February 9 marks the feast day of Blessed Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853), founder of the Society of Vincent de Paul.
While a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, Ozanam was part of a group called the “Conference of History”, a forum for discussions among students whose debates often centered on the social teachings of the Gospel. At one meeting, Ozanam was challenged by another student: “What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!” In response, one of Ozanam’s companions, Auguste de Letaillandier, suggested some effort in favor of the poor. Ozanam agreed, saying, “let us go to the poor!”
The Conference of History soon became known as the “Conference of Charity”, eventually taking the name “Conference of St. Vincent de Paul.” Ozanam, five other students, and a professor met for the first time in May of 1833 set out to engage in practical works of service to the poor. Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who spent over 50 years serving in Paris’ poorest slums, was a mentor to Frederic and of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as she taught the first members the art of helping the poor and the sick.
The Conference of Vincent de Paul spread rapidly all over France and the world during Ozanam’s lifetime. Father John Timon, CM, an American Vincentian priest from Pennsylvania, and later Bishop of Buffalo, New York, was the one who brought copies of the Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul back from Dublin, Ireland, to St. Louis. Timon talked to various people about the Society and its wonderful work with the poor. Bishop Peter Richard Kenrick, successor of the first Bishop of St. Louis, Joseph Rosati, CM, asked Father Ambrose Heim to establish the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and be its spiritual advisor. Father Heim was known by all for his extraordinary zeal and ministry with the poor. He became known as “The Priest of the Poor.” The first meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the United States was held in St. Louis, Missouri on November 20, 1845, only twelve years after its foundation in Paris. The Conference was formally recognized by the Society’s International Council in Paris on February 2, 1846.