Abelly Table of Contents

Index of Abelly: Book One: links to all chapters in Book One

The Life of the Venerable

Servant of God

Vincent de Paul

Founder and First Superior General

of the

Congregation of the Mission

(Divided Into Three Books)


Louis Abelly, Bishop of Rodez



New City Press

Edited by John E. Rybolt, C.M.

Translated by William Quinn, F.S.C.

Notes by Edward R. Udovic, C.M. and John E. Rybolt, C.M.

Introduction by Stafford Poole, C.M.

Index translated and edited from the Pémartin edition of 1891, with additional annotations, by Edward R. Udovic, C.M.

Published in the United States by New City Press 86 Mayflower Avenue, New Rochelle, New York 10801 (c) 1993, Vincentian Studies Institute

The original edition of Abelly contained as a frontispiece an engraving by René Lochon, based on the portrait by Simon François de Tours of Vincent de Paul in choir dress. Below the portrait is a quatrain, the translation of which is:

If you wish to see in a single face the portrait of two great saints Paul and Vincent are depicted here; but for his spirit, read this work.


BOOK ONE. His Life

  • CHAPTER ONE. The Church in France, at the Time of the Birth of Vincent de Paul
  • CHAPTER TWO. The Birth and Education of Vincent de Paul...
  • CHAPTER THREE. Studies and Promotion to the Clerical State
  • CHAPTER FOUR. Vincent de Paul is Captured by Pirates and Taken to Barbary
  • CHAPTER FIVE. Monsieur Vincent's Return to France His First Stay in Paris
  • CHAPTER SIX. Monsieur Vincent Appointed Pastor of Clichy Where he Serves as a Good Shepherd
  • CHAPTER SEVEN. His Associations with the de Gondi House..
  • CHAPTER EIGHT. A General Confession Made by a Peasant Occasions Monsieur Vincent's First Mission, and This in Turn Leads to Others
  • CHAPTER NINE. Vincent Secretly Withdraws from the de Gondi House but Later Returns There
  • CHAPTER TEN. The Beginnings of the Confraternity of Charity for the Sick Poor
  • CHAPTER ELEVEN. The Conversion of Several Heretics whom Monsieur Vincent Brought Back to the Catholic Church
  • CHAPTER TWELVE. The Marvelous Change Brought About in the Life of a Noble Person under Monsieur Vincent's Spiritual Direction
  • CHAPTER THIRTEEN. Different Works of Piety that Monsieur Vincent Was Involved with After His Return to the de Gondi Household
  • CHAPTER FOURTEEN. After Appointment as Royal Chaplain of the Galleys, Monsieur Vincent Visits Provence and Guienne to Provide Physical and Spiritual Help to the Convicts
  • CHAPTER FIFTEEN. He Provides for the Physical and Spiritual Necessities of the Poor of Macon, with Excellent Results..
  • CHAPTER SIXTEEN. He is Chosen by the Blessed Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and by Mother de Chantal as the First Spiritual Father and Superior of the Religious of the Visitation of Saint Mary in Paris
  • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN. He is Appointed Head of the College des Bons Enfants, and Later Makes the First Foundation of the Congregation of the Mission
  • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN. Madame de Gondi Passes from This Life to a Better One Monsieur Vincent Goes to the College des Bons Enfants
  • CHAPTER NINETEEN. Monsieur Vincent's Dispositions of Body and Soul and his Manner of Acting
  • CHAPTER TWENTY. The Birth and Establishment of the Congregation of the Mission
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE. Some Remarkable Statements of Monsieur Vincent Regarding the Spirit of Humility and the Other Virtuous Dispositions He Wished to See as the Foundation of His New Congregation
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO. The Establishment of the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission at Saint
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE. Account of the Great Good Accomplished in the Church by the Founding of the Congregation of the Mission, of which Monsieur Vincent Was the Prime Mover First, the Establishment of the Confraternity of Charity for the Corporal and Spiritual Help of the Sick Poor
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR. The Establishment of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE. The Ordination Retreats for the Benefit of Those Wishing to Receive Holy Orders
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX. Spiritual Retreats for Various Groups of People
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN. Spiritual Conferences for Clergy
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT. The Establishment of the Hospitals in Paris and Marseilles for the Galley Slaves
  • CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE. The Founding of a Group of Women to Serve in the Hotel Dieu Hospital of Paris and for Other Works of Charity in Paris and Elsewhere
  • CHAPTER THIRTY. The Establishment of a Foundling Hospital.
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE. The Founding of Several Seminaries for Clergy
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE (BIS). Monsieur Vincent's Collaboration with Father Olier in Various Pious Works
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO. Some Help Given by Monsieur Vincent to the late Commander de Sillery and to the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, commonly called the Knights of Malta
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE. Missions Given in the Army in 1636, and the Rules Given by Monsieur Vincent to the Missionaries for this Service
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR. The Establishment of the First Internal Seminary, at Saint Lazare, for the Congregation of the Mission
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE. Monsieur Vincent Devotes Himself to the Poor of Lorraine during the War and Takes Particular Care of Some Gentlemen and Ladies, Refugees in Paris
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX. Services Provided by Monsieur Vincent to the Late King, Louis XIII of Glorious Memory, in His Last Illness, for the Spiritual Good of his Soul
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN. Monsieur Vincent is Appointed to the Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Kingdom During the Regency of the Queen Mother
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT. Monsieur Vincent's Help in Establishing the Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross and for the Spiritual Good of its Members
  • CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE. Monsieur Vincent's Experiences During the Troubled Times of 1649 What Occurred During Several Trips He Made at that Time
  • CHAPTER FORTY. Monsieur Vincent Works for the Relief of the Poor of the Frontier Regions Devastated by the War, Especially Champagne and Picardy
  • CHAPTER FORTY-ONE. The Death of the Prior of Saint Lazare Monsieur Vincent's Appreciation of Him
  • CHAPTER FORTY-TWO. The Help Given by Monsieur Vincent to the Poor of Paris and Several Other Places During the Troubled Times of 1652 and Later
  • CHAPTER FORTY-THREE. Monsieur Vincent in Service to the King and Kingdom during the Troubled Times Beginning in 1652
  • CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR. Monsieur Vincent's Opposition to the Errors of Jansenism.
  • CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE. The Home for the Aged Poor Begun at Paris by Monsieur Vincent The General Hospital for the Poor Begun by Him in that Same City
  • CHAPTER FORTY-SIX. A Census of the Houses of the Congregation of the Mission Founded During the Lifetime of Monsieur Vincent
  • CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN. Monsieur Vincent Gives the Rules to his Congregation What He Said on this Occasion
  • CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT. Other Works of Piety in Which Monsieur Vincent was Involved Besides His Usual Duties
  • CHAPTER FORTY-NINE. A Reflection on the Pains and Afflictions Endured by Monsieur Vincent
  • CHAPTER FIFTY. Monsieur Vincent's Illnesses and the Saintly Use He Made of Them
  • CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE. His Preparation for Death
  • CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO. Events Surrounding the Death of Monsieur Vincent



