The Societies Of St. Vincent De Paul In Mexico

by | May 15, 2002

The Mexican volunteers established institutions such as schools, shelters, soup kitchens, lending libraries, and credit unions for the urban poor. They pioneered adult education and helped provide jobs for workers and apprentices. Some of the volunteers were well-to-do professionals, but others were farmers, laborers, bakers, seamstresses, and housewives. This is not a modern-day story of philanthropy, but the little-known story of two 19th-century organizations: the male Society of St. Vincent de Paul and its loosely-affiliated sister organization, the Ladies of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, whose Mexican foundations date to 1845 and 1863.

Like their French counterparts, the Mexican lay men and lay women carried out individual acts of face-to-face charity and attempted to spread the Catholic faith. When they visited prisoners, hospital patients, and indigent families, the Society’s members prayed with them, ascertained that the children were confirmed and the parents married, and promised proper Catholic burials to the dying. On weekly visits to “their” adopted families the visitors took rosaries, but also food, clothes, bed linens, cigarettes (at the time considered a necessity), and rent money. They arranged for doctors and medicines. They helped place the children in school or the men in jobs, and occasionally bought tools so a breadwinner could work to support his family. Indeed, the Society’s members foreshadowed the role of social workers by investigating each family before taking it on, and then evaluating its situation to determine what it needed to survive a crisis. In combination with their new welfare institutions, the Societies thus created an extensive network of local relief services that contributed to the development of the Mexican welfare system.

These organizations are nearly invisible in history books, even though they counted thousands of members, lasted continuously from the mid-19th-century to the present, had chapters in dozens of cities throughout Mexico, and aided hundreds of thousands of paupers. Yet they deserve to be remembered. By viewing the 19th century primarily as a period of liberalism and secularization, historians have overlooked the Catholic revival that occurred in the second half of the century, of which these lay organizations were a part. At the same time, historians have missed an important locus of civil society as well as an important dimension of Mexican philanthropy. And they have missed an important part of women’s history, for the Ladies of Charity was one of the largest female organizations in 19th-century Mexico.

Mexico was home to the first Latin American branch of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded only twelve years after its creation in Paris. Over time the male Society expanded from its core in Mexico City into twenty-one Mexican states and from major cities into the rural areas, although its membership remained strongest in the major cities of central Mexico. As it grew, the social background of its members became more heterogeneous. To be sure, the Society’s membership excluded the urban poor who were its clients as well as most of the rural population. In his 50th anniversary review, Mexican Society secretary Jesús Urquiaga recognized the absence of Indians who “make up two thirds of our population” but are “incapable of participating in this sort of activity.” However, the Society gradually moved beyond its original circle of elite founders to incorporate men from the middle and lower classes, such as empleados, dependientes, preceptores, artesanos–and even some agricultores, jornaleros, and labradores. In addition, the Society’s collaborators included middle-class pharmacists, bakers, and shopkeepers who donated food and medicine, though they were not active members who regularly visited the poor. So this was a multiclass organization whose appeal went beyond a small group of elites.

The Señoras de la Caridad prospered even more than the male Sociedad. Although the ladies’ association was founded in Mexico a few years later than the men’s, it quickly had more members and chapters, and assisted far more paupers each year. By 1868 the Ladies counted over 12,000 active and honorary members, compared with only 1,461 men. Both groups suffered some declines in the 1870s after the triumph of the anti-clerical Reforma. But then the Señoras recovered fully while the male Sociedad did not. By 1894 there were only 1,536 active male members in 120 conferences (as the local chapters were called). This compared with nearly 10,000 active women in some 400 conferences. The ladies reported aiding some 13,000 sick people and visiting over 70,000 families, compared to some 10,000 people served by the men.

The phenomenal growth of the Asociación de Señoras de la Caridad is partially due to the organizing efforts of Vincentian priests, who encouraged the growth of the ladies’ conferences to fill the gap left by the suppression of the hospitaler orders in 1821 and the expulsion of the Sisters of Charity in 1874. Lay women enthusiastically joined these organizations, finding in them a center for sociability, a source of prestige, and a way of serving the larger society beyond their families. Whereas Mexican women were barred from holding public office and voting until the mid-20th century, they could do both as Ladies of Charity, which elected a President, Secretary, and Treasurer. All members voted, not only when choosing officers but also when approving the entrance of new members.

In contrast, Mexican men had alternate avenues for forming social networks, serving others, defending their faith, and reforming the modern world. They could do so through work, clubs, government service, or–for the most devout–the priesthood, options closed to women of the upper and middle classes. As well, busy work schedules may have deterred men from active volunteering. After Liberals won the War of the Reforma, some men must also have realized that their career advancement could be hindered by joining a Catholic organization that had close ties to the defeated Conservatives.

