This month, in the last of our current series on the St Vincent de Paul Society, we look at the life of Frederic Ozanam.
Frederic Ozanam was born in Milan on 23 April, 1813 of French parents. The family later returned to France and settled in Lyon, where Frederic was brought up.
He came from a committed Catholic family. His father was a doctor but, in an age where medical provision had to be paid for, he gave his services to the poor for free – they constituted at least a third of his patients. 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. This certainly was a harbinger of things to come.
Frederic at University
At the age of 18, Frederic went up to the Sorbonne University in Paris to read Law. He was an outstanding student but found the intellectual atmosphere very hostile to Catholics and the Church. Only 40 years previously, the infamous French Revolution had taken place. The Church had always been viewed as part of the royal establishment. Whatever the Church did or said was rubbished, not only by his fellow students but also by many of his lecturers or professors. No one seemed to be challenging this totally secularist view so 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 given and hand it to the lecturer.
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.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul
They were fortunate to have two wonderful guides as they developed into the “Conference of Charity”. Included in the group of students 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 a Vincentian Daughter of Charity, who was experienced in working with the poor of Paris. Sr 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.” These principles underpin what was to become, within the first year, the Society of St Vincent de Paul. By the end of the first year the new Society had 100 members and so it was found necessary to divide this large group into smaller units in order to remain effective. It continued to grow; by 1841 it had 2000 members, reached Rome in 1842 and England and Wales in 1844.
When Frederic was 28, he fell in love with Amelie Soulacroix, whom he married on 23 June, 1841. They were blessed with a daughter, Marie, four years later. The year before she was born, he was the youngest man ever to become a professor at the Sorbonne.
Frederic’s life now became a balancing act between university, 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.
For the last seven years of his life Frederic was dogged by a constant recurrence of pleurisy and had to spend a lot of time in bed. Even in times of convalescence, he worked to found SVP conferences wherever he could.
On his death bed, when the priest told him not to fear death but trust in the Lord, he replied, “Why should I fear Him, when I love Him so.” He died on 8 September, 1853, aged 40.
Frederic Ozanam was a loving husband and father, an intellectual prepared to defend the Church he loved, yet happiest among the poor and the ignorant. The greatest lesson he has for us today is that we also are called to, and can reach, holiness of life.
Frederic was beatified on 22 August, 1997 and to support his canonisation there is a Cause List for petitions on behalf of the sick.