In the canon of writings about Saint Vincent de Paul, the biography by Louis Abelly ( Abelly: Book One ), bishop of Rodez, holds pride of place. Published four years after the saint's death, it is the foundational work on which all subsequent studies have depended. It is, then, surprising that it has never been translated into English, unlike works by lesser authorities, such as Pierre Collet. That deficiency has now been remedied, and after more than three centuries Abelly's landmark work is now available to an anglophone readership.

Data on the life of Louis Abelly are scarce and sometimes contradictory. He was born at Paris in 1604. [1] His father was the treasurer and receiver-general of the financial district of Limoges. He studied at the Sorbonne and though he was called a doctor of the Sorbonne, there is no contemporary record of his having received that degree and he never assumed the title himself. At the age of twenty-six he published his first devotional work, Considérations sur l'éternité (Paris: 1626). In all probability he was ordained to the priesthood some time in 1628-1629, and there is evidence that at that time he was in the service of Jean François de Gondi, the archbishop of Paris.

It is not certain when he came under the influence of Vincent de Paul. Dodin associates him with Saint Vincent as early as 1625-1626 but cites no documentary proof. [2] Saint Vincent's first recorded mention of him is apparently in a letter to Jean Bécu, May 20 or 21, 1638, "M. Abeline [sic] is a very good man, very prudent and discreet, and M. Le Breton very fervent.... One of them is soon to be the vicar general of Bayonne." [3] Abelly joined the saint's Tuesday Conferences, a select association of ecclesiastics devoted to personal sanctification and the advancement of Church reform. [4] Like other members of the Conference he participated in the missions sponsored by Saint Vincent, one of which is the subject of the letter to Bécu. In 1639 Saint Vincent secured for him an appointment as vicar general to François de Fouquet, who had just been appointed bishop of Bayonne. [5] Fouquet had also been a member of the Tuesday Conferences, and his mother belonged to Vincent's Ladies of Charity. On his journey to Bayonne Abelly stopped in Dax and made the acquaintance of many of Vincent's relatives. By a remarkable coincidence Bertrand Ducournau served as Fouquet's steward for a brief period during Abelly's stay in Bayonne. Ducournau later joined the Congregation of the Mission, became Vincent de Paul's secretary, and helped Abelly with the writing of the saint's biography.

Administration of the see of Bayonne proved difficult. In 1644, when Fouquet exchanged sees with the bishop of Agde (a native of Bayonne whose name was also Fouquet), Abelly returned to Paris, where he was briefly pastor in a small rural parish. He was soon appointed pastor of Saint Josse (1644-1652), which he determined to make into a model city parish. During this time he became involved in the Jansenist controversies, especially concerning the bull Unigenitus. The publication of his theological work, Medulla Theologica (Paris: 1650) placed him squarely in the anti-Jansenist camp. In the following year he refused to publish in his parish the archbishop of Paris's censure of an anti-Jansenist polemic.

In 1650 Saint Vincent arranged for Abelly to become spiritual director to the Daughters of the Cross, an order whose amalgamation to the Visitandines the saint had opposed. In 1657 he was made spiritual director of the Hôpital Générale. The Hôpital was a global name for five hospitals consolidated by Louis XIV for enclosing the poor of Paris. Abelly received the position in part because Vincent de Paul refused to allow any of his community to assume administration of what was little better than a prison. It proved a difficult task and Abelly resigned some time around 1659/1660. Briefly, at some unknown period, he was confessor to Cardinal Mazarin. Anne of Austria, queen mother after Louis XIV's assumption of personal rule in 1661, recommended him for the diocese of Rodez, to which he was appointed in April 1662. Because of a rupture in relations between the king and pope, however, he was not ordained a bishop until September 1664. In his new see he strenuously combated Jansenism and introduced Vincent de Paul's retreats for ordinands. An unfavorable climate and the difficulties of administration proved detrimental to his health, and in 1665 he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He retired to Saint Lazare until his death on October 4, 1691, and was buried in one of the chapels of the church there.

