It all began with St. Vincent de Paul (1581- 1660)! In 1617, Vincent experienced two moments which would forever change his life and have a lasting impact on both Church and society. In Gannes and Folleville, he heard the confessions of destitute persons living in the remotest areas of France. Later that year, in Châtillon-les-Dombes, he organized the people of his parish to help alleviate the sufferings of a family plagued by sickness and impoverishment. These two events gave shape to the heart of Vincent’s charism: the service of God in the person of our Lords and Masters, the poor, in both the preaching of the Gospel (mission) and the alleviation of poverty (charity).
Vincent’s vision began a movement which led to a new international dynamism – the joint efforts of men and women, ordained and lay, to combat the forces of poverty both in individual lives as well as in societal structures which perpetuate it.
The Confraternities of Charity (the Ladies of Charity who later became the International Association of Charities – AIC), were the first association formed by Vincent in 1617. Founded with the women of the area around Châtillon, Vincent began the first organized charity. He solicited the help of St. Louise de Marillac (1591 – 1660) to oversee these confraternities. Its model spread rapidly throughout France and beyond in his lifetime. The AIC is now comprised of 53 national associations and over 150,000 members.
1625 saw the official foundation of the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent, initially joined by 7 missioners, focused his “little company” on giving missions to the most abandoned in rural France. As they preached, they established the Confraternities of Charity, thus giving concrete witness to their dual purpose: mission and charity. Today, the Congregation numbers 4,000 members in 88 countries.
The members of the original Ladies of Charity (Confraternities) were predominantly women of noble birth. Often, they found it hard to give personal care for the needs of the poor. They frequently sent their servants to do this service for them. Vincent and Louise began to recruit young women willing to dedicate themselves for this work with the Ladies. These women became the core of a new institute, the Company of the Daughters of Charity, founded in 1633. Unlike other communities of women in the Church of that time, they were not cloistered so that they could better serve the sick poor. The Daughters established soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, and homes for orphans. The Daughters of Charity currently number some 15,000 sisters serving in 91 countries.
Many other communities were established through the influence of the Vincentian Charism. The years of the French Revolution were both a challenge and a blessing for the Vincentian Family. The formal banning of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity in France resulted in new foundations by former members. One such community is the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne Antide Thouret founded in 1799.
Those communities which comprise the Vincentian Family, called the Branches of the Family, and numbering close to 150 around the world, are united by a common spirit (the spirituality of St. Vincent) and a common purpose (service, through mission and charity, on behalf of those living in poverty). Most came into existence as a direct response to the cries of the poor in a particular place and time. We estimate that more than two million lay, religious, and priests belong to our movement.
In 1807, Fr. Peter Joseph Triest, heralded as the St. Vincent de Paul of Belgium, brought together a few young men to care for a group of elderly people. From them rose the Brothers of Charity to care for the disabled, the poor, the sick, and the elderly.
In 1832 (the Sisters) and in 1834 (the Brothers), of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy were founded in Tilburg (the Netherlands) by Bishop Joannes Zwijesen. He was responding to the poverty which he encountered, especially among children who lacked opportunities for education.
Blessed Frederick Ozanam, with a group of six University students, founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society in 1833. The Paris of his day was in the grip of political and social unrest, suffering from rampant unemployment, disease, and inadequate housing. These seven laymen decided to visit the homes of those who were suffering, offering them whatever aid they could. Today about 900,000 men and women, from 149 countries, belong to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This society is the largest lay association in the Church.
In 1847, Vincentian youth groups began to form due to the Blessed Mother’s appearance to St. Catherine Laboure (Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, 1830).
Today the Vincentian Marian Youth have 100,000 members in 66 countries.
And so, the story goes on to this day.
The Vincentian Family welcomes new Branches into its movement till this day. We are also blessed to work with men and women who, though not members of any Branch of the family, are so inspired by St. Vincent that they call themselves Vincentians. We estimate that the international Vincentian Family is composed of at least two million people who walk with us in this collaborative spirit.
The current emphasis on common efforts within the Family began in the 1990’s. Meetings of international Vincentian Family leaders led to joint campaigns against hunger and malaria. In 2010, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the deaths of Sts. Vincent and Louise, an anti-poverty initiative began in Haiti. And now, to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Vincentian Charism, we will forge a new global effort against homelessness, the FamVin Homeless Alliance.
The work of the Vincentian Family is coordinated by the Vincentian Family Executive Committee (VFEC), composed of representatives of eight Branches of the Family. Currently, these consist of four founding Branches, namely:
- AIC (the International Association of Charities, or Ladies of Charity)
- Congregation of the Mission
- Daughters of Charity
- Society of St. Vincent de Paul
In addition, there are four Branches which serve in a rotating fashion on the VFEC:
- Sisters of Charity Federation of Strasburg
- Sisters of Charity Federation of North America
- Congregation of Mary, Mother of Mercy
- Vincentian Congregation.
The VFEC creates enthusiasm and motivation among the Branches of the Vincentian Family for the living of the Vincentian charism. This is not a juridical body, but does make decisions or offer recommendations for, or gives approval to, activities of the VF such as:
- The annual themes for VF reflection;
- The theme for international gatherings of international VF leaders;
- The establishment of the mandates of VF Commissions;
- The appointment of the coordinators and members of VF Commissions;
- The appointment of the coordinator and team of the international Vincentian Family Office (VFO);
- Discerns the needs of the VF and its response to those needs, especially regarding the creation of new VF Commissions; and
- The study of the annual VF operational budgets.
In 2015, the Vincentian Family Office (VFO) was established in Philadelphia. The VFO is the vehicle through which the aspirations of the VFEC are carried out globally. The Office ensures the continuity of the work of the VFEC from one year to the next. Some of the specific tasks of the Office include:
- Being the vehicle through which VFEC decisions are realized;
- The maintenance of a VF Database;
- The creation of a VF Missal containing all our Saints, Blesseds, and Servants of God;
- The coordination of Task Forces created to carry out VFEC objectives. Currently these include the areas of Formation, the Creation of a VF Culture of Vocations, the Transmission of the Charism in the transition from religious to secular institutions, creating a strategy for communicating the Vincentian Charism to the young, etc.
- And raising, through various communications strategies, the international visibility of the VF and the Charism.
Currently, five international Commissions serve the needs of the Family in both formation and in the coordination of charitable works. These Commissions are:
- VF Communications Commission develops and coordinates our internal and external communications strategies in social media, on the web, in the press, and other communications vehicles.
- Commission for the Promotion of Systemic Change: works to educate the VF in the principles of systemic change and to assist them in the creation of systemic change projects.
- VF Haiti Initiative: collaborates with partners in the creation of systemic change initiatives that build the capacity of Haitian people to meet their own needs and claim their human rights.
- VF Collaboration Commission: calls forth and galvanizes the next global generation of Vincentian Family members to effect collaboration in order to help people and communities emerge from poverty.
- VF Homeless Alliance: our newest initiative in the fight to eliminate the plight of homelessness around the world.
Based on our common charism, we, members of the Vincentian Family (VF), commit to collaborate. Such collaboration is more than joint efforts in ministry; it invites us to an appreciation of who we are as followers of Saint Vincent de Paul so that it becomes our way of life. We understand that collaboration means never to do alone what can best be done together. It involves thinking, planning and prioritizing together. Collaboration needs to be fluid, based on the issue and the circumstances of each individual branch of the Family.
“We have to help the poor and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others…. To do this is to preach the gospel by words and work.” St. Vincent de Paul (Conference to the Congregation of the Mission, 6 December 1658, CCD:XII:77-78)
Rev. Joseph V. Agostino, CM
April 26, 2019