When I was a young child, “religion” and “church” were foreign concepts to me. My family didn’t have a home parish nor a religious sect. Every once in a while, a friend’s family would invite me to attend a religious service with them, but that was as much interaction with faith I had until my parents transferred me to a Catholic grade school for 4th and 5th grades.
As I grew older, I wondered why we never talked about a specific religion within my family. Looking around at my friends, I saw that most of them had been raised with some type of regular religious experience, whether it be attending mass every once in a while to insisting that a prayer be said at the dinner table before eating a meal. These friends saw their religion as an inherent and important piece of their life, and I began to feel like I was missing something, like my parents had withheld something from me that other kids took for granted.
Finally, during 4th grade, I asked my mom why my siblings and I hadn’t been raised with a certain religion.
“Because your dad and I think that’s something you should get to choose for yourself,” she said.
I nodded and that was the end of our conversation. But this left me feeling even more confused. I didn’t know (or at least didn’t think I knew) a single person who had chosen their religion on their own. Wasn’t religion something that was handed down to you, like a pretty ring your great-grandma had passed down until it got to you? How on Earth was I supposed to be responsible for something so important?
This feeling of confusion stayed with me for a long time. In fact, it still lingers today. Over time, however, I have grown more thankful that my parents had the foresight to give me this responsibility. And while I have the utmost respect for every person’s religious journey, regardless of how they came to understand and practice their faith (or lack thereof), I continue to be appreciative of my own experience.
This has definitely been a recent revelation.
Throughout my life, I have felt that I am missing a sense of comfort that religious folks of many religious backgrounds seem to have about the world, their place in it, and what happens to us after life. When my twin brother and I were transferred to St. James Catholic School in my hometown of Decatur, Illinois for reasons that deserve their own story, this came to be even more true. Now, nearly everyone I was surrounded by was Catholic. This was evident during our weekly Thursday mass when every other kid in my class received communion while my brother and I stayed back.
So, one day, I decided that I wanted to be baptized. An easy fix to be like everyone else, I thought.
When I told my mom of my plan one day after school, she gave me a concerned look. “If you want to be baptized, that’s fine. Can I ask why, though?” she said.
I paused. Suddenly, my answer of wanting to fit in didn’t seem like something she would take very well. Instead, I said, “I think I really believe in it all.”
Another concerned look. “I just really want you to think about it, that’s all. If you still want to be baptized by the end of the week, we will make it happen.” I nodded and that was the end of the conversation. And we never talked about my baptism ever again.
In this experience, my mom taught me an important lesson with very few words, and perhaps even without the intention of doing so. My faith and my religion was something that I needed to feel compelled towards, something that was important to me because the draw towards it came from within me and not from someone else. I asserted to myself that I would only commit myself when I felt that this was true, and have held this assertion dear since that day.
In writing this, I felt the urge to ask my mom if this lesson was her intention. Unfortunately, that is a question (amongst many) that I’ll never have an answer to.
My mom unexpectedly passed away in October of 2016.
When someone you love dies without warning, you realize how much information died with them. There have been so many questions that have sprung to mind in the last six months about my childhood, her life, and her understandings of the world that I will never have an answer to. This has been one of the hardest parts of her death to grapple with.
Her death came at a very scary time in my life, just as I was getting into the groove of my Senior year of college. Questions about what I wanted to do after undergrad were unanswered and weighing heavily on me. Was graduate school where I needed to go next? Or should I spare my already enormous amount of debt and try starting a career in a field that calls for a master’s degree at every turn? This was the time when I would need my mom the most, and suddenly she was gone.
So, instead of spending all of my time wishing she was still just a phone call away (although this a wish I’m sure I’ll always have), I’ve tried my hardest to turn to what my mom did have the time and capacity to teach me as her daughter and as a person. Through the lens of ever-present grief, this isn’t an easy task.
A couple of weeks after my mom’s death, I found out that I was selected for the Vincentian Heritage Tour and would be embarking on a journey across the world. I had applied for the trip a couple of weeks before her death, and later realized that I had never even told her about the opportunity. Little did I know that this experience would be foundational in my journey to understanding the important lessons given to me by my mom. And little did she know that she had already instilled in me some of the most important values the Vincentian Mission has to offer.
As an undergraduate at DePaul University, I have known about St. Vincent de Paul in some capacity since the first class of my first year. I was told by my student mentor that the name above the door was that of the patron saint of charity, and that the Vincentian Mission was important to how DePaul instructed its students and how it interacted with the communities around it. To be quite honest, though, this was about the extent of my knowledge of St. Vincent until my junior year.