Abelly was the author of forty books. [6] Many of them were controversial and anti Jansenist, something that made him enemies in the Jansenist camp. Boileau, a friend of the Abbé de Saint Cyran, wrote, "let each one take in hand the soft Abelly." [7] Many of Abelly's works enjoyed great popularity, not only during his lifetime but also down to the nineteenth century. The Medulla Theologica had thirteen editions and La Couronne de l'Année Chrétienne (Paris: 1657) went through forty-five. His most famous work, and the one that has best endured the test of the centuries, is La vie du Venerable Serviteur de Dieu Vincent de Paul Instituteur et Premier Superieur de la Congregation de la Mission (Paris: 1664), undertaken at the request of René Alméras, Vincent's successor as superior general. [8]

To what extent was Abelly truly the author of this work? That is a question that may never be answered with certainty. Abelly himself claimed to be the author, though he freely acknowledged the help that he received from the members of Vincent's community.

Some years after the death of M. Vincent, the Gentlemen of the Mission, moved by the affection they cherish for such a worthy founder, and importuned by very many persons of quality who particularly honoured his memory, resolved to present to the public a history of his life; ... They themselves might have laboured worthily at this task, for their Company is not wanting in persons most capable of bringing it to a successful issue, but the humility bequeathed to them by M. Vincent as their portion led them to choose a pen from persons outside their Congregation. They cast their eyes on me, perchance because I have had the happiness of knowing M. Vincent and of frequenting his society for many years. However that may be, they submitted this project to me, and when I had accepted it, they sent me all the memoranda collected by themselves or obtained by them from persons who could be trusted. [9]

Abelly went on to cite a testimonial given him by René Alméras, Vincent's successor as superior general, which stated that the bishop's account of the composition of the book was true. [10]

Abelly's authorship was first challenged in the eighteenth century by a Vincentian priest, Claude Joseph Lacour. In a manuscript work, "Histoire générale de la Congrégation de la Mission" completed in 1720, he wrote "The Missionaries worked at this biography by sending him all the memoranda that might prove useful. His Lordship of Rodez ... was requested to adopt the book, and to put his name to it, out of conformity with the practice left by M. Vincent to all his children not to publish books. This prelate did so to please M. Alméras, who had asked him, and he scarcely made any other contribution to the book.... It was M. [François] Fournier principally who worked on it." [11] Because Lacour's work was not published until the twentieth century, and then only in an incomplete version, his statement at first had little impact. Collet, writing twenty years after Lacour, was unaware of it. Lacour's claim was accepted by the Abbé Maynard in the nineteenth century and through him became rather widespread. [12] Pierre Coste, on the other hand, went to great pains to discount Fournier's authorship and restore the credit to the bishop of Rodez. <Coste, Life and Works, 3:479-83.>

There is no doubt that in writing his biography Abelly had abundant help from all who had known Saint Vincent, especially from his two secretaries, Bertrand Ducournau and Louis Robineau. The latter wrote a manuscript life of the saint that has only recently been published. [13] Hence it can safely be said that Abelly was substantially the author of the work, although many other hands were involved to an extent now unknown.

Abelly had two great advantages over all subsequent biographers of Vincent de Paul. The first was that of having known the saint personally for more than twenty years. The second was that he had at hand testimonies of indisputable authenticity, many of which have since been lost because of the destruction caused by the French Revolution and the passage of time. These included letters, conferences, juridical documents, and the recollections of the saint's contemporaries. The question that confronts the modem historian or biographer concerns the way in which Abelly used these sources. Abelly's work has serious shortcomings, some of them important enough to give a misleading view of Saint Vincent's life. These have been noted in this translation.

The first of these is to be found in the motivation for writing the biography. One reason, of course, was the desire to commit to writing all known facts of the saint's life before they were lost. More importantly, the book was written with a clear eye toward eventual canonization. The result was a tendency to glorify Vincent even in his earliest days, and to see him as a saint from his very youth, retrojecting the holiness of an old man into his youth. As Dodin has written, "Abelly, after having composed the portrait of M. Vincent in his last years, has projected that picture into all the stages of his existence." [14] This led Abelly, or his helpers, to use a heavy editorial hand, at times making Vincent's statements sound more pious than they originally were, at other times suppressing anything that could be detrimental to the process of canonization. The most serious of these suppressions, or outright fabrications, concerned the dates of Vincent's birth, his ordination to the various major and minor orders, the date of his resignation of the parish of Clichy, his holding of multiple benefices, and the slowness with which he divested himself of some of them.

Abelly gave 1576 as the year of the saint's birth. [15] The commonest explanation for this has been that when the dimissorial letter for Vincent's ordination was discovered after his death, it stated that he was of legitimate age for ordination, that is, twenty-four. A simple calculation yielded the year 1576 and would have made him eighty-four at the time of his death. This age was entered into the funeral registry at Saint Lazare, the various obituaries published after his death, and finally, by order of his successor as superior general, René Alméras, was carved on his tombstone. Saint Vincent, however, had never made any secret of his age, either in his correspondence or his conferences to the Priests of the Mission. There can be no doubt that his true age was widely known. He never, however, mentioned the date of his ordination. The age question did not prove a difficulty until the discovery of the dimissorial letter, which made it clear that Vincent de Paul was ordained to the priesthood at the age of nineteen. It also seems abundantly clear that the alteration of the date was deliberate, because it also required inserting changes in some of the saint's letters and conferences. [16] These have also been noted in this translation Abelly's life of Saint Vincent is written in typical seventeenth century hagiographical form. This means that not only are all possible negative aspects of the life ignored or suppressed, but the picture presented is idealized. It was not a critical age. It was also the golden age of devotional works. Edification was more important than critical analysis. In this regard Abelly's work is no different from almost all the lives of saints to come from that period.

