Frederic Ozanam is known especially as the founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, an international voluntary Christian organisation noted for helping the poor. John Murray PP tells his story.
‘Frederic, I accept that the Church may have done things for people in the past but what are you doing now? Show us your works!’ Those words stung the young Frederic Ozanam, a man who loved the Church and all it stood for. And yet he knew there was a seed of truth in the question.
That night he and a friend went out and gathered some firewood for a poor woman and delivered the bundle of sticks to her house. So began the work that would soon become known as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an organization which today is recognized and revered throughout the world.
Milan and Lyons
The story of Frederic Ozanam begins in Milan, Italy in 1813 on April 23rd, where his parents welcomed into the world their fifth child. Although they had fourteen children in all, only three survived into adulthood, one of these being Frederic.
Within two years the family returned to their native France and settled down in the city of Lyons. The father had been a merchant but after some poor fortune he studied and became a doctor. He and his wife saw the great potential in their son and encouraged him in his studies. Frederic began his academic career at the local Royal College and by the time he was eighteen he yielded to his father’s wishes and began an apprenticeship with a local attorney.
The world of law seemed to beckon although Frederic maintained an interest in languages and also philosophy. Indeed throughout his life Frederic was guided by two stars, the pursuit of truth and the practice of this truth in love.
He was to write about those early years: ‘God gave me the grace to be born into the faith. Later the confusion of an unbelieving world surrounded me. I knew all the horror of the doubts that torment my soul. It was then that the instructions of a priest and philosopher (Abbé Noirot) saved me. I believed henceforth with an assured faith and I promised God to devote my life to the services of the truth which had given me peace.’
Hostility to the faith
In 1831 Frederic went up to the great Paris university of the Sorbonne to continue, in accordance with his father’s wishes, a degree in law. It was here that he encountered an hostility to the faith which he had not met before in provincial France. Like other countries in Europe France was moving rapidly from a rural based economy to a more urban and industrialized one and this was bringing with it many changes to society.
The cities in particular were filling with many displaced folk from the countryside and poverty was rife. Some groups of intellectuals such as the followers of the Utopian socialist Saint-Simon began to suggest ways to improve the condition of the poor by forming ideal societies of labourers.
However some of these groups were frequently critics not just of the government of the day but also of the Catholic Church. Frederic had already written at this time a pamphlet entitled ‘Reflections of the Doctrine of Saint-Simon’ because he felt that the latters teachings gave a false picture and an equally false path to a ‘better life’.’
It was a life that was not based on the Christian principles of mercy and love and was certainly not infused with Christian faith. Indeed Frederic’s commitment to the truth meant that his lectures at the Sorbonne were among the most popular as the students flocked to hear this young and vibrant speaker.
True to form, Frederic did not limit his response simply to writing in defence of what he saw was the truth. The conversation which he had with the young man, Jean Broet, challenged him and others to begin the Conference of Charity which in time became the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, thus honouring the great saint who in another time had likewise ministered to the poor of the city of Paris.
Sr. Rosalie Rendu
One must also pay tribute here to the wise counsel of Frederic’s spiritual director, Emmanuel Bailly, who had put him and others in touch with Sister Rosalie Rendu who worked directly with the poor of the city. There, with her guidance, Frederic gained the ‘hands on’ experience of what it was like to be poor and without prospects in one of the great cities of Europe.
Up to this time Frederic had remained single and indeed he strongly entertained the idea of becoming a priest. He had long since abandoned the legal career and through his versatility in the area of language had already become an assistant professor of literature in the Sorbonne.
In 1839 he had submitted a doctorate on the work of the great Italian poet, Dante, which revolutionized future work on this giant of world literature. This led to him being offered a professorship at the university and then the chair of foreign languages in his own right. However a more important event also occurred prior to all this. In 1841 he married Amelie Soulacroix and their union resulted in the birth in 1845 of their only daughter, Marie.
Frederic retained the youthful enthusiasm of his marriage throughout and each month would observe the anniversary of his wedding with a thoughtfully chosen gift, however small. Often too, he would spend time with his daughter by telling her stories and listening to her chatter.
Frederic brought the same love and attention to the development of the Society which he had helped to form. Within a very short time it had expanded to 2000 branches both in France and other countries.
By 1851 his own health was beginning to deteriorate, having contracted tuberculosis. Despite the rigours of the illness he continued to work and even made a personal pilgrimage to Pouy, the birthplace of St. Vincent de Paul in December 1852. Several months later he was dead, having succumbed to tuberculosis.
Frederic passed away at Marseilles on the birthday of his mentor, Sr. Rosalie, and was buried in the crypt of the Carmelite church near the Institut Catholique in Paris. He had written as a younger man about the Good Samaritan and had lived it out throughout his life. Today his burial place is adorned by a large mural of that very scene.
On 23 August 1997, during the World Youth Day celebrations in Paris Pope John Paul beatified Frederic. No better model could be given to the youth of the world than a young man who sought always for the truth and who lived it out in love, ‘Show us your works!’
The baton Frederic lifted has been passed on to successive generations and is still carried today by the men and women who do the St. Vincent de Paul collections. Don’t pass them this Christmas.