The Society of Saint-Vincent de Paul was created in Paris in 1833 by a small group of Catholic students led by Frederic Ozanam. From a small Conference of Charity, the Society has today spread throughout the world, thus fulfilling the wish of its founder “I would like to embrace the world in a network of Charity”.
In the early 19th century, Paris was in the grip of social and political unrest. The revolution of July dealt a fatal blow to the old Bourbon monarchy. Religion was in decline and atheism was gaining ground. Many agricultural workers were leaving the fields in search of work in the large cities. Once they arrived, the majority found only unemployment, minimal salaries or factories closed due to political conflict.
In 1832, a cholera epidemic spread through Paris killing more than 1,200 people per day. In the slums that had formed around the outskirts of the city, thousands of people lived without resources, some inhabitants in total destitution. Frederic Ozanam, then a young student, had to pass through the poorest neighbourhoods in order to attend his courses at university. He became profoundly affected by the despair of families decimated by the epidemic. Ozanam and some friends – who together took part in History Conferences where they debated world events – decided to get together as Christians; not to talk, but to act: to set up a Conference of Charity. Emmanuel Bailly approved of their project. He provided them with the editorial office of the Catholic Tribune as a place to meet, as well as agreeing to lead the new group.
The first meeting took place on 23 April 1833, close to Saint Sulpice Church, it was made up of: Emmanuel Bailly; Paul Lamache ; Félix Clavé, Auguste le Taillandier ; Jules Devaux ; François Lallier et Frederic Ozanam.
The principle of a weekly meeting had already been agreed with the main activity consisting of house visits to the poor. The group placed themselves under the patronage of Saint-Vincent de Paul and under the protection of the Virgin Mary. The team built up a relationship with a member of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, who organised the distribution of aid from a welfare office in the neighbourhood around Mouffetard Street (rue Mouffetard), then in the 12th District of Paris.
The Society of Saint-Vincent de Paul was born.
Frederic Ozanam wrote, on 24 July 1834: “I wish that all those that are young of heart and mind come together in acts of charity, and that a large world-wide organisation is set up with the aim of providing aid and support to the working classes“. His wish soon came true: at the end of that very year the group was now made up of more than 100 members! It was necessary to consider dividing the group. On 24 January 1835, two sections were created with Ozanam became vice-president of the first group. The regions soon followed: As students left Paris after finishing their studies they began setting up Conferences: Nimes, 10 February 1835, Lyon 16 August 1836, then Rennes, Nantes…
In 1836 a “Management Council” was required, which soon took the title of the General Council; a name that is still used to this very day.
Following on from the regions, expansion soon crosses borders: Rome in 1842, then Belgium, Scotland, Ireland in 1843, England in 1844, and in the following years: Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Turkey, USA, Mexico, Switzerland, Canada, Austria, Spain …
Twenty-seven years after its foundation, the Society now had 2,500 Conferences throughout the world, bringing together some 50,000 members. Its budget represented around 4 million francs at the time.
At first, women were practically absent from the University and did not take part in the creation of the group. However, despite the existence of the Ladies of Charity, founded for young women by Saint-Vincent himself and Louise de Marillac, women wished to join the Society and follow the rules set by the founders.
Thus, on 10 January 1856, Célestina Scarabelli founded in Bolonia a female branch of the Society of Saint-Vincent de Paul. The two branches merged together on 20 October 1967, during an International Assembly in Paris, a few months later, the merger of the Society with the Louise de Marillac Movement took place.
The Society has endured many trails, a revolution and three wars. From 1861 to 1870 the Persigny memorandum ordered the “dissolution” of Councils leading to the Society in France being put on hold. World War II 39-45 was devastating, with many Conferences disappearing.
The Society was also the target of anti-Christian ideologies meaning that in certain countries Conferences were forced to close down, considered as subversive, others went underground.
Today, the Society continues to grow. This growth is mainly in developing countries which now make up to two thirds of the conferences. This new model has led the SSVP to become a forerunner in reflexion and action in favour of development with partners in developing countries.
In 2020, 800,000 world-wide members preserve the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul and the charity work of Frederic Ozanam and his friends, in continuing to provide aid to those most in need whilst maintaining alive the message of Christ.