Abelly's hagiographic approach caused him to accept uncritically stories that later authors would find false or based on unreliable testimony. These included the accounts of the false accusation of theft by the judge of Sore, the temptation against faith, and the substitution for the galley slave. [17] He deliberately altered texts so as to make them appear more pious than they originally were or to improve the Saint Vincent's sometimes rough-hewn style. Among the examples given by Coste is that of a letter to Saint Louise de Marillac, in which the saint wrote, "Oh! what a tree in God's sight have you not seemed to-day, since you have produced such good fruit! May you be for ever a beautiful tree of life, bringing forth fruits of love." Abelly gave a different version, "Oh! how you have appeared to-day in the sight of God as a beautiful tree, since, by His grace, you have produced such a fruit! I beseech Him that, in His infinite bounty, you may be ever a veritable tree of life bringing forth fruits of true charity!" [18] Abelly did the same with Saint Vincent's famed letter on his Tunisian captivity, in which the biographer's editorial hand is especially heavy.

Those aspects of the saint's early life that were less than edifying were simply ignored. Abelly mentions nothing about Vincent's desperate search for benefices or the fact that he held multiple benefices, such as the parish of Gamaches (1614) where he was an absentee pastor, or his position on the chapter of Écouis (1615), whose canons complained about his absenteeism. Abelly is equally silent about the fact that Vincent was an absentee pastor at Clichy from 1613 until 1626, during which time he ruled through an administrator while still receiving an income from it.

The arrangement of the book into three divisions of life, work, and virtues causes confusion and overlapping. It is difficult to know where to look for particular incidents in the saint’s life. Some things, like the famous story of Vincent's temptation again faith, which logically belongs in his life, is told only in the section on virtues. Even contemporaries found the book too long and too detailed. The result was that Abelly published abridged edition in 1668.

Like other hagiographers of the time, Abelly is fond of citing unnamed witnesses, often for extremely important events: "a very virtuous person, who died before he did, declared...,"[19] "another priest of his Congregation has told. . .,"[20] "a very virtuous priest who knew him well and observed him during many years,"[21] "a woman of great virtue,"[22] "a very trustworthy person,"[23]> (the latter testifying to the story of Vincent's temptation against faith).

Abelly read his own strong anti-Jansenism into Vincent's life. The reality of Vincent's opposition to the Jansenist movement is far more complex than Abelly presents. This was especially true with regard to Vincent's relationship with the Abbé de Saint Cyran, which was generally close and amicable until 1644. [24] After Saint Cyran's arrest, Vincent refused to testify against him or gave testimony so confusing that it was useless. Vincent's opposition to Jansenism after 1644 seems to have arisen from the question of frequent communion and especially the impact that Jansenist teaching on this subject had on the parish missions.

In general it can be said that Abelly is more trustworthy when he describes the later years of Saint Vincent than when he describes his youth. The saint was notably reticent about discussing his early years except in stereotypical terms of having been a swineherd or having been ashamed of his father's poverty. For information on Vincent's youth Abelly depended on the Canon de Saint Martin, an old friend of the saint's. As Coste has said, however, the canon "was not the man needed for such a work, for he had neither the taste for research, nor the knowledge of local history, nor the critical flair which every historian needs if he is to distinguish between truth and error in the evidence placed before him. The good old canon's word is not authoritative; facts which he alleges and which have no other foundation rest on a very shaky basis, and it would therefore be wrong to regard them as indubitable." [25] Román, on the other hand, does not accept this sweeping generalization, saying that he considered it exaggerated and that "this judgment has been repeated without critical examination." [26] It is clear, however, that Abelly's account of Vincent's younger years contains numerous errors and omissions, such as any reference to the letters on the Tunisian captivity, the devotion to Our Lady of Buglose, the dates of Vincent's ordination to various orders, and the years when the diocese of Dax was vacant. The further back in time Abelly goes, the greater the caution the historian must exercise.

More than three centuries after its publication, Abelly's life of Saint Vincent is now available in English. It is the single most important source of the saint's life; it is unique and indispensable. It is, however, a source that cannot be used uncritically. In the centuries since 1664 there have been major advances in research and historical writing. Biographers today are less concerned about hagiography and edification than they are about reaching more objective conclusions. France of the seventeenth century and of the Catholic Reformation has been intensively studied. Our knowledge of the French social and religious milieu far exceeds that of Vincent de Paul and his contemporaries who lived in it. Jansenism in particular has received a careful reconsideration. Many letters, documents, and historical references dealing with Saint Vincent have come to light, and many more await the patient researcher. This change of approach has not diminished the saint's stature. Rather, it gives us a picture that is simultaneously more realistic and more appealing. Unfortunately, this fresh research and the insights it has engendered have not yet been incorporated into any modern biography. What an English speaking readership still needs is a new, comprehensive, accurate biography based on original documents and the most current research.


