St. Vincent de Paul was born to a poor peasant family in the French village of Pouy on April 24, 1581. His first formal education was provided by the Franciscans. He did so well, he was hired to tutor the children of a nearby wealthy family. He used the monies he earned teaching to continue his formal studies at the University of Toulose where he studied theology. His father encouraged and helped him toward the priesthood, to which he was ordained on September 23, 1600, at the age of nineteen or twenty.
Educated by the Franciscans at Dax, France, he was ordained in 1600 and graduated from the University of Toulouse in 1604. He was allegedly captured at sea by Barbary pirates and sold as a slave but eventually escaped. He spent a year in Rome to continue his studies and then went to Paris, where he remained permanently. He placed himself under the spiritual guidance of the celebrated cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, who entrusted him with the parish of Clichy.
In 1622 Vincent was appointed chaplain to the galleys. After working for some time in Paris among imprisoned galley-slaves, he returned to be the superior of what is now known as the Congregation of the Mission, or the “Vincentians” (in France known as “Lazaristes”). These priests, with vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, were to devote themselves entirely to the people in smaller towns and villages.
After founding the Congregation of the Mission in 1625, Vincent de Paul established in and around Paris the Confraternities of Charity—associations of laywomen who visited, fed, and nursed the sick poor. The wealth of these women, many of noble family, aided him in establishing the foundling and other hospitals. With St. Louise de Marillac he cofounded the Daughters of Charity (Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul) in 1633. The association was patterned after the Confraternities of Charity and was the first noncloistered religious institute of women devoted to active charitable works.
In June of 1543, Vincent began serving on the Queen’s Council of Ecclesiastical Affairs. There he exercised significant influence on the selection of good and worthy bishops, oversaw the renewal of minastic life, dealt with Jansenism, and was able to keep the plight of the people and the poor before the government of France.
Vincent continued his work until his death on September 27, 1660. A witness tells us, “At the moment of his death, he surrendered his beautiful soul into the hands of the Lord, and seated there, he was handsome, more majestic and venerable to look at than ever.”