The Founder: Frederic Ozanam
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 "Societe des Bonnes Etudes" (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 first meeting of the new Society was held April 23, 1833.
First Female Collaborator
From the very first, the members decided on visiting the poor in their homes, but this could not have been done without close collaboration with the Daughters of Charity, particularly that of Sister Rosalie Rendu, who initiated them into the care of the poor by actual practice.
This woman wielded a deep influence on the nascent Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and no one was better fitted to help them in the apprenticeship of charity.
For two years Sister Rosalie directed the young Vincentians to the homes of needy people, showering them all the time with good advice and wise suggestions.
When it came to forming a second Conference (as the group called itself), it was very difficult for them to think about breaking the bonds of friendship that had grown among them; but the unassuming Sister of Charity was able to convince them that a second Conference must be formed. It became the starting point for the expansion of the Society.
The Society in Canada
The first Conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Canada was founded by Doctor Joseph Painchaud In 1846, in Quebec city.
During this period in Quebec, the members did not have far to look for needs that must be met. The most serious were the epidemics that broke out in the city from the waves of immigrants. To this were added the frequent economic depressions which called for the establishment of savings banks or banking co-ops to encourage the poor to save money. Two such were founded at that time.
In 1848, a few days after the foundation of the Society in Montreal, the members visited a prison and immediately afterwards prepared a report for the government on reforms that they considered should be introduced into the management of the prison.
Throughout its history, the Society has always been able to adapt to new needs and has developed programs, either permanent or temporary, to assist families; to aid the poor; to help drifters and derelicts, the homeless, the elderly, and the orphans.
By the end of 1835 there were two hundred and fifty members in the Society. It seemed about time to provide the Society with the rules of a regular organization. The revered Mr. Bailly at the same time, determined to give the Society a written rule. He assigned M. Lallier to draft a rule, reserving for himself some preliminary reflections.
This rule, amended at different periods, has been and is still today the guide for the Society. The latest revisions were made in 1968.
The preamble to the Rule, presented by Pierre Chouard, then president-general of the Society, defines again the fundamental principles of the Society.
"The Rule, in essence, is to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in one's own milieu."
It is highly recommended that each member of the Society make it his or her duty not only to read the Rule and its commentaries but to study it and be inspired by it.
Founded in Paris by Frederic Ozanam and a few of his friends who felt the need to affirm their faith by visiting the poor and offering material and spiritual help to them, the pioneers saw in Saint Vincent de Paul a model of the charity of Christ.
With all the help that they had received from Revered Emmanuel Bailly and from Sister Rosalie, the first Vincentians were strong in their religious convictions. They had become aware of the problems of poverty that raged in Paris. Following their example, other conferences spread rapidly throughout France and into other countries of Europe.
One of the consequences of the creation of the first Conference in Paris was to be the establishment of the Society in Canada due to the efforts of Doctor Joseph Painchaud.
In 1846, returning from brilliant success in his studies in Paris, Doctor Painchaud founded the first Conference in Quebec City. At the suggestion of Bishop Ignace Bourget, a first Conference was founded in Montreal in 1848. The good news was carried to Toronto by Georges Manly Muir in 1850, and so on.
At the end of 2001, there were more than 980 conferences and councils in Canada, with more than 10,500 members whose principal activity was to visit and bring help to more than 313,000 people, bringing them material help and comfort, and spiritual and moral support.
In 2007, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul continued to exercise its mission in Canada and it can be found in all regions from coast to coast, but particularly in Quebec and Ontario, and is in constant expansion in the Maritimes and in the western provinces.
The hundreds of volunteer workers must also be counted - those who give of their time in so many of the Society's stores and outlets, where the poor may obtain the clothing and other daily essentials they require, and where even their small monetary contributions help in the works of the Society.
When Ozanam died, there were 15,000 Vincentians. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is now present in 155 countries, and regroups more than 80,400 conferences and 800,000 active members.
This expansion of the Society throughout the world is the most beautiful monument that could ever be erected to the memory of our founders, indeed to the memory of all our predecessors.
It is very hard to evaluate the harvest from that first sowing of seeds 170 years ago. The results of that sowing are still felt today. New conferences are being born in countries which are now emerging from the oppression to which they were submitted for so many years.
Ozanam was the pioneer of a "network of charity" that spread all around the world.