  1. Information on Abelly's life can be found in Pierre Coste, C.M., The Life and Works of Saint Vincent de Paul, trans. Joseph Leonard, C.M., 3 vols. (Westminster, Maryland: 1952, reprinted New York: 1987), 1:476-86; Pierre Collet, C.M., La vie de St, Vincent de Paul, Instituteur de la Congrégation de la Mission, et des Filles de la Charité, 2 vols. (Nancy, 1748), I:v-xiv; P. Broutin, La Reforme Pastorale en France au XVIle siècle, 2 vols. (Tournai: 1956), 2:331-45; I. Cechetti, "Abelly, Louis," in Enciclopedia Cattolica, 12 vols. (Vatican City: 1949-1954), 1:68-69; A. Vogt, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastique (Paris: 1912-), 1:97-103; A. Rastoul, "Abelly, Louis," Dictionnaire de Biographie Française, eds. J. Balteau, M. Barroux, M. Prevost et al., 17 vols. (Paris: 1933-1989), 1:130-40; André Dodin, C.M., La Légende et l'histoire: de Monsieur Depaul … Saint Vincent de Paul (Paris: 1985), 11-79. Coste gives the date of Abelly's birth as 1606, though 1604 is now generally accepted. There is also a possibility that he was born a year earlier.
  2. Dodin, La Légende, 12.
  3. Saint Vincent de Paul: Conferences, entretiens, documents, ed. Pierre Coste, C.M., 14 vols. (Paris: 1920-1926), I:277. (Hereinafter cited as CED); Saint Vincent de Paul: Correspondence, Conferences, Documents. I. Correspondence, vol. 1 (1607-1639), newly translated, edited, and annotated from the 1920 edition of Pierre Coste, C.M., ed. Jacqueline Kilar, D.C., trans. Helen Marie Law, D.C., John Marie Poole, D.C., James R. King, C.M., Francis Germovnik, C.M., annotated John W. Carven, C.M., (Brooklyn: 1985); vol. 2 (January 1640-July 1646), eds. Jacqueline Kilar, D.C., Marie Poole, D.C., trans. Marie Poole, D.C., Esther Cavanagh, D.C., James R. King, C.M., Francis Germovnik, C.M., annotated John W. Carven, C.M. (Brooklyn: 1989), 1:467. Hereinafter cited as SVP.> The saint's first known letter to him is dated January 14, 1640. <CED II:2-6; SVP, 2:3-7.
  4. Dodin dates his entry into the Tuesday Conferences in 1633, but without citing any evidence (La Légende, 14).
  5. It is not clear how Vincent secured the appointment. He was not at that time a member of the Council of Conscience. Fouquet was the brother of the notorious Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances under Louis XIII, who had accumulated great wealth and power in the years just before Louis XIV's assumption of personal rule in 1661.
  6. A survey of these can be found in Dodin, La Légende, 50-61.
  7. "Que chacun prenne en main le moëlleux Abelly," Lutrin, chapter 4, verse 188. "Moëlleux" ("soft, downy" comes from the noun moëlle, "marrow") is apparently a play on the title of Abelly's book, Medulla Theologica, ["theological marrow."]
  8. An Italian translation, by Domenico Acami, was published in 1677; many other editions followed. The Acami edition was translated into German, 1710; several times into Spanish, beginning 1701; the Spanish text, in turn, was translated into Portuguese, 1738. Translations appeared also in Polish, 1688, and Dutch, 1864.
  9. Louis Abelly, La vrai défense des sentiments du Vénérable Serviteur de Dieu Vincent de Paul (Paris: 1668), 10, quoted in Coste, Life and Works, 3:477-78.
  10. Ibid., 478-79.
  11. Quoted ibid., 479-80. An edited version of Lacour's manuscript was published in the Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission in yearly installments from 62 (1897) to 67 (1902). This quotation is taken from 62:310.
  12. Michel Ulysse Maynard, Saint Vincent de Paul (Paris: 1860), 1:vii.
  13. André Dodin, C.M., Monsieur Vincent Raconté par son secrétaire [Louis Robineau]. Remarques sur les actes et paroles de feu Monsieur Vincent de Paul, notre Très Honoré Père et Fondateur (Paris: O.E.I.L, 1992).
  14. Dodin, La Légende, 182.
  15. On this question, see Pierre Coste, C.M., "La vraie date de la naissance de Saint Vincent de Paul," Bulletin de la Société de Borda (1922):18-19; Douglas Slawson, C.M., "The Phantom Five Years," Vincentian Heritage 2 (1981):81-93.
  16. For examples of these, see Slawson, "The Phantom Five Years," 87-90.
  17. On the temptation against faith, see Stafford Poole, C.M., and Douglas Slawson, C.M., "A New Look at an Old Temptation," Vincentian Heritage 11 (1990):125-42; on the story of his substitution of himself for a galley slave, see Coste, Life and Works, 1:124-31.
  18. Coste, Life and Works, 3:485. The footnote in Leonard's translation gives the source of the letter as CED, I:62, a misprint for I:51-52.
  19. Abelly, Vie, book 3, ch. 2:7.
  20. Ibid., ch. 2:6.
  21. Ibid., ch. 6:49.
  22. Ibid., ch. 7:56.
  23. Ibid., ch. 11, sect. 1:117.
  24. Dodin, La Légende, 166-68.
  25. Coste, Life and Works, 3:483.
  26. José María Román, San Vicente de Paúl. I. Biografía (Madrid: 1981), 33, n. 9.



Index of Abelly: Book One at Vincentian Encyclopedia

by John E. Rybolt, C.M.

This translation owes its existence to the work of the late Christian Brother, William Quinn. He came to know Saint Vincent through his research on Saint John Baptist de la Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers, and sought to contribute to the growing body of materials on Vincent de Paul in English. Because of his familiarity with translating seventeenth century religious writings, he was qualified to undertake the enormous task of rendering Abelly into English. His accustomed method of translation was to prepare a readable and accurate text. Consequently, he simplified the text at points to enhance its readability, while attempting to conserve the flavor of the original. Beginning in 1988, the members of the Vincentian Studies Institute cooperated with Brother Quinn in reviewing and correcting his work at several stages.

Abelly's life of Saint Vincent has undergone many editions and revisions since its publication. The text translated here, however, has been made from the original text of 1664. Louis Abelly, La vie du venerable serviteur de Dieu Vincent de Paul, instituteur et premier superieur general de la Congregation de la Mission. Divisée en trois livres. Paris: Florentin Lambert, 1664. 3 vols. in 1. Reprinted, Piacenza, 1986. Research by André Dodin for his doctoral dissertation on Louis Abelly uncovered some small adjustments between two printings of the 1664 version. The one used here is the second printing (also dated 1664.) The slightly emended text in the first printing has been noted where appropriate. The printing errors given in the list of Errata, identical in both printings, have been corrected in this translation. Dodin's careful work has uncovered still more errors, and a few others have also been noted and corrected in this edition.

