Date of publication: 23/04/2024

The Beginnings of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, 191 Years ago

Council General International

April 23, 2024 marks the 211th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Ozanam and the 191st anniversary of the creation of the first charity conference. A seemingly insignificant event, a controversy over the then scarce charitable action of the Church in France, occurring in a debate between believers and non-believers at a history conference, generated a movement of charity and mutual friendship that, today, gathers hundreds of thousands of people around the same ideal: to follow Jesus Christ in fidelity, serving him in the most needy people of our world.

The chronicles on the origins of the first charity conference are all distanced from the facts. There are no minutes of the first meetings, and the first account of its constitution was written more than a year later[1] . The early members of the Society were reluctant to offer specific details about the origins of the association, and attributed its creation to God and his providence. Nevertheless, the testimonies as a whole give us a sufficiently reliable picture of what the beginnings were like.

At the beginning of his second university year (that is, in the last quarter of 1832), Frederick began to participate in the twice-weekly law lectures. In these lectures “controversial questions are discussed. In each case there are two lawyers and another one who exercises the function of public prosecutor. The others judge the merits of the case and the merits of the pleadings. Reading is not allowed, so they almost always improvise; where they have to practice the most is in the replies”[2] .

The students who attended were not all Christians, and lively debates were often raised, among which “the doctrines and works” of Catholicism were not exempt, where “all opinions are admitted to the rostrum”[3] . Ozanam, Lamache and Lallier formed a small committee that prepared the arguments to the questions raised by their adversaries during the debates: “One day, while Lallier was conversing with Le Taillandier, the latter confided to him his weariness with these discussions, which he considered fruitless, and said how much he thought it preferable that the Catholic students found an association of piety and charity. This suggestion, which Lallier communicated to Ozanam and Lamache, did not take long to germinate in the minds of our young people, and suddenly reappeared at the end of a stormy session of the history conference”[4] .

During one of the meetings of the history conference, possibly in mid-February 1833, one of the reproaches made a deep impression on Frederick and his friend Le Taillandier: “Yes, you have the right to speak of the past. In days gone by, Christianity did indeed work wonders, but today Christianity is dead. And you, who boast of being Catholics, what do you do? What works can you show that prove your faith and make us feel respect and recognition?”[5] .

The committee formed by Ozanam, Lallier and Lamache soon met at Lamache’s house; Lallier, in 1882, vividly remembers the scene: Frederic’s sad eyes, but also full of ardor and fire, and his suggestion to form a group made up exclusively of Catholics, dedicated solely to charity[6] . After a second meeting at the home of another friend, Antonin Serre, to which Le Taillandier was also invited, they reaffirmed their intention to create a charitable group. Ozanam went to the printer Emmanuel Bailly to ask him for guidance to do so, who suggested, at first, to seek the advice of Abbé Olivier, parish priest of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. The abbé received the young men with kindness – also with a certain condescension – and suggested that they give catechism classes to the children of the workers in the parish. The suggestion was unfeasible: the students sought to serve the needy directly; moreover, giving catechesis might conflict, during some times of the year, with their university studies and exams. They returned to Bailly’s house to tell the parish priest about the failed visit, who finally “let himself be convinced: but he pointed out to them that there were only four of them, an insufficient number to found a work. Ozanam immediately pointed out two other students who regularly attended the history conference and knew well: Clavé and Devaux. He took it upon himself to invite them to participate in the projected work, and they gladly accepted”[7] .

Next to the church of Saint-Sulpice, Bailly had the headquarters of his newspaper La Tribune catholique (at 18 rue Petit-Bourbon, today 38 rue Saint-Sulpice). On Tuesday, April 23, around 8 p.m., six young men came there to meet him, and asked him to be president of the charity conference (a position he would hold until 1844).

The meeting began with the recitation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus and a brief reading from the Imitation of Jesus Christ. Bailly then gave a brief speech, urging them to sanctify their lives by helping the needy as they would help the suffering Jesus Christ himself, present in the person of the poor.

The main objective of this meeting was to determine how to help poor families in their homes: which ones to visit, what assistance would be offered to them and where the resources would be obtained. It was decided that, as far as possible, the aid would not be given in cash, but in kind, in the form of vouchers from various suppliers. It was also agreed to entrust Devaux with the task of going to talk to the daughter of charity Rosalie Rendu[8] – Mr. Bailly knew her – to ask her for a list of families to assist, and to beg her “to kindly cede against their value in money some of the vouchers she was using”[9] . The name charity conference was chosen to identify the group. It is likely that at this first meeting the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul was already being sought. They also undertook to raise the necessary funds at their own expense, and that each one would contribute according to his means by means of an anonymous collection at each meeting. They appointed Devaux as treasurer and made the first collection in a hat. They agreed to meet on Tuesdays of each week, and ended the meeting by praying together the Marian antiphon Under Thy Protection.

That same week, Devaux went to visit Sister Rosalie with a letter of recommendation from Mr. Bailly. Sister warmly welcomed the initiative of the young university students, giving them a list of families to serve, as well as some food vouchers to distribute. At the second meeting of the charity conference, on April 30, Devaux shared with the group the good reception and collaboration of Sister, whom the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has always recognized as a fundamental person for its establishment and development. From then on, the number of members gradually increased, exceeding fifteen by the end of the university year, in August 1833. <from then on, the growth of the group was astonishing.

The founders always entrusted the creation of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to divine providence. Attentive to what today we call the signs of the times, they were not indifferent to the social and ecclesial situation of their time, and attentive to the needs they saw, they sought to seek holiness, to live in friendship and brotherhood, and to serve those in need by responding to the many misfortunes they saw around them.

In many ways, our world is going through dark times similar to those of almost two centuries ago. There are many needs, but also much insensitivity. Our mission, as heirs to the Vincentian charism of our elders, is to continue the work they carried out, providing creative and bold responses to the many local and global problems affecting our world.

Francisco Javier Fernández Chento

Coordinator of the International Historical Commission of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

[1]This Report on the Activities of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, dated June 27, 1834, was soon lost and was not found until more than a century later (in 1955).

[2]Letter to Ernest Falconnet, January 5, 1833.

[3]Letter to Ernest Falconnet, March 19, 1833.

[4]Albert Foucault, La Société de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. Histoire de cent ans, p. 15.

[5]Ozanam’s speech to the Florence conference, January 30, 1853.

[6]Cf. François Lallier, Origins of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, according to the recollections of its first members, p. 14.

[7]Albert Foucault, op. cit., p. 18.

[8]Sister Rosalie organized the distribution of aid from the Bureau de bienfaisance of the Mouffetard district. The Bureau de bienfaisance were municipal offices created by law on November 27, 1796, after the French Revolution confiscated Church property. They provided assistance to the sick, the elderly and the disabled who could not be accommodated in hospices.

[9]François Lallier, op. cit., p. 18.