Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 01/Section 07/Part 12

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

Various Other Charitable Activities of the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission Whom Monsieur Vincent Sent to Barbary for the Relief of the Poor Christian Slaves

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It would tire the reader if we detailed all the activities which the priests of the Mission, animated with the spirit of their spiritual father and under his direction, contributed towards the aid of the poor Christian slaves of Barbary. They did everything humanly possible to aid them, whether in body or in soul. We, in these last paragraphs, will speak only of some things not touched upon in the previous sections.

One of the most important services the missionaries rendered was to use all their influence to prevent some additional Christians from being forced into slavery, and to secure the release of others already held in ways that violated the customs of this country. Even in that violent and inhumane country, there was some sense of legality among the authorities. In a letter of January 1653 Monsieur Vincent wrote to Monsieur le Vacher in reply to letters he had received:

I thank God that by your intercession several Frenchmen captured at sea and taken to Tunis have been preserved from slavery, and that you have been able to secure the release of some already in chains. In rendering this service to these persons, you render great service to God. May God in his goodness grant you the grace to act forcefully and efficaciously with the authorities in these matters. [1]

It is true that sometimes the violence and injustice proved too great for all the efforts of their charity. Despite their efforts or their money they were sometimes unable to stay the hands of these barbarians from harming the poor slaves they saw in grave danger. Monsieur le Vacher wrote to Monsieur Vincent about such a case.

A young and attractive woman from Valencia, about twenty-five years old, was brought to Tunis after capture near her native city. She was put up for sale in the public marketplace, at which I attempted to ransom her by bidding up to 330 ecus, which the merchants had lent me, but a wicked Moor outbid me when I came to the end of my money. He already had two wives, this one making the third. This poor creature wept three days without a stop. They did not cause her to abandon her faith until she had been raped. Even some religious, captured from their convent located near the seacoast, suffered the same fate. Alas! If some charitable persons would contribute funds which could be used in similar situations, I am sure they would be richly rewarded. [2]

There was another act of goodness we cannot sufficiently praise. The zeal which burned in the heart of Monsieur Vincent and the priests of his Congregation, prevented many of these poor Christian slaves from denying their faith, especially when they saw them being tortured and on the point of succumbing. We might give several examples of this, among many others.

Monsieur Guerin wrote to Monsieur Vincent from Tunis in 1646:

We have rescued a French woman from the hands of an apostate from her own country. All the merchants contributed something, and I, myself, was able to give seventy ecus. The two other women are deeply troubled, but I thought it best to save the one who seemed in the greatest danger. There are other young and beautiful women in great peril if they are not rescued. One would already have been lost, if I, at great effort, had not secured an option of three months in which to ransom her, and had I not put her out of reach of her owner who surely would have violated her.

Not long ago one woman was beaten with more than five hundred blows to force her to deny Jesus Christ. Not satisfied with this cruelty, two of her torturers, as she lay half dead on the ground, trampled upon her, and crushed her shoulder. She ended her life gloriously confessing her faith in Jesus Christ. [3]

The same priest wrote in June, 1647:

We have done much with the money you sent, including the ransom of a poor French woman who had suffered so long at the hands of her Turkish owner. It is a true miracle to have saved her from this tiger, who would take neither gold or silver for her. One day he asked me to come to see him. During our visit we agreed upon a price of three hundred ecus. I paid this at once after I obtained the official release from slavery, and immediately I took the woman to a safe place. Two hours later, this miserable man regretted his action, but it was too late, by the grace of God.

