On March 9th, 2021, we are celebrating the birth anniversary of our dear brother Emmanuel-Joseph Bailly de Surcy (1794-1861), one of the founders of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP) and the first President General (PGI). Hence, all SSVP members and the Vincentian Family are commemorating this date in memory of this Vincentian leading figure in the history of our Society and the Church.
In 2017, the Council General International (CGI) devoted the themed year to Bailly de Surcy, running a very successful essay contest. All fellow members around the world had the opportunity to learn more about the life of this co-founder. As PGI, Bailly contributed to the structuring and development of a flourishing Society. As a matter of fact, the whole institutional organisation we know today was established during his term of office (1839-1844).
On March 9th, 1794, Emmanuel-Joseph Bailly de Surcy was born in Bryas (department of Pas-de-Calais in northern France), 230 km away from Paris. His family had a deep devotion to the memory and spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul. Bailly received a good education in theology at the Vincentian seminary and also studied Philosophy with the Jesuits.
At age 25, he left the seminary and chose to serve the Church as a lay person. In 1819, he had his first experience with hostels, and rented a house where he took in Catholic students coming from the countryside of France to study in Paris. He founded and actively participated in several Catholic groups, such as the “Congregation of the Blessed Virgin”, the “Society of Good Studies”, the “Society of Good Works” and the “Conference of History”.
At 36, on July 20th, 1830, he married Marie-Apolline-Sidonie Vyrayet de Surcy (1805-1870), at the parish of Saint-Vaast de Moreuil. At the request of his father-in-law, to help preserve the family name, Bailly added her surname to him (this can also be seen on his tomb located in Berteaucourt-lès-Thennes, 140 km away from Paris).
The couple had six children: two priests, two nuns and two bachelors. Therefore, Bailly left no offspring. Marie-Adrienne (1831) became a Carmelite nun; André-Marie Vincent de Paul (1832) was a priest of the Order of the Augustinians of the Assumption (Assumptionist priests); Benjamin (1842), who changed his name to Emmanuel, was also an Assumptionist priest; Bernard (1835) was a journalist and writer (bachelor); Marie (1837) was a nun of the Daughters of Clotilde; and Sidonie (1840) was single. Bailly did not live long enough to see his two sons ordained, as he died earlier.
In 1831, Bailly began the newspaper Le Correspondant and, shortly afterwards, in 1832, he launched the newspaper La Tribune Catholique. In 1833, Bailly decided to merge his newspaper La Tribune Catholique with a new startup paper L’Univers, also owned by him. Due to the Government’s religious persecutions, Bailly provided young people with a meeting place in the editorial offices of his newspaper La Tribune Catholique. It was there that, on April 23, 1833, Ozanam and his five friends, in the presence and under the direction of Emmanuel-Joseph Bailly de Surcy, submitted their plans for undertaking charitable work (the Society of St. Vincent de Paul). Bailly was 38 when the SSVP was founded.
Cholera broke out, and Bailly, like the other founders, underwent a terrible pandemic. Bailly was President at Saint-Etienne du Mont Conférence (the first Conference) and President General from 1839 to 1844. Then, the presidency was placed into the hands of Jules Gossin, who was elected 2nd President General. Bailly retired to take care of his business which, unfortunately, was not going well, and also to settle a legal dispute with the Lazarist Fathers. Despite not taking part in the SSVP decision-making process, Bailly was often consulted by Vincentian leaders, who asked him for guidance. He was a CGI member until he passed away in 1861.
Bailly lived almost eight years after Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam died. These years were marked by a very public debate about who founded the SSVP: was it Bailly or Ozanam? Newspaper articles amplified the controversy. To drop the issue, it was decided to publish a note in the SSVP’s bulletin to affirm the collective founding of the organization.
Emmanuel-Joseph died in Paris on April 12th, 1861, at 67. He was initially buried in the Montparnasse cemetery, but subsequently his wife wished to transfer his remains to the family tomb at Berteaucourt-lès-Thennes. The CGI Board visited Bailly de Surcy’s tomb in 2017.
“In addition to being one of the SSVP’s founders and the first PGI, Bailly was a remarkable figure within the Catholic community in France in the 19th century, and the whole SSVP should know more about the life and humanitarian work of this remarkable fellow member, with all his flaws and virtues. Bailly has a lot to teach us through his Circular Letters and his guidelines with regard to the charitable service carried out by the Conferences and Councils”, stressed the 16th President General, brother Renato Lima de Oliveira.
Bailly de Surcy wrote a quote about his prophetic vision of fraternity that President Renato is very fond of: “The spirit of fraternity will make our Society of Charity fruitful and uplifting. United or separated, far or near, let us love each other now and forever, from one Conference to another, from one population to another population, from one country to another country” (Bailly de Surcy).