What Would St. Vincent Think About International Women’s Day?

March 8, 2020, marks International Women’s Day.

As I listened to a political commentator, I was reminded of a post I wrote on our FamVin website just two years ago. Vincent Showed Us… With Help from Women.

Writing in the context of the Vincentian Family’s thrust on systemic change, the article reflected on the great changes St. Vincent brought about with the help of women.

International Women’s day 2020

What is it about and what are their goals this year?

Their theme is “An equal world is an enabled world.”

Their questions – How will you:

  • Help forge a gender equal world?
  • Celebrate women’s achievement?
  • Raise awareness against bias?
  • Take action for equality?

They are especially concerned about how to:

Vincent showed us how to change systems

I can only speculate on what Vincent would think about these initiatives, since many of these issues were not thought about in his day. What I can do is offer some thoughts about what Vincent realized about women in his day and how he was enabled by them and enabled them.

St. Vincent showed us how to do systemic change… but he did not leave a formal manual or even call it “systemic change.”

How? He was not a legislator. Nor was he a king. Yet, he changed the way people thought about things. He showed people a different way of thinking. He was open to changing his own way of thinking.

Women helped Vincent see differently

It is fitting that we reflect on this in the season of Lent. Lent calls us to repent. Repent is rooted in the Greek word for “change your way of thinking.”

Vincent did not set out to change people’s thinking. Vincent set out to address a specific problem.

He had the gift of viewing problems with wide-angle vision… and was open to viewing things differently when someone challenged him to think differently.

In both Folleville and Châtillon, he saw problems. Spiritual poverty and material poverty. Sr. Louise Sullivan helps us understand the role women and his openness to thinking differently. She says to understand these events and their far-reaching effects, it is essential to recall the context in which they occurred.

The woman who moved Vincent at Folleville

At Folleville, he experienced the spiritual abandonment of those who were poor by the Church and especially the clergy.

An incident took place when Vincent accompanied the Gondi family to their estates in Folleville. At first glance, it was quite ordinary, even banal in the life of a parish priest: he was called to the bedside of a dying man to hear his confession. Vincent had little experience as a parish priest—sixteenth months in sixteen years—so it is quite possible that it would never have led to the first “sermon of the mission” (Vincent de Paul, n.d., 11:4).

What followed might never have happened were it not for Madame de Gondi.

It was she who first reacted after the old man’s confession; she who pushed Vincent to preach the following day; she who chose the subject of the sermon; and she who asked Vincent to continue the work begun at Gannes in the other villages on her lands.

Thanks to Madame de Gondi, Vincent responded to the challenge and preached at Folleville, and according to his own testimony: “God had such regard for the confidence and good faith of this lady…that He blessed my discourse and all those good people were so touched by God that all came to make a General Confession… We then went to the other villages belonging to Madame…and God bestowed His blessing everywhere.” (Vincent de Paul, n.d.,11:4).

The women who helped Vincent change people’s mind after Chatillon

Then, at Châtillon, Vincent faced the social problem – material poverty.

At Châtillon, he is confronted by society’s abandonment of poor persons. The women of the parish rushed to the aid of the family. The happy pastor tells us, “I spoke… so strongly that all the ladies were greatly moved. More than fifty of them went from the city and I acted like the rest” (Vincent de Paul, 1645, January 22, 9:206).

That very evening, the notoriously slow to act Vincent had laid the foundation for the confraternity. He says, “I proposed to all these good ladies, who had been animated by charity to visit these people, to group together to make soup, each on her own day, and not only for them but for all those who might come afterwards” (Vincent de Paul, 1645, January 22, 9:209).

Thus, in two small villages, in two seemingly ordinary events, the Vincentian charism was born. Women played an essential role in both its birth and its development.

Vincent broke through barriers faced in his day:

“You know that in the early history of the Church, Deaconesses were appointed, and these women performed marvelous works in the Church of God. It was their duty to organize the women and to teach them how to conduct themselves during the liturgical assemblies. In this way, God was served equally by both sexes. Therefore, as members of the Congregation of the Mission, do we not have an obligation to give women their rightful place in the Church?” (St. Vincent On the Purpose of the Congregation of the Mission,” December 6, 1658)

There were, indeed, many women in Vincent de Paul’s life and his works who would become what they were and what they continue to be because they put their hands to them. The women of the Vincentian Family continue to bring the giftedness that Vincent discerned in them early on to the “suffering members of Jesus Christ” throughout the world. As a result, now as then, persons who are poor are better served.

See also Praying our Heritage – St. Vincent on the Role of Women.


  • Do I look with wide-angle lenses at problems?
  • Do I listen to others who suggest the wider angles of problems?
  • Do I empower others to step forward?

P.S. The full article with supporting quotes can be found at Vincent Showed Us… With Help from Women. Also, each Wednesday morning FamVin offers a reflection on changing systems from a Vincentian perspective.


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