Frederic Ozanam was born on April 23, 1813 in Milan. In 1815 the Ozanam family moved to Lyon where the father had secured a position in the Hotel-Dieu hospital. As a twenty-year old university student, Ozanam was profoundly Christian and pursued his studies assiduously, attending all the lectures of the history conference where literature and philosophy were given equal appreciation.
In 1832, Frederic began his classical studies at the Sorbonne. He married and was soon established both as a family man and as a successful professor at the Sorbonne. In Paris he was haunted by the misery of the poor, and his dream was to see harmony among social classes. He campaigned for justice and charity. His faith enabled him to see Christ in the poor, and in the evening of his life, he repeated very clearly: “Our aim is to keep the faith and to spread it among others by means of charity.”
In 1833, anxious to respond to the attacks formulated by his colleagues – followers of Saint-Simon – Ozanam and some of his friends founded the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Ozanam was encouraged by the revered Joseph Emmanuel Bailly de Surcy, founder and former director of the “Société des Bonnes Études” (society for good studies). Ozanam made a pact with his friends to follow their lead, but “to help the poor materially, and after a certain time, perhaps to help them to return to the practice of religion.”
The story of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul begins with the story of Frederic Ozanam.
The Society was founded by Frederic Ozanam and his friends in 1833. It was a Tuesday night the 23rd of April when Frederic and his friends gathered to celebrate his 20th birthday at the offices of the newspaper that employed them. However, the intended excitement of the event was overshadowed by the weight on their minds which were burdened by taunts they had been receiving from fellow students, saying, “The Church is hypocrisy. What are you doing for the poor?” These words challenged Ozanam and his Catholic friends to make a difference. They responded to the disenchantment of their fellow students by forming an organization that would stretch them, not only as Catholics but as persons. They formed to explore the dynamic of what it meant to love. They worked to reach out and meet those in need, where they are - in their homes. They brought them bread and clothing, friendship and care. They were not only a hand but a presence of love and kindness.
They took St. Vincent de Paul as their patron saint; the Society derives inspiration from his thinking and his work. What we can most learn from St. Vincent de Paul is his intense love of the poor and his understanding of the dignity of those we help. Shortly before he died, he gave this advice to a young Daughter of Charity who was preparing to begin her life of service to the poor, “You must love the poor, serving them with a great smile so that they will forgive you." You must try to see that, through their affection for you, they will pardon the bread you give them.”
Frederic Ozanam and his friends were assisted initially by Sister Rosalie who worked with the poor and told them, “Be kind and love, for love is your first gift to the poor. They will appreciate your kindness and your love more than anything else you can bring them." The young students coached by Sister Rosalie, began their service of the poor by visiting them in their homes carrying fire wood and food. They helped them to solve their problems, and acquiring their affection and their confidence.
Ozanam was the guiding spirit of the group, but he was still young and was still very busy with his studies. Also, he was very shy and could not 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. Our Canadian National office counts as one of its treasures, a letter written by him in 1847, to the Society recently formed in Quebec City.
The group grew and the first Conference finally had to split. It was no longer possible to hold meetings conducive to intimacy that would lead to growth of the spirit of community among the members. Initially, two Conferences were formed and the overall group took the name of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. However, to maintain the family spirit, it was decided that the two presidents and their vice-presidents would meet regularly to discuss plans and projects for the service of the poor in the entire area served as well as to maintain this distinctive family spirit between the dispersed groups. After the number of Conferences increased further, this form of contact between neighboring groups would become a regular institution in the Society, under the name of the Particular Council.
Frederic was a man of faith. His prayer life was full. He relied on the Holy Spirit to guide him and he constantly prayed to our Holy Mother to intercede for him and the poor. He died on the birthday of Our Lady and so his feast day is September 9. Frederic Ozanam was beatified on August 22, 1997 by Pope John Paul II at the World Youth Conference in Paris.
Some words of wisdom I would like to leave you with which Frederic used frequently during his life,
- “We are here on this earth to accomplish the will of Providence.”
- “The cause of Christian knowledge, the cause of the faith, is what I hold to the roots of my heart; and in any way I can serve it.”
- “Let us learn, first of all, to defend our belief without hating our adversaries, to appreciate those who do not think as we do, to recognize that there are Christians in every camp, and that God can be served now as always! Let us complain less of our times and more of ourselves. Let us not be discouraged, let us be better.” (Taken from Ozanam’s correspondence)
Frederic Ozanam’s guiding principle was his love of the poor. We should all retain his message as his heritage to us.
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