On Wednesday, January 25, DePaul University commemorates the 400th anniversary of a transformative moment in the life of St. Vincent: his sermon at the church in the French hamlet of Folleville. In 1617, Vincent was in the employ of the wealthy and powerful Gondi family as a tutor to their children. That January, while at their chateau in the small town of Folleville, some 100 km north of Paris, Vincent was summoned to the bedside of a dying peasant who wished to confess his sins, which were quite grave. The man had feared receiving confession in the past, a fact that worried Vincent and Madame de Gondi.
Madame asked Vincent, “Alas, Monsieur, what is this? What have we just heard? This is the way it must be with most of the people. Alas, if this man with his good reputation was really living in danger of damnation, what must we think of others who live less righteously? Alas, Monsieur Vincent, how many souls are lost! What shall we do about this?”1 This last question is now viewed as the essential Vincentian question, and framed the remainder of Vincent’s life.
Madame then requested Vincent preach a sermon on the subject of confession at the small church in Folleville. For Catholics, the sacrament of confession (the absolving of sin) can mean the difference between heaven and hell. Vincent’s sermon, which is sadly lost to time, was a resounding success, and caused such a demand for confession amongst townsfolk that Madame de Gondi had to send for priestly reinforcements.
The ability to speak with and preach to those impoverished peasants seems to have awoken something inside of Vincent. Months later he abruptly left Paris for the small town of Châtillon-les-Dombes, resigning from his position with the Gondis in the process. It is there that he founded his first Confraternity of Charity, which led directly to the creation of the Ladies of Charity, and later the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity.
Vincent found his calling at Folleville, a calling still celebrated at this university that bears his name. DePaul’s Vincentian Studies Collection holds books, pamphlets, travel guides, and postcards related to Folleville and Vincent’s famous sermon. Please visit the Vincentian Studies Collection guide for more information, or stop by Special Collections and Archives in the John T. Richardson Library.
1Abelly, Louis and John Rybolt, C.M. The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul. Translated by William Quinn, F.S.C. Brooklyn: New City Press, 1993, p. 61. Downloadable for free at http://via.library.depaul.edu/abelly_english/4.