It wasn’t until then that I came to understand what the Vincentian Mission really meant, and even then, my understanding of it was relatively rudimentary. Through my work in DePaul’s Student Government Association, I had more interaction with the Vincentian Mission through events that our organization sponsored and in conversations with fellow student leaders. I also found myself as a mentor for first year students and was given the task of exposing first year students to the Vincentian Mission for what was likely only the first or second time in their lives.
Through these experiences, it became more clear that St. Vincent did a lot more than provide charity. He was advocate for the recognition of the inherent human dignity of each and every person, regardless of the dominant or marginalized identities a person held. He saw the urgency of serving people living on the margins, especially those that were poor or sick. These seemed like noble values, and the Vincentian Mission was no longer something that was vague or abstract but perhaps something that I could get on board with, although my lack of Catholicism seemed like quite an obstacle to truly appreciating what was born out of religion.
When I applied to the Vincentian Heritage Tour at the beginning of my Senior year, it seemed like a great way to learn more about what the Vincentian Mission could mean to me. And, let’s be honest, the heavily subsidized trip to Paris for spring break didn’t sound too bad, either.
When I got the email informing me that I had been accepted to the program, I was more relieved than excited. Having just endured the toughest weeks of my life thus far, the acceptance felt like a shiny spot on an otherwise dull Senior year. The good news felt like relief. What I didn’t know at the time was that the timing of the Vincentian journey I was about to begin made the experience all the more meaningful to my life.
In the class taken as a way to gain a more broad picture of Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac before traveling to the places where they lived and from which they changed the world, I learned that there was even more to the Vincentian Mission than I could have imagined before.
St. Vincent wasn’t just a Catholic passionate about charity. He saw that there were needs in his community that weren’t being met and decided that he could be the person to address those needs. Of course, St. Vincent didn’t decide this on his own. It wasn’t until his boss, Madame de Gondi, asked him the pinnacle question: “What must be done?” that St. Vincent realized that he had the capacity to change the world for the better. And even then, he (literally!) ran from the pressure this question placed on him.
Through a number of experiences and interactions with those around him, St. Vincent realized that there were a few key pieces to answering this daunting question. Charity and service to others must not only be professional in deliverance, but also personal to each person in need of that charity and service. He realized that it was imperative to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving in every action taken to answer the question. He discovered that charity and service meant much less without diligent organization and intention behind it. And above all, restoring and maintaining the human dignity that each and every person holds through it all is of the utmost importance.
St. Vincent didn’t come to these realizations alone. St. Louise de Marillac was by his side, carving her own way in a world that didn’t really value her voice since it was coming from a woman’s body. Regardless, St. Louise inspired women across the board to take interest in caring for the poor and sick. With the establishment of the Daughters of Charity, women began to care for the poor, the sick, orphaned children, and anyone in between without judgement or pity or spite. St. Louise proved to be a prototype of a feminist leader in an age where “feminism” was far from anyone’s mind.
If the class about the Vincentian Mission inspired me, the Vincentian Heritage Tour to Paris blew me away.
Learning about something as inspiring as the Vincentian Mission in a college classroom in Chicago was a great experience, but traveling across the globe to the place where the Vincentian Mission was born and bred took that experience to a whole new level. The full immersion into the Mission within a culture I had never been exposed to was an experience I can’t begin to put into words.
From seeing the reliquary of St. Vincent de Paul to the church in Folleville where the first sermon of the Mission was given and finally to the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, Paris and its surroundings are full of Vincentian history and heritage. To literally walk in the footsteps of Vincent and Louise 400 years after them inspired me in an indescribable way.
I can practically hear someone shouting at me: But if Vincent and Louise lived 400 years ago, why should any of this be relevant today? Don’t you know how different the world is now?
DePaul France in Paris
Meet DePaul France, an organization seeking to serve those experiencing homelessness in Paris. Founded on Vincentian principles of serving those at the margins in a professional yet personal way, DePaul France offers a space for people to come each day to take a shower, wash their clothes, enjoy a cup of coffee and a game of chess, and be connected to other long-term services in the city. The goal was to assist in restoring each person’s dignity to a level where they felt empowered enough to take next steps which could help them out of homelessness. DePaul France also has a mobile shower station which travels throughout Paris in order to meet people experiencing homelessness where they are.
Andrew, the Director of DePaul France, shared stories with us about individuals he has met during his time with the organization. Stories of hope, success, and loss brought tears to many of our eyes as a portrait of St. Vincent hung on the wall over Andrew’s shoulder.
It was here that it became obvious: most of the marginalized groups that Vincent sought to serve still exist today, even if those populations look a little different. And those people are still in need of service from those who are able to offer it.