We also redeemed a boy from Sables d'Olonne, who was on the verge of renouncing the faith. I think I wrote before of how we tried to prevent this. He cost us 150 ecus, of which I was able to give 36, the rest coming from wherever we could manage. I was also able to ransom the young Sicilian woman, a slave at Bizerte, whose husband had become a Moslem. During three years she had suffered indescribable torments rather than join in the apostasy of her husband. I wrote to you around last Christmas of finding her in a pitiable state, all covered with wounds. She cost 250 ecus, which came from alms, including a part from myself. [4]

In still another letter, this same priest wrote:

We have here a young boy from Marseille, aged thirteen. Since his capture and sale by the pirates he has been beaten with more than a thousand blows to force him to deny his faith in Jesus Christ. Even more cruelly, the skin of one arm was stripped off, like you would do to a piece of poultry before putting it on the grill. This was followed by a choice of four hundred more blows, meaning death itself, or becoming a Moslem. I went at once to see his owner, and three or four times threw myself at his feet. I begged to ransom the boy, and he finally agreed to the price of two hundred piastres. I had no money, but borrowed a hundred ecus at interest, with a merchant supplying the rest. [5]

Monsieur Jean le Vacher wrote in one of his letters to Monsieur Vincent:

A French vessel was shipwrecked on the coast of Tunis. Six of the crew were saved from drowning, but fell into the hands of the Moors, who took them to Tunis to be sold into slavery. Some time later the dey forced two of them, under torture, to deny their faith. Two others died under this treatment rather than imitate this infidelity. Since the dey was set on inflicting this same cruelty on the remaining two, we felt obliged to ransom them if we could. Six hundred piastres was agreed upon as a price, of which I contributed two hundred. For myself, I would rather suffer anything in this life than have anyone deny my divine Master. I would willingly give my blood and my life, even a thousand lives if I had them, rather than see Christians lose what our Lord purchased by his death. [6]

We learn from other letters of Monsieur Philippe le Vacher, his brother, written from Algiers to Monsieur Vincent about a young boy of Marseilles, only eight years old. Pirates had captured him, and he was now under duress to become a Moslem. He was ransomed, and returned to his own country. On another occasion he found three young women, sisters, natives of Vence in Provence, who had been captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Algiers. One of the sisters had fallen into the hands of the governor, who had her richly dressed, for he wished to make her his wife. Monsieur le Vacher redeemed all three at a cost of a thousand ecus, since this was the only way he saw to save them from this danger to their salvation. Another time he ransomed a mother and daughter and her small son, who were from the island of Corsica. All were in great danger because their owner wanted to have the younger woman deny her faith, so that he could marry her.

The priests of the Congregation of the Mission could not ransom all those whom they saw in danger of renouncing their faith because their resources were quickly exhausted. They often found themselves committed beyond their resources. This did not hinder them from continuing their preaching. By the sacraments they administered to these poor slaves in their sufferings they helped to strengthen and encourage them in their sad plight. Many of these slaves persevered courageously in their confession of belief in Jesus Christ despite all the violent persecution brought against them.

This spiritual help especially enabled ten women to remain faithful who had been badly treated for their beliefs among the many other slaves in Tunis in 1649. Their owners guarded these women closely, and did not allow them to leave their homes. They still managed to slip away long enough to attend mass, go to confession, and receive communion. They were so strengthened by the grace they received that not only did they suffer beatings and other indignities with patience, but even when they fell sick and could not be visited by a priest, they remained firm in their faith despite the efforts of the Moslem ministers who tried to force them to deny their allegiance to Jesus Christ. To understand better the inhumanity with which these poor slaves were treated to make them apostatize, and the strength of virtue they needed to resist, we must realize that these Moslems had the false conviction that anyone who could cause a Christian to become one of them had an assured place in paradise, no matter what sins he may have committed.

With his understanding of the sad condition of the slaves, Monsieur Vincent took great pains to encourage his missionaries in their charitable service to them. In one of his many conferences, he said:

This ministry is so great and so holy that it has given rise to several orders in the Church of God. These orders have always been greatly esteemed, since they are devoted to the slaves. One such order is the Religious for the Redemption of Captives, who attempt to ransom the slaves and return them to their own country. Among the vows they take is one to commit themselves to the redemption of Christian slaves. Is this not excellent and holy, gentlemen and my brothers?