Following the example of the excellent 1891 French edition of Abelly, prepared by J.B. Pémartin, C.M., the editor has attempted to give references to all quotations. Only direct quotations from the Bible have been cited. Indirect quotations, allusions, or passing references, however, are left as they are without citations. Quotations from the Psalms are given according to modern numbering, but the text remains that of the old psalter as quoted by Abelly. Biblical translations are generally made directly from the New American Bible rather than from the text used by Abelly. The only exceptions are those occasioned by significantly different texts. Patristic citations have been made, wherever possible, to the old edition of Migne, and abbreviated PL (Patrologia Latina) and PG (Patrologia Graeca).

All other quotations from Saint Vincent and his correspondents have been cross-referenced to the edition of Coste. Those not attributed to some source (a speaker or writer) or not otherwise identified are presumed to appear only in Abelly. More research needs to be done on the sources used by Abelly.

Certain French institutions and public officials have names which have different meanings in English. The following list gives the most important of these.

  • Chamber of Accounts: a royal council with responsibilities to oversee royal property and finances
  • Chevalier: knight, an honorary title
  • College: a boarding high school
  • Hotel: a large private mansion in a town
  • Hotel Dieu: a traditional name for a hospital
  • Lieutenant: (lieutenant criminel), an official with powers to pursue and arrest criminals
  • Official: an ecclesiastical judge
  • Parlement: a judicial body, not a legislature
  • President: a presiding judge in a Parlement
  • Presidial court: a local court of appeal

Weights and measures, however, have been left in French to preserve the flavor of the original, and to avoid, particularly dealing with money, having to change currency rates. Since values for weights and measures were not uniform throughout France, the descriptions in the following list are often valid only for the Paris region.

  • Chopine: liquid measure, containing about one pint
  • Denier: money, a half-sou
  • Ecu: money, also translated as "crown"; 60 sous or 3 livres
  • League: distance, about 2 1/2 miles, 4 kilometers
  • Livre: money, an old name for a franc; 20 sous
  • Muid: liquid measure, containing about 59 gallons
  • Piastre: money, a coin of Italian or Spanish origin, widely used internationally; in the near east and north Africa, 100 piastres were worth 1 livre
  • Pistole: money, 10 livres
  • Setier: liquid measure containing 2 gallons; in Paris, a demi-setier contained a half-pint
  • Sou: also spelled sol; money, 1/20 of a livre

In addition, other words or longer quotations in Latin have been left in the text, but are translated in square brackets.

Certain other issues of translation should also be explained. The terms "Mission" and "Missionaries" often, but not always, refer to members of the Congregation of the Mission. When the reference is clear, the terms are capitalized. Often, however, the reference is not clear.

The title "Monsieur" was used regularly for secular clergy in France, and was always used by Saint Vincent, who referred to himself as Monsieur Vincent, and never as Monsieur Depaul. The term Monsieur has been retained here to give some flavor of the original text.

Personal names in French or other languages have generally been retained in their original form, unless the English version of the name is normally in use as such in English. For bibliographical references in footnotes, the original forms have been maintained. However, the use of accents in French names has been retained only for references to book titles. All other accents have been eliminated. Hyphens in French given names, such as Jean-Claude, have also been eliminated. Noble and ecclesiastical titles have been put into English. The only exception is Marquis/Marquise, instead of the less recognizable English Marquess and Marchioness. These titles are capitalized only when they precede the person's name. French Monseigneur for bishops has been translated as "Your Excellency," or "Bishop," rather than "My Lord," a more British than American usage. Other ecclesiastical forms of address have been similarly simplified to reflect modern usage.

Moslem has been used instead of Turk, since in the French of the period, the two were identified. The reason was that, particularly in North Africa, there were many ethnic Turks at work in the imperial Ottoman government. At present, the religious term Moslem for a follower of Islam is more accurate than the ethnic term Turk.

Place names have been given in modern French equivalents in those cases where they have been changed from the seventeenth century, such as modern Noyon for Noyons. In addition, the customary English spellings of certain places have been retained instead of the modern French spelling: English Marseilles for French Marseille. Hyphens used in composite names have been eliminated, such as Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

In addition to the references mentioned above in the historical introduction, the following have been cited in the footnotes:

  • André Dodin, Monsieur Vincent Raconté par son Secrétaire. Paris, 1991. (Hereinafter cited as Robineau.)
  • André Dodin, Saint Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Entretiens, Documents. XV. Supplément. Paris, 1970. (Hereinafter cited as Supplement.)
  • Andé Dodin, Saint Vincent de Paul. Entretiens spirituels aux missionnaires. Paris, 1960. (Hereinafter cited as Entretiens.)
  • Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission, hereinafter cited as Annales CM.
  • Beatificationis et Canonizationis Vener. Servi Dei Vincentij a Paulo . . . Summarium. Rome, 1703. Part II: Ex processu ne pereant probationes auctoritate apostolica fabricato. (Hereinafter cited as Summarium.)
  • Lettres de S. Vincent de Paul. Edited by Jean-Baptiste Pémartin. 4 vols. Paris, 1880.

Index of Abelly: Book One at Vincentian Encyclopedia


The editor wishes to acknowledge with thanks the contributions of the following to this work. First to the late Brother William Quinn, F.S.C., whose persistence, even in ill health, brought the tedious work of translation to a conclusion. Next, to the members of the Vincentian Studies Institute and to its sponsors, the Vincentian provincial superiors in the United States. The members' quiet work of reviewing and correcting has lightened the editorial work, and the encouragement and financial support of the provincials has smoothed the way. Special thanks are also due to several Vincentian confreres in Paris: To Fathers André Dodin, Georges Baldacchino, Raymond Chalumeau, and especially Paul Henzmann, all of whom researched small details and generously offered their expert opinions. Many others contributed to clarification of obscure points of theology, history, and geography. Father Daniel Schulte, C.M., contributed greatly to the accuracy of the work through his computer analysis of the text. Thanks, too, to the helpful and faith-filled staff of New City Press.