Walking in Vincent and Louise’s footsteps now had a whole new meaning. What can we learn today as we address the urgent needs of marginalized people while simultaneously fighting to end the systematic oppression that places people on the margins in the first place?
It wasn’t until our final class session on our last day in Paris that the connection between the loss of my mother and this Vincentian journey became evident. During this session, each person on the trip had the opportunity to openly reflect on their experience. Karl Nass, a staff member at DePaul who came along for the trip, repeated an idea given to us by Fr. Ed Udovic, our class instructor and Vincentian guide through Paris: “Mortal remains are connected to immortal memory.”
My hand flew to the pendant of the necklace I had worn every day on the trip without even thinking about it. This necklace quite literally contains the mortal remains of my mom in the form of her ashes (my sister and I think it’s just morbid enough that she would find this funny — she was certainly known for her sense of humor). I had habitually put the necklace on every morning in Paris, even though I had only worn it a handful of times before the trip. Memories of my mom came flooding back.
Very suddenly, a realization hit me: my mom, who had no idea what Vincentianism meant, had taught me everything I needed to know about living the Vincentian legacy in my own life.
As a professional, my mom dedicated her life to serving those she knew were underserved in our society. She spent most of her career working at a women’s health clinic in a county with the worst health outcomes in the state of Illinois. She saw that women in my hometown were in dire need of services to take care of themselves and their families. Regardless of the fact that working for a non-profit as such can be emotionally difficult and does not often pay well, she knew that she wanted her career to be one that could make a difference.
She spent the last few years of her life working at a center which served people with mental illness, addictions, and disabilities. This work left her increasingly drained as the state of Illinois failed to provide the financial support it had for years to social service agencies like hers and ends were continuously difficult to meet. Her job was incredibly difficult in every way, but it was her love for every person she met and had the honor to serve that kept her going when the going got tough, or even impossible.
My mom was the most inspiring role model I could have asked for. Regardless of the person in front of her, she saw their humanity and knew that they deserved to be treated with respect, kindness, and the highest quality of care. She understood the importance of organization and planning ahead, and that meeting people where they are is an important first step to dismantling the oppression that results in people living on the margins.
Without intending to, she served as the perfect Vincentian role model for me. My mom wasn’t religious, either, but still saw the world in a way that St. Vincent would approve of. Not only did she see the world this way, but she made it her life’s mission to act on it. She spent her life serving others in her own meaningful ways. And along the way, she taught me the importance of doing so, too.
Inspired by her, I find myself now just eight weeks away from graduating from DePaul with a Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences with a concentration in Public Health. I know that I need my career to be fulfilling in the sense that I address people living on the margins in the form of health disparities unjustly affecting oppressed groups of people. And I know now that my career can be impacted directly by the Vincentian Mission and by the example my mom left behind.
“As for your conduct towards the sick never take the attitude of just getting the task done. You must show them affection; serving them from the heart; enquiring of them what they might need; speaking to them gently and compassionately; procuring necessary help for them without being too bothersome or too eager.” — St. Louise de Marillac
I’ve never been interested in being a doctor, but rather find the idea of taking an upstream approach to health one that is interesting and important. Imagine you are standing at a riverbank and notice that someone is floating down the river, drowning and in need of help to get to dry land. You help the person out of the river, then notice that another person is in need of help. Then another. Then another. It is obviously important to pull these people out of the water, but did you think to send someone upstream to see why people keep falling in?
Vincentianism has a place at every step along this river. Delivering personalized care to those who are drowning while simultaneously working to understand why people are falling in so that we can prevent it from happening in the first place addresses people where they are while also recognizing and working to change systematic oppression. As someone working upstream, it will be my goal moving forward to integrate the Vincentian ideals of human dignity, professionalism and personalism, and the transcendental imperatives into my personal mission of studying and changing the ways health disparities affect marginalized groups of people.
My Vincentian journey has not just been informed by my mom, but just as much so by the people I’ve met along the way. From the incredible student leaders I had the honor to travel alongside to Andrew at DePaul France as well as Joyana Dvorak, Karl Nass, and Fr. Udovic, my journey has been formed by every person I have gotten to know. The Vincentian Heritage Tour has provided me with an avenue to explore what Vincentianism means to me and how my understanding has been informed by the incredible people around me. It’s also taught me that my Vincentian journey will never be over — I will always have more to learn and more to do to answer the question, “What must be done?”
Even as someone who is not religious, I feel that I can fully appreciate the meaning and legacy of St. Vincent de Paul. The Vincentian Mission isn’t just a “Catholic” thing, but a way for each of us to live in a way that appreciates each fellow person while striving to make the world a better place for everyone. And I think this is something my mom would be on board with, too.