These reasons, and not necessarily women’s stronger devotion, help explain why the “rechristianization” of Mexico during the Porfiriato (as Ralph Gibson called the similar recovery of the Catholic Church in late 19th-century France) had a distinctly feminine stamp. Yet the fervor of the Society’s male members should also remind us that Catholic philanthropy appealed to men as well as women.

The Vincentian organizations constituted an important link between modern and colonial Mexico. In some respects the conferences resembled colonial cofradías. They had a close relationship with the Church, though the men’s Society maintained much more distance than the ladies’ Association. Conference members worshipped together and practiced special devotions to reinforce their faith, such as attending spiritual retreats and celebrating the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul. Yet unlike the confraternities, the new lay societies did not exist primarily to protect a particular temple or religious image, or to care for their own members in times of need. Instead, their principal activity was to assist total strangers.

Both organizations were also basic building blocks of a new kind of civil society. Unlike the disparate cofradías, the Societies had a complex national and international structure, with a central Mexican governing body that coordinated the local chapters, held annual meetings, published reports, and corresponded with the parent offices in Paris. At the bottom was the local conference, where the same men and women met together week after week, year after year–forty years, in the case of the well-known writer Joaquín García Icazbalceta. The depth and breadth of these organizations challenges the conventional wisdom of the older social science literature that held that, unlike the Americans observed by Alexis de Tocqueville, Latin Americans were not “joiners.” Historians have simply ignored some of the kinds of groups they joined.

Like the club, masonic lodge, or political party, the Vincentian conferences embodied a modern kind of sociability whose membership was voluntary and based on ideological affinities. Far from being “customary,” some of their ideas had to be learned and disseminated. (Specifically, home visiting had to be learned. Instead of simply giving alms to the poor, members had to give their time and personal service. In fact, the Societies’ leaders had to work hard in the early years to overcome the members’ resistance to visiting poor families in their houses.) In addition, these organizations were characterized by a democratic culture where members were ruled by a constitution, elected their officers, and voted on an equal basis. They were thus a training ground for democratic practices.

The Vincentian societies reflect the shift from from traditional notions of Catholic charity to modern concepts of poor relief. Despite their heavy rhetoric about imitating Christ and loving the poor, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Society’s works as mere throwbacks to traditional Catholic charity. The members did not accept poverty as a normal condition. Instead, they tried to prevent their clients’ future destitution through elementary schooling, adult education, and vocational training–in one case including music lessons so that a blind man could support his family as a musician. The curriculum in their schools not only included Christian doctrine but also history, science, calculus, and line drawing. The credit unions that encouraged savings were designed to help their clients achieve financial independence. The job placements and provision of tools likewise went beyond palliative measures.

Unlike traditional charity, the Societies’ assistance came with strings attached. Recipients of aid could no longer be left as they were. They needed to be transformed, not just to save their souls, but also to serve a larger utilitarian project. The Societies’ members believed they were fighting the major ills of the 19th century: namely the immorality, materialism, individualism, alienation, and class conflict which they attributed to the separation of the Church from public life and to the loss of faith. Their solution was to propagate the Catholic religion and Catholic values, and to do it in a way that restored social harmony.

In some respects the Vincentian organizations presaged the Catholic social movements that emerged after Rerum Novarum in 1891. Like them, they represented an organized effort to challenge liberalism by combining orthodox Catholic dogma with a progressive critique of modernity. The Societies’ members did not think of themselves as merely reinforcing the status quo but as social reformers. Nor did they solely rely on individual acts of charity and proselytizing to solve social problems, though these were certainly part of their program. Like later Catholic social movements, they also created welfare institutions to achieve a greater measure of justice in society.

From today’s perspective, we might denigrate the Societies’ aid as paternalistic and controlling, since self-righteous visitors meddled in many aspects of their clients’ lives. Yet it did permit some impoverished Mexicans to live with dignity in their own houses. By cooperating with the visitors, poor families got material aid during their lifetimes and in death avoided the dishonor of a pauper’s funeral. Moreover, there was no shortage of poor people willing to put up with the visitors’ intrusions in return for assistance–a reflection of the sorry state of Mexican welfare in general.

Too small to solve Mexico’s social problems singlehandedly, the Vincentian organizations never reached more than a tiny minority of the Mexican poor. Still, organizations that helped thousands of people a year should not be scoffed at, especially when their record compares favorably with what the Mexican government offered in the 19th century. The Catholic conferences meant a great deal to tens of thousands of Mexicans of all social classes who were their members, benefactors, and clients. They helped pave the way for the militant Catholic movements of the early 20th century whose emergence is otherwise difficult to explain. And they serve to remind us that we should not discount the role of philanthropic organizations in building civil society in Latin America.

Spring 2002Volume I, Number 3

Silvia Marina Arrom is director of the Latin American Studies Program and Jane’s Professor of Latin American Studies at Brandeis University. A DRCLAS affiliate, her research interests are Latin American social history, modern Mexico, women and the family, and social welfare. Her books include The Women of Mexico City, 1790-1857 and Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774-1871.

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