The favorable reception Your Majesty <Ftn: Queen Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV.> always gave to Monsieur Vincent during his lifetime and the kindness with which you have honored his memory since his death gives me hope that you would accept this work which is but a sketch of the life and virtues of this great servant of God. <Ftn: After the death of Louis XIII in 1643, his wife, Anne of Austria, became regent and instituted the Council of Conscience to advise her on ecclesiastical affairs. She appointed Saint Vincent to this body. Later, Louis XIV, in his letter to Pope Clement XI supporting Vincent's beatification, testified that his mother had recognized Vincent's virtues and that she had shown this by great marks of confidence. According to Louis, at Vincent's death, his mother had exclaimed, "What a loss for the Church and for the poor!"> I have attempted to trace his career with as much fidelity as humanly possible. There is little in his life to make it striking enough to be suitable for presentation to such a great princess as yourself. But I believe that to the degree that it is simple and straightforward the more it will truly reflect its subject, and even more favorably will it be accepted by Your Majesty. You will more surely recognize Monsieur Vincent in its pages if he is presented in his everyday clothes, that is to say, in his humility, his simplicity and his usual direct speech and action. Even though Monsieur Vincent during his life had taken every care to hide the marvelous graces he had received from God, I have succeeded in allowing him to speak after his death by citing several letters I have been able to gather, reflecting those occasions when his charity overcame his natural reticence about himself.

Should Your Majesty deign to give me audience I shall have the honor of recalling several matters which will without doubt confirm his reputation. They will console you greatly, for you will recognize the great things he accomplished for God and for the building up of the kingdom of Jesus Christ during the regency. These took place not only by your authorization and support but even more so by your zeal, your concern and your generous support. What should be a source of joy for you is that all the great enterprises started by Monsieur Vincent still function, better than ever, under the wise guidance of our incomparable monarch who shines like the sun, vivifying all parts of his kingdom, who is very mindful to use all his strength of mind and inexhaustible zeal to preserve true religion and solid piety in all parts of the kingdom.

The innocence and sanctity of him whose life we write, Madame, assure us that he is in heaven with his God. We believe that he is imploring unceasingly God's goodness to shower his blessings upon our great prince, Your Majesty and all the royal household. What particularly obliges him to this intercession is his recognition of the favors he received from your hands, and continues to receive in the person of the priests of his Congregation.

While he lived on earth, even during most perilous and difficult times, he was ever faithful to the king and devoted to his service. Since the virtues of the saints never die and especially their charity lives on, we can confidently assert that in heaven Monsieur Vincent retains this same affection and zeal to obtain from God all sorts of blessings upon the king, Your Majesty and all that you hold dear. It surely is no small consolation to know that you have a faithful servant. To put it more fittingly, you have an assured intercessor and protector, like another Jeremiah <Ftn: An allusion to the vision of Judas Maccabeus (2 Mac 15:13-16) who had seen Jeremiah in heaven praying for the people and for the holy city.> continually prostrate before the adorable majesty to pray for what he sees in the light of glory to be truly salutary for Your Majesty and helpful to the achievement of your just desires.

For myself, Madame, having been showered with favors from the king without ever having merited them, and having experienced the effects of your own good will, I recognize myself unable to thank Your Majesty enough. I beg you that I may borrow from him whose life I write, to help fulfill this duty of gratitude, and following his example and with the favor his faithful services have earned, I declare, with the greatest possible respect,

Your Majesty,

Your very humble, obedient, faithful servant, and subject,

Louis, bishop of Rodez.

Index of Abelly: Book One: links to all chapters in Book One



Dear reader, I would like to call three things to your attention before you begin to read this book.

First, since truth is the soul of history without which it does not merit the name "history," but rather of "novel" or "romance," you can be assured that it has been faithfully and exactly observed in this work. What you read has been in the public record or gathered from reliable witnesses. Some things I assert that I have seen with my own eyes, or heard with my ears, having had the good fortune of knowing and associating with Monsieur Vincent for many years. I have visited the place of his birth and spoken with his close relatives during a trip I made to Guienne nearly twenty-five years ago.

I have cited several of his letters and conferences to supplement what I learned from others. These extracts are taken from documents collected by members of his Congregation, especially during the later years of his life. <Ftn: On August 15, 1657, only three years before the death of the saint, Brother Bertrand Ducournau, his secretary, sent a long memorandum to the assistants of the house of Saint Lazare to persuade them "how important it is for the future of the company that an exact record of the Monsieur Vincent's discourses be preserved. (Notices sur les prêtres et frères de la Congrégation de la Mission, 1, 416.) His proposal was accepted and he himself did most of the work of preserving these precious accounts. The same care was taken by the Daughters of Charity, who had earlier begun to preserve the account of the words of their holy founder. Mathurine Guerin, one of the first Daughters of Charity, wrote that "one of the most valuable possessions of our company is the record that Mademoiselle Le Gras had made of the instructions of our last most honored father. She so loved these writings that she did not wish to be the one to write them down for fear that she might change the sense of what our blessed father had said, greatly loving his simple and naive style, without trying to polish it in any way. She often said that one day the sisters would be consoled to have the writings of the persons whom we have been privileged to hear and see. Therefore, you must have them all." <Ftn: Mathurine Guerin to Marguerite Chetif, elected superioress general at the death of Louise de Marillac. Louise de Marillac, sa Vie, ses Vertues 1887, 1, 250.> I do so because there is no way we can be more certain of his attitudes or his interior disposition of soul than by quoting what he actually said. On occasion charity overcame his personal humility, despite his reluctance to talk about himself. What gives even greater credence to his words is that all who knew him were well aware that there was no trace of vanity or boasting in his makeup. On the contrary, he often sought out occasions for self-deprecation, saying and doing in the sight of others what might draw down disrespect upon himself.

