Sources for Understanding Vincent de Paul

John E. RyboltDePaul University

This paper presents and explains the main sources for understanding Vincent de Paul: his writings, biographies, contemporary witnesses, studies and iconography.

For this purpose,  the material is divided into the following sections:

(I) Texts and translations of Vincent’s writings,

(II) Biographies of Vincent de Paul;

(III) Contemporary witnesses to Vincent de Paul;

(IV) Studies about Vincent de Paul; and

(V) a supplement on the iconography of Vincent de  Paul.

An excerpt from (I) Texts and translations of Vincent’s writings…

Since the sources on St. Vincent are so vast in several languages, this material is presented principally for English speakers or readers. It began as an oral presentation for participants in  CIF, the Centre International de Formation: St. Vincent de Paul, in Paris. It has been often  revised and updated.
Much of the material discussed in this paper, in the original French and other languages,  is available on-line, at DePaul University’s site, Via Sapientiae. Go to and click on Vincentian Heritage Collections.

Many congregations have writings of their founders, but few have the quantity and variety that Vincentians have. Despite this advantage, it took some time for our confreres to treat these writings with the respect which they are receiving today. A great number were lost, of course, during the French revolution. Letters sent by Vincent to others must have been burned or otherwise destroyed, and those received by him, together with some originals, must have been destroyed in the famous sack of Saint Lazare on 13 July 1789. The superiors general caused another loss. For example, in years past, they regularly presented original letters of the founder to various provinces or other noteworthy persons on some special occasion.

This resulted in the dispersion of many of his writings, and, unfortunately, we also have lost many of those letters in that they were destroyed through natural causes (fire and water damage in particular), or through human causes (forgetfulness or lack of attention.) However, it was only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that what remains of these letters have been published, in whole or in part. In the beginning, Vincent’s biographers made use of such letters as they had, and they published
whatever they deemed appropriate for their biographies. Other writers referred to other letters, but often did not identify them carefully as to date or recipient. His correspondence was regarded as a source for spiritual nourishment—which, of course, is true—but the letters were not treated historically. That is, they were presented largely outside or apart from their historical context.

The authors ignored these crucial historical questions: when were they written, why were they written, to whom were they written, where were they written, what were the circumstances in which they were written?
This situation began to be remedied for us with two major editions of Vincent’s letters:  those of Pémartin and Coste. Although the Pémartin edition has been superseded by Coste’s, many of our houses still have the earlier publication on their bookshelves, and so I will give a brief idea of its contents.

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