It seems to that me there is something even greater than going to Barbary to ransom the captives. It is to go there to live among them, to help them at every moment, in body and in soul, to look after their needs, to lend them a helping hand, to bring them every sort of help and consolation in their great afflictions and sufferings. O gentlemen and my brothers, consider well the grandeur of this ministry! Do you know enough about it? Is there anything closer to what our Lord himself did, when he came to earth to deliver men from the captivity of sin, and to teach them by his word and example. This is the example all missionaries must follow. They must be ready to leave their country, their conveniences, their rest, to imitate our confreres in Tunis and Algiers who are so completely given to the service of God and neighbor in these barbarous and infidel lands. [7]

To support all the charitable and holy projects these missionaries in Barbary were offering, Monsieur Vincent collected alms. From time to time he sent considerable sums, and added some of his own, when what he collected was not sufficient. These sums were spent mainly in rescuing those Christian slaves in imminent danger of losing their faith, either by ransoming them outright, or by giving them some alms by way of encouragement in their sufferings.

Monsieur Vincent also sent money to ransom some French priests and religious who had been taken captive by the Moslems.

On many occasions he sent the entire ransom money for several slaves. By the time of his death he had rescued, through the priests of his Congregation sent to Barbary, either by their own charity or as agents for others, over twelve hundred slaves who later returned to their own country. What was spent in these ransoms and in other works of charity in these infidel lands came to nearly 1,200,000 livres. In writing to one of his priests who had sent him an account of what he had spent, he said:

I have read over your account book. O God, what consolation I have received in reading it! I assure you it gave me more satisfaction than anything I have seen for a long time, because it records what you and your charity have accomplished towards so many poor slaves of all nations and of all ages, afflicted with all sorts of miseries. Certainly, even though you could never be able to do more than you are already doing, what you have done is infinitely precious, and worthy of drawing immense blessings upon you. May it please the divine goodness of God to bless your work. [8]

Monsieur Vincent also sent some money to the city of Algiers to set up a small hospital for the poor sick slaves, abandoned in their illness by their heartless owners. It was mainly through the generosity of the Duchess d'Aiguillon that this project began. Another service of Monsieur Vincent to the poor slaves from France was to serve as a clearinghouse for letters to and from the slaves. Not only did this allow the slaves to send news of themselves to their relatives, mothers, fathers, brothers, wives, and children, but to receive letters from them as well. This consoled them greatly in their unhappy state, and sometimes allowed them to work out their release. Before Monsieur Vincent introduced this service, the slaves from diverse regions, Picardy, Poitou, Guienne, Normandy, Brittany, Languedoc or other provinces, had little hope of receiving any response to their letters, for the mail to Marseilles and Paris was most unreliable. This added greatly to their desolation. Monsieur Vincent applied an effective remedy, almost without precedent. To appreciate it fully, the plight of the poor slaves would have to be recalled, where their total isolation from families added immeasurably to all the other sufferings of their captivity.

This then is a short sketch of what Monsieur Vincent did for the poor slaves during his lifetime, and which the members of his Congregation continued after his death. I say short sketch, for only God is aware of all that was done. This humble missionary hid, as much as he could, what he did in the service of the divine Majesty, in order that the glory should be given totally to his name and not to himself. If he had done nothing else, aided by his confreres, than to establish and preserve the public exercise of the Catholic religion in this land of the Turk, even in the face of cruel persecution, this would have been a triumph in the service of Jesus Christ. The Lord had strengthened the arm of his faithful servant to raise a shrine to his most holy name in these two infidel kingdoms, even in the midst of its enemies. Christian charity triumphed in these places where it had seemed that even human dignity had disappeared, and where injustice and violence were everyday occurrences.



References

  1. CED IV:544.
  2. CED IV:575-76.
  3. CED II:585-86.
  4. CED III:203.
  5. CED III:222.
  6. CED IV:618.
  7. CED XI:437.
  8. CED V:490.



This page:
Abelly Book Two, Chapter One: Section Seven, Part Twelve
Various Other Charitable Activities of the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission Whom Monsieur Vincent Sent to Barbary for the Relief of the Poor Christian Slaves

Index of this section:
Abelly Book Two, Chapter One: Section Seven Index:
The More Remarkable Events in the Missions of the Barbary States

Index of this chapter:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Index: The Missions of Monsieur Vincent

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two