Blessed Frederic Ozanam
Founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society
Frederic Ozanam was an apostle of charity, an exemplary spouse and father, a grand figure of the Catholic laity of the 19th century. He was a man convinced of the inestimable worth of each human being, and served the poor of Paris well, drawing others into serving the poor throughout the world. Through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, his work continues to the present day.
Frederic was the fifth of 14 children, one of only three of the 14 to reach adulthood. Frederic wanted to study literature, but his father, a doctor, wanted him to become a lawyer. Frederic yielded to his father’s wishes, and in 1831, arrived in Paris to study law at the University of Sorbonne. When certain professors there mocked Catholic teachings in their lectures, Frederic defended the Church. A discussion club which Frederic organized sparked the turning point in his life. In this club, Catholics, atheists and agnostics debated the issues of the day. Once, after Frederic spoke about Christianity’s role in civilization, a club member said: “You Christians are fine at arguing, but what do you ever do?” Frederick was stung by the question. He now understood that Christianity is not about ideas but about deeds inspired by love. He decided that his words needed a grounding in action. At age 20, Frederic and six of his peers formed the first “Conference of Charity.” Under the conference, this group of seven men financed their works of charity out of their own pockets and from contributions of friends. They visited the poor in their homes, providing them with needed aid and assistance. At the prompting of Sister Rosalie Rendu, who served the poor as a Daughter of Charity, Frederic soon placed the conference under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul who had spent his life in 16th century France serving the poor. The “St. Vincent de Paul Society” grew throughout Europe. Paris alone had 25 conferences. After Frederic earned his law degree at the Sorbonne, he taught law at the University of Lyons. He also earned a doctorate in literature. He married Amelie Souacroix on June 23, 1841. They had one child, Mary. The revolution of 1848 left many Parisians in need of the services of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The government asked Frederic and his co-workers to supervise government aid to the poor. “Vincentians” throughout Europe came to the aid of Paris.
Frederic then started a newspaper, The New Era, dedicated to securing justice for the poor and the working classes. Fellow Catholics were often unhappy with what Frederic wrote. His writings were strikingly modern in praise of democracy and support of workers’ rights. He challenged the Church to renounce its alliance with the rich and powerful, and the nostalgia for a bygone era (pre-French Revolution). The poor, he believed, called all Christians to conversion. They were “messengers of God to test our justice and our charity and to save us by our works.” And he wrote: “It is the battle of those who have nothing and those who have too much; it is the violent collision of opulence and poverty which makes the earth tremble under our feet. Our duty as Christians is to throw ourselves between these two camps in order to accomplish by love what justice along cannot do.” His writings earned the suspicion of many Catholics, and left him isolated and discouraged. Frederic died at the age of 40 on September 8, 1853 after contracting Blight’s disease. He was beatified in 1997 by St. John Paul II. Today, the St. Vincent de Paul Society includes almost 900,000 members spread among 46,000 confraternities in 130 countries.
St. Vincent de Paul
Feast Day: Today, Sunday, September 27
Co-Founder with St. Louise de Marillac of the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity
Patron of the St. Vincent de Paul Society
Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in Gascony, France. Though he later achieved fame for his dedication to the poor, his early life was spent in a determined struggle to escape his humble roots. His family shared this ambition, hoping that a career in the priesthood would better the family fortune. For this goal, he chose a career in the priesthood. It was a way to escape the farm! Once, in the seminary, he was visited by his father, but was so ashamed by the old man’s shabby peasant clothes that he refused to receive him. After ordination, his charm and social skills gained him entry into the highest levels of society. He became a chaplain in the service of Queen Margaret of Valois. He might have passed his life as one of the worldly and entitled clerics of pre-Revolutionary France. In mid-life, however, Vincent underwent a great transformation. He was summoned to hear the dying confession of a peasant, and the man was so grateful that Vincent was struck as never before by the seriousness of his vocation, and determined afterward that his priesthood would be dedicated to service of the poor. Eventually he established The Congregation of the Mission – later known as the Vincentians – who were devoted to the training of parish clergy and to mission work in the countryside. At the same time he utilized his extensive contacts in the courts and high society to organize a wide range of charitable endeavors. There were few charitable projects in which Vincent was not engaged. He founded hospitals and orphanages as well as homes for the humane care of the mentally ill. He ministered to prisoners and galley slaves, and became, already in his lifetime, something of a legend. The rich and powerful vied to endow his projects, while the poor accepted him as one of their own.
He was particularly adept at attracting the services of aristocratic women. He convinced a number of them to wear gray habits and to undertake a personal ministry to the poor and destitute. One exceptional woman, a widow, St. Louise de Marrillac, became a particularly close companion in his work. With her help he founded The Company of the Daughters of Charity, an un-cloistered congregation of women devoted to serving the poor and the sick. The Daughters of Charity were a novelty and a revolutionary model of religious life in that era because the Church did not permit Religious women to leave their cloisters. The Daughters of Charity are not Religious (nuns) in the canonical sense of the term, and are consecrated for the service of the poor by private, annual vows. St. Vincent wrote, “Their convent is the sickroom, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the streets of the city.” St. Louise de Marillac died at age 68 on March 15, 1660, six months before the death of her friend and mentor, Vincent de Paul. By the time of her death, the Daughters of Charity had more than 40 houses in France. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934. She was declared Patroness of Christian Social Workers by Pope John XXIII in 1960. St. Vincent died on September 27, 1660, at the age of 80. He was canonized in 1737. Later, Pope Leo XIII named him patron of all charitable societies. These include the St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam, and the Ladies of Charity, founded by Vincent in 1617. The spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul was based on the encounter with Christ in one’s neighbors. He instructed his priests and sisters, “The poor are your masters, and you are their servants.”