Sending St. Vincent's letters to the world

Kristin Claes Mathews
September 02, 2014

"You're holding a letter that St. Vincent de Paul held," the Reverend Edward R. Udovic, C.M., tells his students. Visiting the archives to touch a 400-year-old letter (safely encased in plastic) from Vincent can be a transformational experience, Fr. Udovic says. "Vincent was a 17th century person, and even though his ideals and values transcend history, understanding that he was a real person and came from this specific place and time is very important."

DePaul University Special Collections and Archives holds eight of Vincent's original manuscripts-the largest collection outside of Europe. Now the Vincentian community worldwide can get a closer look at these letters through a new digital collection. "Having the documents online will allow scholars to pore over the way the letters have been written: underlining, scratch-outs, and bolder passages, which cannot be replicated in the print volumes of Vincent's correspondence," says Andrew Rea, DePaul's Vincentian librarian.

A letter written by St. Vincent de Paul nearly 400 years ago in France is among a new digital collection at DePaul University in Chicago. The manuscript in the university library is part of the largest collection of Vincentian scholarly works outside of Europe.

For decades, Fr. Udovic and the Office of Mission and Values have been building the collection with the goal of becoming the premier international site for Vincentian historical research. Many of Vincent's other letters are held in private collections or archives outside of the U.S., and the rise of online auctions and search engines have made it easier to find manuscripts that are up for sale. "Once it's here in our Vincentian Studies Collection, it's here forever," Udovic says.

The library's new online collection, St. Vincent's Handwritten Letters, offers high-resolution images, transcriptions of the original French and translations into English. Pins on a Google map show where the letters arrived throughout Europe, and a timeline places the letters between 1641 and 1660, a period that was the height of Vincent's influence.

"One of the things I've realized while working with these letters for the past year or so is just how pragmatic a thinker Vincent was. He was very focused on growing the orders he founded and expanding their reach," Rea says.

Readers should not be surprised that Vincent's handwriting was not great, Rea says, because he wasn't a trained scribe. Many of his letters were dictated to a secretary, though Vincent would jot notes in the margins and always signed his name.

The longest and most important letter in DePaul's collection was a gift from book collector and alumnus Abel Berland in 1988. In it, Vincent denounces the heresy of Jansenism, which emphasized human depravity and limited Catholics' access to communion. "For pastoral reasons, Vincent thought Jansenism undercut and distanced people from God," Fr. Udovic says. This impassioned missive shows Vincent translating theology into real life and real practice, an example of his pastoral theology.

Reading the letters, scholars can also discover tidbits that recreate a lost age. "Seventeenth-century France was living through the Little Ice Age," Fr. Udovic says. "Vincent's comments about small details like floods or the failure of crops can give insight into the socioeconomic, political and cultural context of his world."

As the university's Vincentian librarian, Rea works to preserve items like these letters and to archive other rare items and foundational texts in Special Collections. DePaul also has digitized thousands of books, maps, and visual materials to increase scholars' access to Vincentian history, including Vincent's complete correspondence. Rea says there are plans to continue to add to the online collection to enrich scholarship.  

"The letters are important for Vincentian heritage," Rea says. "We have a direct connection here with the founder of the order and it's something that is very important for people to see and understand."

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