Louis Abelly, His Life and Works

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

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.