When St. Vincent de Paul started the Congregation of the Mission in 1625, he wanted his missionaries to have hearts on fire with God’s love—and to go throughout the world passing that flame to other people’s hearts. This desire helped bring the Vincentians to the United States.
In 1816, a small group of Vincentians arrived in Baltimore, Maryland. Filled with St. Vincent’s fire of charity, they came to America to preach the Gospel to the poor and train priests for the Church. The bishop of the Louisiana Territory had asked them to come to his diocese, and they braved a long and difficult journey—traveling by boat, wagon, and horseback—to reach the heartland of America. They were from Italy and spoke very little English, but they were determined to achieve their mission. When they reached Missouri, they bought land, established a seminary, and built a college. With the Daughters of Charity (their sisters in the Vincentian Family), they responded to the many needs of the Catholics they served.
Sixteen years later, the bishop of Philadelphia, Bishop Kenrick, asked the Vincentians to staff and manage the Seminary he recently created (and named after St. Charles Borromeo). While running the Seminary, the Vincentians also ministered to Catholics as far away as Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. Given the traveling conditions in the early 1800s, that was no easy task.
Bishop Kenrick then asked them to establish a Catholic parish in Germantown to serve the small, yet growing, Irish immigrant community. Other bishops began asking for their help, as well—creating a seminary in Buffalo which later became Niagara University, a parish and school in Brooklyn, which later became St. John’s University and parishes in Maryland. New U.S. dioceses were being established, and he needed good bishops to manage them. As a result, he appointed the Vincentians as bishops. While they were of great benefit to the American Church, their departure from the Congregation was deeply felt.
After the Civil War, the Vincentians needed to build a seminary in Germantown to teach and house their own seminarians. As they developed plans for the seminary chapel (the chapel that the priests, brothers, and seminarians use), Bishop James Frederick Wood, the then-bishop of Philadelphia, asked them to construct a chapel that would be available to the public, instead. That chapel—now the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal—was solemnly dedicated in 1879.
Requests to serve the poor continued to come. The Vincentians were asked to minister to Americans who were building the Panama Canal, the Catholics in China, and the men and women in the military. Throughout the 20th century to present day, the Vincentians in Germantown have responded to the needs of the poor, wherever they are.
St. Vincent de Paul said, “God demands first of all the heart, and then the work.” Today, the Vincentians bring their hearts aflame to Him and everyone they serve, as they share the Word of God with the poor.