Frederic Ozanam was born on 23 April, 1813, of committed French Catholic parents. His father was a doctor but, in an age where medical provision had to be paid for, he gave his services to the poor who constituted at least a third of his patients, for free.
His mother formed a group of women to tend at the bedside of the sick and poor. In this way, Frederic was schooled by their marvellous example in the importance of helping those less fortunate than himself.
At 18 he went to the Sorbonne University to read law. Forty years previously, the epoch changing French Revolution had taken place. The Church had always been viewed as part of the royal establishment so Catholics were viewed with much suspicion.
Frederic decided to form a discussion group with a few friends of like mind. They called themselves “Conference of History”. Their method was to write a response to all the anti-Catholic lectures.
The “Conference”, however, was mainly a talking shop. Frederic and his friends were spurred to action when a student attending a discussion challenged Frederic himself, by asking “What are you doing for poor people today?”
For Frederic this was a turning point. He and his band of friends resolved to help the poor in imitation of Our Lord.
He had two major influences in his early life. The first was an older man, a journalist called Emmanuel Bailly. He was the one to encourage their enthusiasm, keeping their spirits up when the going got tough.
Emmanuel introduced them to the second, a Vincentian Daughter of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, who was experienced in working with the poor of Paris.
Sister Rosalie Rendu became their mentor and she gave them two pieces of advice. “Be Kind and love,” she said, “for love is your first gift to the poor. They will appreciate your kindness and your love more than all else you can bring them.”
The second tip she gave them was, “When you meet the poor, you meet Christ.”
Adopting St Vincent as its patron saint, Frederic established the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). It continued to grow and by 1841 it had 2000 members across Europe and the Americas. The SVP came to England and Wales in 1844.
By 1845 Frederic was married with a daughter and his life became a balancing act between work, family life and involvement with the poor through the Conference of the SVP. He used his influence in the academic world to speak out against injustice. He started talking about basic wage, the length of the working day, pensions, and legal protection of children.
Tragically Frederic, having suffered ill-health for some time, died in 1853. Even in times of convalescence, he worked to found SVP conferences wherever he could.
Frederic was beatified on 22 August, 1997 by Pope John Paul II.