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Saint Vincent's Reading List XLV: The Abelly Biography

by Rev Edward R Udovic CM 9/23/2013 9:09:00 AM

La Vie du Venerable serviteur de Dieu Vincent de Paul, Institvteur et Premier Superievr General de la Congregation de la Mission, by Louis Abelly. Paris : Florentin Lambert, 1664.

Call Number: SpC. 271.7702 V768Ya1664  


Portrait of Louis Abelly, by Antoine MassonWhen Vincent de Paul died on 27 September 1660, he died as a nationally renowned and revered religious figure. Certainly, his followers believed they had witnessed the life and death of a saint. In order to capture the faith, spirit, and accomplishments of this extraordinary priest for the historical record, and for their continued edification, the Lazarists commissioned a biography of their founder from Louis Abelly. This biography would also serve as the basis for Vincent’s eventual canonization cause.

Louis Abelly was well-equipped to write Vincent’s biography. He was a best-selling theological writer, was anti-Jansenist, and had known Vincent personally as a member of the famous “Tuesday Conferences” in Paris. Beginning in 1661 Abelly started work, ably aided by the research provided by Vincent’s two secretaries: Bertrand Ducournau and Louis Robineau. These two Vincentian brothers had spent years carefully preserving and organizing Vincent’s papers. First published in 1664, Abelly’s exhaustive biography of Vincent de Paul remains the cornerstone of Vincentian historiography.  

Abelly’s biography was not without flaws. Because of the scarcity of sources and Vincent’s own reluctance to talk about his early life, Abelly filled in the biographical gaps he encountered with a number of mythic conjectures based on his presumption of Vincent’s cradle-to-grave sanctity. Readers are thus provided a seriously distorted view of the first half of Vincent’s life, when Vincent was at best a talented, driven, self-centered, and incredibly average priest. Abelly also failed to grasp the timing, circumstances and nature of Vincent’s epic religious conversion.

This first biography of Vincent was unsurpassed until the appearance of Pierre Coste’s biography in the early 1930s. Revisionist Vincentian historians in the modern era have done much to recover and re-contextualize the Vincent of history.  However, all Vincentian historians remain in debt to Louis Abelly.

Louis Abelly became the bishop of Rodez in 1664.  After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1665, Abelly resigned his see and lived the rest of his long life writing theological works from his residence at Saint-Lazare in Paris. He died there in 1694.



St. Vincent’s Reading List is a recurring blog series exploring texts known to have been read and recommended by Saint Vincent de Paul, those which can be presumed to have been read by him, and works published during his lifetime (1581-1660) illustrating his world. All materials discussed are held by DePaul University’s Richardson Library. The entire series may be viewed here.


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