Since this holy man often spoke on the spur of the moment, his conferences were more like talks of a father to his children than the studied discourses of the learned. Despite this we have decided to report them simply. The reader will thereby be the more able to recognize the depth of his soul and the virtue of this great servant of God, for his words flowed from the abundance of his heart.

The second point I call to your attention is the criticism that this work is too long. Some suggest that it would be enough to speak in general terms, and not enter into many topics better passed over in silence. It is not possible to form a correct judgment of things if they are known only superficially or in part. To see the utility and grandeur of the works of Monsieur Vincent which he did with the help of God, I have thought it necessary to speak about them at length, rather than in summary or in general.

Moreover, let the reader remember, please, that you do not have here an elocution piece or a panegyric. You have a simple recital of the life and activities of a servant of God, who had a particular concern to remain ever in the background. It would be contrary to his disposition were this life to be written with flowery language or with worldly eloquence. Style ought to imitate nature; how better to describe the virtues of a saint than to speak of them in the same spirit with which they were practiced.

Lastly, my dear reader, the third thing I would call to your attention is that I declare that I submit completely to the prudent rules established by the Apostolic See in writing about saintly persons. I base my writing solely on human testimony, and not on the authority of the church. I use the word "saint" in some places in the sense that Saint Paul uses it in referring to all the faithful. My meaning in using this word or others like it is no more than to say that this great servant of God was endowed with eminent virtue, and that he surpassed greatly the ordinary Christian man or woman in his life of holiness. <Ftn: The author wrote this in 1664. Later, the cause of the servant of God was introduced at Rome. Vincent de Paul was beatified by Benedict XIII on August 13, 1729, and was canonized by Clement XII (see the bull Superna Jerusalem of June 16, 1737).>


<Ftn: These approbations are reproduced above all because they are from two prelates who were friends of Saint Vincent. The bishop of Evreux was Henri Cauchon de Maupas du Tour, 1600-1680, first chaplain to Anne of Austria, and then bishop of Le Puy. In 1661 he was named bishop of Evreux. On November 23, 1660, nearly two months after the saint's death, he pronounced the funeral oration at the official memorial service sponsored by the members of the Tuesday Conferences, held at Saint Germain l'Auxerrois in Paris.>

Approbation of the Archbishop of Auch

We, Henri de la Mothe, doctor of the University of Paris and archbishop of Auch, declare that we have read the book entitled Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, written by Monsieur Louis Abelly, bishop of Rodez. In it we have found nothing but what is edifying and which may not serve as an example for all classes of persons to imitate. Its subject and his life's work is described with such force, such sincerity and in such vivid colors that it is not necessary to have known him intimately or to have spoken with him familiarly. He can be found in this book even better than in life, for he kept himself hidden from the eyes of men, to reveal himself to God alone. We judge that this book should be published and read by everyone.

Done at Paris, this thirtieth day of August, 1664.
Henri de la Mothe [Houdancourt], archbishop of Auch.

Approbation of the Bishop of Evreux

The Church has long endured the cruelty of tyrants, but also the shame of the reproaches made by the prophets against the leaders of the people. Ezekiel complained that the flock of the Lord was dispersed for want of a shepherd. Zechariah called the negligent shepherd an idol since he was useless for guarding his flock which he abandoned in times of stress. The Fathers of the Church lamented the same deplorable evil. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, among others, while expressing his astonishment at seeing how the good shepherd patiently endured all the rigors of the seasons to assure the safety of the sheep whose guardian he was, could only grieve at the sight of the sheepfold of the Savior of the world exposed to the attack of wolves for want of true shepherds. Souls, whom he calls simply thinking sheep, instead of having true pastors are at the whim of mercenaries who abandon the sheep at the first sign of difficulty.

The Sovereign Pastor who watches over his Church has raised up for us in the person of Monsieur Vincent a faithful servant, filled with zeal for his glory and burning with love for the salvation of souls. We have only to read this story of his life, written by the bishop of Rodez, to be convinced of this. I attest that I have read and even reread the books so filled with doctrine and piety the bishop has given the public in the past. I have studied them even in a spirit of admiration. I urge the faithful to read and meditate upon his latest work which cannot help being very useful in impressing on their hearts a true and solid devotion.

Given at Evreux on the feast of Saint Bernard, April 20, 1664.
Henri, bishop of Evreux.


By the grace and privilege of the king, it has been permitted to Florentin Lambert, a bookseller in Paris, to print or to have printed, to sell and to distribute throughout the kingdom, a book entitled The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, Founder and First Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, by Monsieur Louis Abelly, Bishop of Rodez; and to do this in the size, character and as many times as he judges it proper, for the period of twenty consecutive years. It is forbidden to all printers, booksellers and others to print, to have printed, to sell, or to distribute this book in whatever way and manner, and under whatever possible pretext, without the agreement of Lambert, or of those so entitled, under pain of confiscation of copies, arbitrary fine, expenses, damages and interest, according as it has been further specified in this privilege, granted at Paris May 19, 1664. And the twenty-second year of our reign. Signed: BARDON

Registered in the volume of the guild of printers and booksellers of this city, August 19, 1664.
E. Martin, Syndic
Printing completed for the first time, September 10, 1664.
Copies have been furnished.

Index of Abelly: Book One: links to all chapters in Book One