“The saints were out of their minds when it came to love. Their love was limitless, embracing God, humanity, nature. […] And so, my dear friend, are we not going to do anything to become like those saints whom we love?”—Bl. Frederic Ozanam
Frederic Ozanam grew up in France in the period following the French Revolution. It was a time of change and unrest. The French were trying to establish a new society based on “liberty, equality, and fraternity”. Unfortunately, the poor of Paris were not enjoying any of the benefits of this new society—there were large slums dotting the city, where people lived without food, clothing, or safe housing. Alcoholism was widespread, as was cholera. This disease killed many Parisians in 1833, when Frederic was a student at the Sorbonne. Each morning, as he walked to his classes, he would see the poor in the streets and wonder what he could possibly do to help.
Frederic was a member of the university’s debating club. During one debate, an opponent gave him an ultimatum that ultimately led to the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: ” In former times Christianity worked wonders, but what is it doing for mankind now? And you, who pride yourself on your Catholicity, what are you doing now for the poor? Show us your works!” Frederic, thinking of all the people in his own city who were suffering and dying, took the challenge and reached out to a group of six of his classmates. On April 23rd, 1833, the group, along with a faculty mentor, got together for the first time to decide what they could do to help the poor in their neighborhood. The small group decided to adopt the name The Society of St Vincent de Paul after the Patron Saint of Christian charity.
The First Conference
The members of the first “Conference” had very little experience working with people in need, so they approached Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who oversaw a mission in the Mouffetard neighborhood of Paris, one of the poorest areas of the city. Rosalie introduced them to families in need and told them that they must visit them in their homes in order to make them comfortable and to better assess their needs. The group also decided that they would meet weekly to strengthen their friendships with one another and to plan how they would respond to the needs of those they served.
The Conference grew quickly, and within a year there were more than 100 members. The group then split into three separate conferences. At the same time other conferences started in and around Paris. By the time of his death from consumption (tuberculosis) in 1843, there were conferences in 48 cities in France and Italy, and the Society had more than 9,000 members. Frederic Ozanam’s idea of a ministry made up of lay persons still resonates today. The work of the Society enables men and women to incorporate service into their lives while fulfilling their other family and work obligations. Being a Vincentian enables lay people to bring their faith to life by bringing assistance and hope to their neighbors in need.
Frederic believed very strongly that Divine Providence was leading the Society and he said shortly before his death that “Our Little Society has grown large enough to be a providential fact”. As Vincentians, we are proud to be part of Frederic’s “little Society”, which now consists of more than 800,000 members worldwide.
St. Vincent de Paul Dayton
Today, St. Vincent de Paul is the most essential part of Dayton’s safety net for the homeless and impoverished: we stand between them and almost unimaginable consequences. And we stand behind them as they struggle to reclaim their lives. Without our work – and our respect, dedication, compassion and effectiveness – thousands of lives would be impacted; many would be lost. Sign up to read about these lives each month: