King Henry IV of France. Again left loose, this time in Paris, Vincent took to knocking on doors looking for patronage, and his persistence brought him to the attention of Pierre de Berulle, a truly fine holy man.
Berulle found for Vincent a permanent position as chaplain to the wife of the leader of the Gondi’s, who were the richest, most powerful family in France. Vincent’s security there freed him to become the kind of priest he had always wanted to be.
His own struggle from peasant poverty gave him an understanding of the struggling existence of the peasants on the Gondi estates. He took to organizing idle priests for giving missions to the poor, and this brought about the founding of the Vincentian Fathers.
His two years of African enslavement came back to him on finding that the Gondi family was in charge of all the galleys in France’s merchant fleets. Being so well placed with the Gondi’s, he was able to secure rest and care facilities fro the galley slaves.
In caring for the terminally ill noble Lord de Marillac he made such a strong spiritual impression on the man’s wife Louise that it resulted in her founding the Daughters of Charity.
The world is blessed with many St. Vincent hospitals. They are the results of Vincent struggling up from the peasantry and of Louise’s stepping down from the nobility.