The state of things in that household filled him with horror. The "Couche" was managed by a widow, who, helped by two servants, received about four hundred children within the year. These unfortunate little creatures, in a state of semi-starvation and utter neglect, were crowded together into two filthy holes, where the greater number died of pestilence. Of those who survived, some were drugged with laudanum to silence their cries, while others were put an end to by any other method that suggested itself to the wretched women into whose hands they had fallen.
The sight of the "Couche" was one that could not fail to rouse any mother's heart to indignation. Vincent took one or two of the Ladies of Charity to the place and let them judge for themselves. The result was a resolve to rescue the little victims at any cost.
It was not difficult to get possession of the babies; their inhuman guardians were in the habit of selling them for the modest sum of one franc each to anyone who would take them off their hands. But the cost of maintenance was a more serious matter. A house was taken near the College des Bons Enfants, and twelve of the miserable little victims were ransomed and installed there under the care of Louise le Gras and the Sisters of Charity.
But this was only a beginning. The work appealed all the more strongly to the Ladies of Charity for the reason that most of the babies were unbaptized. It was a question of saving souls as well as bodies, and every effort was made to empty the Couche. The Ladies, often at the cost of real self-denial, gave every penny they could afford; Louis XIII and his Queen, Anne of Austria, contributed liberally. In ten years' time Vincent's institution had grown to such an extent that it was able to open its doors to all the foundlings in Paris.
Four thousand children had been adopted and cared for, and the numbers were still increasing; finances had been stretched to the breaking point; there came a moment when it seemed impossible to meet the expenses any longer. The Thirty Years' War was raging, and the eastern provinces of France, which had served as a battlefield for the nations, were reduced to the utmost misery. There were many other claims on the purses of the Ladies of Charity; the time had come when it looked as if there was nothing to be done but sorrowfully give up an undertaking that was altogether beyond their power.
But the very thought of such a possibility nearly broke Vincent's heart; he determined to make one last effort, and, gathering the Ladies together, laid the case before them in all simplicity.
"I ask of you to say only one word," he said to them: "will you go on with the work or no? You are perfectly free; you are bound by no promise. Yet, before you decide, reflect for one moment on what you have done, and what you are doing. Your loving care has preserved the lives of a very great number of children, who without your help would have been lost in time as well as eternity; for these innocent creatures have learned to know and serve God as soon as they were able to speak. Some of them are beginning to work and to be self-supporting. Does not so good a beginning promise yet better results?
"Ladies, it was pity and charity that moved you to adopt these little ones as your children. You were their mothers by grace when their mothers by nature had deserted them. Are you going to abandon them now? If you cease to be their mothers you become their judges; their lives are in your hands. I will now ask you to give your votes: it is time for you to give sentence and to make up your minds that you have no longer any mercy to spare for them. If in your charity you continue to take care of them, they will live; if not, they will certainly die. It is impossible to deny what your own experience must tell you is true."
Vincent paused; his voice was trembling with emotion; he was answered by the tears of the assembly. It was decided that at any cost the Foundling Hospital must be supported. The work was saved. The practical question of expenses, however, remained yet to be faced, and although the King increased his subscription, the funds were still insufficient. But the Ladies made still greater sacrifices; the Sisters of Charity limited themselves to one meal a day, and Vincent, who had already reduced himself to the direst poverty, strained every nerve to help.
The Foundling Hospital was thus kept going until some years after Vincent's death, when the State took over the responsibility, and the work ceased to depend on voluntary support.
Of all the good works on which he had spent himself, this was the one, it is said, that appealed to him the most strongly. He knew every baby in the Foundling Hospital by name; the death of any one of them caused him a very real sorrow, and he would appear among them at the most unexpected hours. Their innocence and happiness rejoiced him, and he delighted in watching their pretty baby ways. At the sight of his kind, homely face, they would gather round him, clinging to his hands or his cassock, certain of a smile or a caress. He came across much that was neither innocent nor attractive in his dealings with the world; he was one who never judged harshly, and who could always see in man, however depraved, the image of his Maker; yet the innocence and purity of his own soul found their best solace in the company of these little creatures whom he had rescued from a double death. They were his recreation in the moments of depression which all who work for the welfare of mankind must experience and which are more intense in proportion as the zeal is stronger.
He was blamed one day, when the difficulty of providing for the foundlings was at its height, for having spent upon them alms destined for the support of the Mission.
"Ah!" he cried, "do you think Our Lord will be less good to us because we put the welfare of these poor children before our own? Since that merciful Saviour said to His disciples, 'suffer the little children to come unto Me,' can we who wish to follow Him reject these babies when they come to us?"
But if the foundlings had a large share of Vincent's heart, it was great enough for all who were in suffering or distress. The misery in the provinces of Lorraine and Picardy was hardly to be described; the people were literally dying of hunger. The Ladies of Charity had at first come nobly to the rescue, but the Foundling Hospital was now absorbing all their funds; they could do no more. Then Vincent conceived the idea of printing leaflets describing the sufferings of the people and what was being done to help them by the Mission Priests. These were sold at the church doors, in the public squares and in the streets, and people bought them with such avidity that Vincent soon realized a steady little income.
In days when there were no such things as newspapers, regular tidings from the provinces were as welcome as they were unexpected. "God showered such blessings on the work," says Vincent, "that the greater number of those who read these narratives opened their hands for the relief of the poor."
The next step was to institute in all the regions where famine was prevalent public soup kitchens, where nourishing soup, made at the lowest possible cost, was portioned out among the poor. Vincent himself gave minute directions for its making, prescribing the ingredients so that the greatest number of people might be maintained at the least expense.
In many places laid waste by fire and sword, the dead remained unburied for days or even weeks. Heaps of filth and garbage were left to rot at the doors of houses and in the streets; pestilence and fever reigned supreme. Here, again, the Priests of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity devoted themselves to the work that no one else would do. Organizing themselves into bands, they went about burying the dead, nursing the sick and cleansing the streets, many of them dying of the pestilence.
It was very necessary, moreover, to take steps to bring back some kind of prosperity to the devastated country. Seeds and grain were distributed among the peasants, who were encouraged to cultivate the land and taught the best methods of doing so. All these different undertakings were carried out with the regularity and practical common sense that were characteristic of the sons of St. Vincent de Paul, accustomed as they were to brave hardship and danger without a thought of their own safety.
If their Superior asked much of others, he himself set the example in generosity. It was said of him that he never could keep anything for his own use, either clothes or money; everything that came into his hands went straight to the poor. There were days at St. Lazare when it seemed uncertain where the daily bread was to come from, or whether it was to come at all; but Vincent put his trust in God, who never failed him, and he gave while there was anything to give.
Several times, while he was organizing relief for the eastern provinces, his heart almost failed him at the magnitude of the work he had undertaken, and it was at one of these moments that he dared to face the terrible Richelieu, to demand peace in the name of the suffering people.
"Monseigneur!" he cried, appearing before the great Cardinal with tears streaming down his cheeks, "give us peace! Have pity on France and give us peace." Richelieu's heart was certainly none of the softest, but even he seems to have been touched by this earnest appeal. At all events, he showed no anger.
"I wish for peace," he declared, "and I am taking means to procure it, but it does not depend on me alone"; and he dismissed Vincent with an unwonted urbanity. His was not the only hard nature that was softened by contact with St. Vincent de Paul. The love of this man for his fellow men was infectious, for it was born of his love for Christ.