I deeply admired the Society of St.
Vincent de Paul (SVdP) long before
I knew that Frédéric Ozanam had
established it. This worldwide organization
of men and women is committed
to feeding the hungry, sheltering
the homeless, visiting the sick and
other works of compassion.
My father was very active in our
parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Council.
Whenever someone needing help from
the Vincentians rang our doorbell during
dinner, Dad never seemed to mind.
He also regularly attended the Society’s
state-level meetings. I saw faith in
action years before I knew the Society’s
link to Frédéric Ozanam.
A Stinging Question
Although his father wanted him to be
a lawyer, Frédéric preferred literature.
During his legal studies at the Sorbonne
in Paris, he often defended the Catholic
Church when professors mocked it in
the fashion of the times. Frédéric organized
a club where Catholics, atheists
and agnostics debated current issues.
After Frédéric spoke about Christianity’s
positive contributions to civilization,
a club member asked, “What
do you do besides talk to prove the
faith that is in you?” The question
prompted Frédéric to begin visiting
Paris tenements with a friend, offering
food and clothing.
A 20-year-old Frédéric began the
Conference of Charity. It later evolved
into the Society of St. Vincent de Paul,
named for a 17th-century French priest
famous for assisting poor people.
Frédéric taught law at the University
of Lyons, earned a doctorate in literature
and taught it at the Sorbonne.
In 1841 he married Amelie Soulacroix,
and four years later their daughter,
Marie, was born.
Ozanam lived in turbulent times.
Napoleon Bonaparte was in power
when Frédéric was born. A constitutional
monarchy preceded the Second
Republic’s debut in 1848. That year’s
revolution was fueled by dire social
conditions. The Society put a human
face on the urgent needs that Pope Leo
XIII would later address in his groundbreaking
1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the New Social Order).
In the United States, the Society took
root in St. Louis, Missouri, on November
20, 1845. More information is available
April 23, 1813
Born in Milan, Italy, where his French parents
were living in temporary exile
April 23, 1833
At 20, established the Conference of Charity,
which became the St. Vincent de Paul Society
September 8, 1853
Died peacefully in Marseilles
August 22, 1997
Beatified by Pope John Paul II during World
Youth Day in Paris
What continues to impress me is the
quiet but intensely prayerful faith of
members of the Society of St. Vincent
de Paul. Yes, some people focus on
answering social injustices with systemic
change. That help, however, will
come too late for the people whom the
Vincentians are helping one-on-one
today. They don’t neglect advocacy for
the poor, either.
The Society helps people across lines
of race, religion, nationality or gender,
always protecting confidentiality and
respecting the dignity of the people in
whom they see the face of Jesus Christ.
In 1833, no Parisians were talking
about “male spirituality,” but Frédéric
Ozanam showed that Catholic men
(and later women) were quite ready to
carry out the corporal works of mercy
that Jesus powerfully describes in
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