The homeless ranked high on Vincent’s agenda. A careful analysis of his life, writings, and conferences produces a very concrete picture of his works on their behalf. It is important to know our heritage. The following is the first installment Fr. Robert Maloney’ summary of the major phases of Vincent’s efforts for those who were homeless.
1. The “13 houses” – Vincent’s efforts to provide a home for foundling children.
In 1638, Vincent took up the work of the foundlings. Initially, the children stayed with Louise de Marillac and the sisters. Then Vincent rented a house for them on the rue des Boulangers.
Between 1638 and 1644, the number of children “found” grew to 1200. One can imagine all the problems involved in lodging, staffing and financing this work. Vincent was quite inventive in that regard. In fact, his creative arrangement for housing the foundlings illustrates what a shrewd businessperson he was.
When Louis XIII died in 1643, a provision in his will permitted Queen Anne of Austria to assign a million dollars to Vincent as a stable endowment for his Congregation’s missions in Sedan. Vincent chose to use the money to build 13 small houses close to Saint-Lazare, the motherhouse of the Congregation of the Mission. He then rented them to the Ladies of Charity to use for lodging the foundlings. The regular rent money became the stable endowment to support the missions in Sedan. Notice how Vincent got 2 for 1 on the deal! The money from the king’s bequest bought the houses for the foundlings, and the rent money from the Ladies of Charity supported the missions in Sudan.
But the number of foundlings continued to grow and funds to provide for them were difficult to find. In 1647, the Ladies of Charity considered abandoning the work. Vincent saved it by making an impassioned appeal to them, calling the foundlings their children:
“Well then, Ladies, compassion and charity have led you to adopt these little creatures as your own children; you have been their mothers according to grace since the time their mothers according to nature abandoned them. See now whether you, too, want to abandon them. Stop being their mothers to be their judges at present; their life and death are in your hands. I am going to take the vote; it is time to pass sentence on them and to find out whether you are no longer willing to have pity on them. If you continue to take charitable care of them, they will live; if, on the contrary, you abandon them, they will most certainly perish and die; experience does not allow you to doubt that.”8
Eventually, Vincent assigned numerous Daughters of Charity to care for the foundlings. He wrote a special rule for the Daughters who were working in the Foundling Hospital. It is touching in its practicality and its spirituality. Describing the sisters’ vocation, he wrote,
“They will reflect that their ministry is to serve the Infant Jesus in the person of each baby they are raising, and in this they have the honor of doing what the Blessed Virgin did to her dear Son, since He affirms that the service rendered to the least of His people is rendered to Himself. In accordance with that, they will do their utmost to raise these poor children with as much attention and respect as if it were to the very person of Our Lord.”