History of the Society
On the evening of 23 April 1833, Frederic Ozanam’s twentieth birthday, six college students from the Sorbonne and their mentor, Emmanuel Bailly, met in the offices of the Catholic Tribune. The previous week they had been confronted by a fellow student in these words: “We agree that at one time your Church was a great Church and was a source of good. But what is your Church doing now? What is she doing for the poor?” Ozanam had accepted the challenge, and he said to his friends: “We must do what is agreeable to God. Therefore, we must do what our Lord Jesus Christ did preaching the gospel! Let us go to the poor!” On that night the Conference of Charity, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, was born. Frederic Ozanam was the primary founder, inspiration, and soul of the Conference.
These young men sought out Sr. Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, for her assistance and suggestions in ministering to God’s poor. Sr. Rosalie taught them how to minister to the suffering with gentleness and kindness and to respect their God-given dignity. It was she who mentored them in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul.
During the first five years, membership increased to more than two thousand in fifteen centers throughout France. Although the Society was still composed principally of students, by 1838 others had joined the Society. Several of these were men in high places. Most of the expansion of the Society took place when students would return home from school and encourage others to join them in establishing local Conferences of the Society. The Society took fire from the spark within its membership.
Members of the Society refer to their individual groups as Conferences and to themselves as Vincentians. From the beginning the key to their ministry to the poor and needy was home visitation. Members would always go in pairs to the homes of the poor after the exhortation of Jesus who sent his Apostles and disciples two by two to continue the mission.
No form of charity was foreign to the Society. Not only did Frederic and the others take care of the physical and material needs of others (food, shelter, clothing, firewood), they also involved themselves with tutoring, even setting up libraries for members of the military. During the bloody skirmishes, Vincentians attended to the wounded and the dying. In every work, members of the Society were solicitous to the spiritual and moral welfare of others.
Frederic, during his lifetime, witnessed the establishment of the Society in Italy, Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, the United States, Holland, Greece, Turkey, Jerusalem, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico and Canada. Today, the Society is the largest organization of lay Catholics, consisting of 800,000 members serving in 142 Countries world-wide. In the United States, there are almost 100,000 members serving in over 4,000 Conferences, mostly based in Catholic Parishes.