On August 22, 1997, Pope John-Paul II declared as “Blessed” Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Much was said on this occasion. He was recalled as a great layman, deeply Christian, husband and family man, university professor, social reformer and friend of the poor. Emphasis was placed on the beginnings of his “conferences of charity”, when on April 23, 1833, at the young age of twenty, he brought together six university companions in Paris, and involved them in a movement which in a few years spread throughout France, as well as in Rome, London, Munich, Brussels and Algiers. He said at one time: “My desire is to enfold the world in a network of charity.” And in those days, when capitalism was exerting its ravages among the poor populace of the land, Ozanam and his companions were quietly making weekly visits to needy families. They followed the guidance of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity and true Mother Teresa of the 19th Century. Gifts of food, firewood, clothing, etc. were distributed. Sister Rosalie advised these young gentlemen: “Above all, learn to respect my poor, to love them, and especially, not to judge them.”
Bishop de Mazenod and the Marseille Conferences
In 1833, Marseille could already count many important charitable institutions, such as the society of the Petits Savoyards, the Servantes, etc. But on May 31, 1844, eight young men, including two lawyers and a physician, gathered at Marseilles for the purpose of founding a Saint Vincent de Paul Conference. Then, a certain distrust began to be felt by the clergy. The pastors did not think it opportune to add another project to all those that already existed in this city. They feared the dispersal of energy and the exhausting effect on the generosity of the faithful. It was hard to understand that this association would be directed by a layman, and that priests were not accepted as active members.
Bishop de Mazenod, who had been head of the diocese since 1837, turned out to be more favorable than the members of his clergy. He announced that he was pleased to approve this project, and promised to render it “help, assistance, and advice.” For their part, the Oblates agreed to open the crypt of their Calvary Mission to these young men for their weekly meetings. Soon, they even offered their meeting hall, which was less humid and more appropriate. On the following 8th of December, six months after the founding, seventeen new members joined the original group. At this time, Bishop de Mazenod presided at the General Assembly, and highly recommended the Conference to his priests, while dispelling their misgivings. From that moment on, the case of the Conferences was judged favorably by the public of Marseilles. In the years 1846-1847 the task was shared by two hundred and three persons and the number of families visited grew to two hundred and eighty-four.
At Aix, Father Hoppolyte Courtes, OMI, Superior of the Mission, also offered his full collaboration to the local Conference. He offered “his person, his house, and all who lived there…” at the disposal of the members. He often repeated: “If one day these men have nothing else to give to the poor, I’ll take the bread from my mouth and give it to them.”
We may add, as a bit of information, that the first Conference of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society in Canada was established in 1846, in Quebec, in Notre Dame parish, by a young physician who had studied in Paris, Dr. Joseph Painchaud. The first Conference in Montreal was in the parish of Saint Jacques, on March 19, 1848, and had for president Hubert Paré. Today, one hundred and sixty-seven years after its foundation by Frederick Ozanam, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society is implanted in one hundred and thirty countries and counts more than four thousand Conferences.
André DORVAL, OMI