In 1816, 13 religious men from Italy, Vincentians, landed in Baltimore. They were pioneers in the true sense of the word. The only details they knew about their travel to America were the following: their destination was St. Louis; and their reason for coming to America was to help with the ministry of the newly created diocese of Louisiana. When they left Europe, everything they owned and needed for their ministry in America was packed in 80 pieces of luggage.
Like the pioneers of the American West, they did not know how dangerous, exhausting, and challenging the trip to St. Louis would be. Travel was by foot, wagon or stagecoach, and rivers and streams had to be crossed by horse or foot. On a day-to-day basis, they would experience culture shock. The food would be new and foreign; housing was primitive; and English was a newly acquired language skill.
The Vincentian Legacy Continues
The 13 pioneering men who arrived in America in 1816, planted the seeds for the Vincentian Community to grow and nourish in the United States. For the last 200 years, they have served Christ and the Church in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul by selflessly doing the following: caring for the poor; educating young men for religious life by building 30 seminaries; spreading Catholic teachings by establishing three universities, plus numerous high schools and elementary schools; and building Catholic churches in remote and poor areas in the Americas.
Why and How Vincentians Came to America
In 1815, Louis William Valentine Dubourg, a Sulpician priest, based in the Louisiana Territory, went to Rome to recruit priests. When he arrived in Rome, he was informed that Louisiana was to be made into a diocese, and he was to be its first bishop. To successfully care for his new flock, he knew he needed more priests, and was determined not to accept this appointment until he could find priests who would minister in the new diocese.
One evening, Dubourg heard a young Vincentian priest, Felix De Andreis, giving an inspiring talk to a group of priests. De Andreis left a deep impression on Dubourg, and the new bishop wanted De Andreis to be part of his group going to America. De Andreis agreed.
The group’s primary assignment in America: establish a seminary in lower Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. The volunteer missionaries learned French, a language skill needed in lower Louisiana. Before they left for America, they learned from Dubourg that the new seminary was to be built in St. Louis, not New Orleans. They now had to learn English.
Arrival in Baltimore
The groups set sail on an American brig called “The Ranger,”on June 12, 1816. On board were 13 missionaries: De Andreis, Joseph Rosati, Joseph Acquaroni, Joseph Carretti, Andrew Ferrari, Leo Deys, Francis Dahmen, Casto Gonzalez, Joseph Tichitoli, Martin Blanka, John Flegifont, Francis Boranvaski, and Medard de Lattre. They arrived in Baltimore on July 26.
After their arrival in America, the missionaries set a deadline of four weeks to survey the local scene and discern its needs, and to erect a seminary as soon as possible. A portion of the necessary funds needed for building the seminary was to come from the fees provided by enrolled seminarians.
It took the group of missionaries more than a year to reach St. Louis. They traveled from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, to Louisville, where they settled temporarily in Bardstown, Kentucky. They arrived in St. Louis in October 1817, and found a town of 2,000 residents, no resident priest, and Catholics who were apathetic to the arrival of their new bishop.
The Vincentians in St. Louis looked for a tract of land on which to build the new seminary. A colony of Catholics of English descent from the Barrens Settlement, about 80 miles south of St. Louis, offered the Vincentians a tract of land consisting of 640 acres. In April 1818, the offer was formerly accepted by Dubourg, who had arrived in Louisiana. The seminary, named St. Mary’s of the Barrens, was established at the Barrens Settlement, the present location of Perryville, Missouri.
During the building of St. Mary’s of the Barrens, De Andreis remained in St. Louis. He helped evangelize the African-Americans, both slave and free. On December 3, 1818, he opened the first American novitiate of the Congregation of the Mission in Saint Louis, using a small house on church property next to the bishop’s house. He called the novitiate “Gethsemane.” At about the same time, he began teaching theology in a boys school founded by Bishop Dubourg, the predecessor of the present-day Saint Louis University.
During the nineteenth century, St. Mary’s of the Barrens Seminary functioned as a lay college, a Vincentian seminary, diocesan seminary, parish, working farm, and small academy. The diocesan seminary was relocated to St. Louis in 1842, and in 1868, the Vincentian seminary moved to Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The division of the Vincentian American Province into the Eastern and Western Provinces led to the reopening of St. Mary’s as a minor seminary in 1886. Two years later, the novitiate and scholastiscate returned. In 1888, St. Mary’s once again became an active seminary and served as the Western Province’s house of formation until the mid-1980s.
Vincentians and the Future
The ministerial work of the Vincentians in the United States continues to the present day. The success of their ministry, to spread the Good News to the poor, is dependent on new vocations. We ask that you pray to God to touch the hearts of those men who might have a calling to serve God as a priest or brother, following the teachings of St. Vincent de Paul.
If you are a young man or know a young man, who has an interest in becoming a Vincentian priest or brother, and would like to dedicate his life helping the poor, please contact the following Vocation Directors:
East of the Mississippi River
Fr. John Maher, CM
West of the Mississippi River
Fr. Jim Osendorf, CM
For hard copies of this brochure write to either of the above.