Nobody could make (fill in your favorite meal )… at least not like she did. There was something special about it. You can still almost taste it.

Mothers often seem to have what seems like a secret recipe or ingredient for preparing a meal.

I wonder whether Vincent had some secret recipe that would account for the momentous changes he brought to Church and society in 17th-century France.  

Transformational Saint

We all know St. Vincent was a transformational saint who had a profound effect not only on his generation but also on generations to come. Think of other transformational saints  – St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis and a host of others.

But what we are rediscovering about St. Vincent in these last 20 years is his “secret” for transformation for 17th century France. We have had the flavor of his works but lost sight of the key ingredient in all the marvelous things he accomplished for those on the margins of both church and society.

Imagination was, in fact, his secret ingredient for changing his world.

He began imagining things as Jesus did…he was on a mission to bring good news to all, but especially to those on the margins and forgotten.


Wednesday, August 23, 1617, seemed like a day like any other day. However, it marked the beginning of all the transformational ministries set in motion by Vincent.

On that day, he called a meeting of 7 women in Châtillon-les-Dombes. He suggested, and they agreed to form an association to take care of the sick more effectively by taking turns doing what needed to be done.

The first Confraternity of Charity was born. But often overlooked is that this organization was the pioneering beginning of the Ladies of Charity, the oldest still-functioning group of women in the church (despite various name changes over the centuries).

It was actually the suggestion of a laywoman. But Vincent lent his support and organizing genius. He imagined lay women as an untapped ministerial resource in the church.

It proved to be the first of many institutions he set in motion.  A triangle of mutually supportive institutions: Confraternities of Charity, 1617; Priests and Brothers of the Mission, 1625; Daughters of Charity, 1633.  

The establishment and support of these lay Confraternities formed the basic pastoral plan of all his itinerant missions. He instructed his priests to establish “confraternities” wherever they preached parish missions.

He dared to imagine “ordinary” lay people directly involved in following Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor.

Lay persons as ministers

Surprising as it may seem, in the Church law of his day, there was no way for women to engage in any kind of ministry other than prayer behind the walls and doors of convents.

When he founded the Confraternities of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, and the Ladies of Charity, he had the imagination to tap into previously unrecognized resources for mission and ministry... lay women!

(Many forget that the Daughters of Charity today are not religious in the traditional sense. Today, even canon law sees them as a “society of apostolic life,” just as is the St. Vincent de Paul Society.)

Each of these groups was basically committed lay people.  

Including laypersons in ministry was one of his most pioneering insights. It was doubly pioneering in the fact that he notably included laywomen. 

He entrusted St. Louise with the inspiration and formation of these women. In effect, Louise developed a feminine and lay-oriented form of the Tuesday Conference program he imagined and pioneered for the renewal of the clergy, the forerunner of today’s more developed formation programs.

What must be done today?

  • Identify generous laity
  • Help them recognize how they share in the mission of Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor