Society of St. Vincent De Paul
St Lawrence Conference
"Turning Concern into Action"


History - Our founder Frederic Ozanam

Frederic Ozanam
1813 - 1853
Society of
St. Vincent de Paul


The second family portrait is that of a French University Professor, Frederic Ozanam. He was born in Milan in 1813, the son of French parents. His father, a doctor, had been in Italy with the French Army under Napoleon and had returned to Milan to practice, after he qualified as a doctor. Two years after Frederic's birth, the family returned to the French provincial town of Lyon, and it was there that Frederic grew up.

We can get some appreciation of the kind of Christian household that Frederic grew up in, when we look at the example set by his parents. His father a doctor of medicine, in his practice, insisted on visiting the poor and sick in their homes. Often with little or no recompense. His wife would accompany him on these visits a practice that they continued in spite of sickness and old age. Madam Ozanam urged her husband to retire from practice because of his illness and old age. But he replied "there are too many sick poor in the city, to justify such self indulgence."

Coming from a home filled with such a spirit of Christian charity we can imagine what Frederic's feelings must have been when he entered the hostile world of Paris, where, even in the university classrooms, it was quite the thing to ridicule Christianity and Catholicism, and preach the new freedom that science had brought to the world. Perhaps in former days, his classmates would say, "the church has done some good, but nowadays, all it is good for is pomp and ceremonies, splendid buildings, and the protection of its royal partners".

But the young law student, although by nature shy and reserved, was not prepared to quietly accept such attacks against his religion. He, himself, spoke out in the lecture halls defending Catholicism and several times forced the lecturers to retract their anti-clerical remarks. As well, he found a few kindred spirits among his fellow students and they gathered to discuss how they could combat this anti-religious attitude. They decided to form a debating society, known as the Conference of History, at which they and their anti-catholic fellow students could debate their differences.

At the time, he was living in the home of the scientist Andre Ampere, whose name is now a household word as a unit of electrical current. Ampere was a fervent Catholic, who saw no opposition between science and religion, and he was impressed by young Frederic's courage and conviction.

Another of those who supported and encouraged Ozanam and his fellow students was a forty year old printer by the name of Bailly, himself a fervent Catholic. He had opened his house as a residence for Catholic university students and he gave them the use of his shop when they met to discuss how to counteract the prevalent Anti-Catholicism. He will always remain, among Vincentians, the model of those who encourage and assist youth in their search for a better way to serve God.

Ozanam and his fellow Catholics met between sessions of the Conference of History, so that they would be better prepared to defend their religion against the attacks of its enemies. Le Taillandier, like Ozanam a Law student, expressed the view, following one of these meetings, that he would prefer another type of meeting which would avoid all contention and simply concentrate on doing good works. Shortly after this, following a particularly acrimonious session of the conference of history, Ozanam himself echoed this idea: "Don't you think", he said, "that it is time for us to join actions to our words, and to show by our works the vitality of our faith?". Both men had seen that the holding of intellectual debates, even if they should score some notable victories, was not fulfilling the primary duty of the Christian to obey Christ's commandments of charity! The poor were there and it was the duty of Christians to serve them in the name of Christ. The personal service of the poor would be the answer to those who declared that the church did nothing for the poor. And thus the Society we belong to was born.

They decided to call their little charitable group the Conference of Charity. In order to find out about the poor of Paris, and how each might best be helped, they approached Sister Rosalie, a Daughter of Charity, who was working in the Paris slums. As a member of an order founded by St. Vincent de Paul, she must have seen this little Conference of university students as another means of carrying on the Saints great work of charity. It is very appropriate that the group later adopted St. Vincent de Paul as its Patron Saint and expanded its name to the Conference of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

Ozanam was the guiding spirit of the group, but he was still young and he was still taken up with his studies. In any case, his own shy temperament would not allow him to accept the official leadership and the group elected Bailly as the first president of the new Conference. Bailly would later become the first General President of the Society and our Canadian National office counts as one of its treasures a letter written by him, in 1847, to the Society just recently founded in Quebec.

The young students, coached by Sr. Rosalie, began their service of the poor by visiting them in their slums and hovels carrying firewood and food, helping them solve their problems, and acquiring their affection and their confidence.

In spite of failing health, Frederic continued his writing and university lectures and traveled in order to complete his research. While in Italy, he was felled by the kidney infection which would cause his death. When it became evident that his end was not far off, he left for France, intending to die at home in Paris, but death overtook him in Marseilles, where he died on September 8, 1853 at the age of forty.

One saying of his I would like to recall to you all. He used it frequently throughout his life it is this: "we are here on earth to accomplish the will of providence". It was his guiding principle, and one we should retain as his heritage to us

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