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Chapter 1

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In Ancien Régime Paris the name “Saint-Lazare” would have immediately conjured up images of the venerable mother house of the Lazaristes located on the rue Saint-Denis just outside the city gates. This vast headquarters, of arguably the most influential religious community in France,  was also the site of the oft-visited pilgrimage shrine containing the remains of the quintessential French saint, Vincent de Paul.   

However, throughout the 19th and into the first third of the 20th century the name “Saint-Lazare” would have immediately conjured up very different images of a notorious prison housing prostitutes, delinquent girls, and other women prisoners and convicts. The name and the place in both cases are one and the same. 

Founded in the twelfth century by Louis VII as a leprosarium far outside the gates of the medieval city, the priory of Saint-Lazare already had a long history when it unexpectedly fell into the hands of Vincent de Paul.   With no more lepers in residence, and only a handful of aging monks, the last prior Adrien LeBon was searching for a way to put the property to a new ecclesiastical use, and guarantee the retirement needs of his dwindling community.  Vincent de Paul and the newly-founded, (1625) Congregation of the Mission were an answer to his prayers. 

Vincent’s community already had a small headquarters in Paris at the College-des-Bons-Enfants located near St. Victor’s gate.   Although he was initially reluctant to take on the responsibility of administering such a large enterprise as Saint-Lazare, Vincent de Paul was ultimately convinced to take the step. On January 12, 1632, the priory became the maison-mère of the Congregation of the Mission.   The rather ramshackle enclosed compound that Vincent knew was rebuilt, at great expense, at the end of the seventeenth century by his second successor as superior general of the Lazarists, Edmond Jolly.   

Early in the morning of July 13, 1789, the first act of organized revolutionary violence in Paris leading to the more famous attack the next day on the Bastille was the sacking of Saint-Lazare for its grain stores.   The sackers were well-organized, and efficient in their labors.  Following the departure of the heavily-laden grain wagons, crowds from the neighborhood eagerly finished looting the complex from top to bottom.  The Gardes Françaises in their nearby barracks refused to intervene to stop the pillage.

Over the next three years, the revolution quickly spun out of control and headed toward the end of the monarchy, the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and the Reign of Terror. The Assemblée Législative disbanded the Lazarists and confiscated Saint-Lazare and all of its properties and assets as of September 1, 1792.  

During 1794, Saint-Lazare was pressed into service as a prison to house enemies of the Revolution.   At its height that year the facility housed 721 inmates.  On December 15, 1794, theConvention Nationale designated the prison as a women’s facility.  Prisoners began arriving almost immediately even though the buildings still lacked bars for the windows, and high walls to enclose the prison compound.  

On April 9, 1811, the Napoleonic government gave Saint-Lazare over to the Department of the Seine. After the confirmation of their legal re-establishment by the newly-restored Louis XVIII in February 1814, the Lazarists asked the king to return Saint-Lazare to the Congregation.   The monarch readily agreed to do so, until he was pointedly reminded of the exorbitant cost of building a replacement prison.  The original complex inherited from the Lazarists was later expanded in the 1820s-1830s at a cost of 1,500,000 F with the addition of a new chapel,  separate wings for the infirmary and the section administrative of the prison, and other upgrades.

During the nineteenth century, the population of Paris grew substantially as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The prison which had once stood in a relatively undeveloped section of the city increasingly found itself hemmed in by the densely-populated quartier Poissonnière of Nouvelle France in the tenth arrondisement intersected by Baron Haussman’s new boulevards and not far from two of the city’s new train stations the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, as well as Jacques-Ignace Hittorf’s magnificent basilica of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the Hôpital Lariboisière.


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