September 9 marks the feast day of Blessed Frederic Ozanam: lawyer, scholar, teacher, and founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Frederic Ozanam was born on April 23, 1813 in Milan, Italy, the fifth of fourteen children. His father had served with distinction as an officer under Napoleon, retiring early to become a tutor and later to practice medicine. When the city of Milan fell to the Austrians in 1815, the Ozanams returned to their native city of Lyons in France where Frederic spent his early years. In the Fall of 1831 Frederic entered the University of Paris to study law. As a student, he helped to found a student organization known as the Conference of History of Literature. It was a kind of debating club formed to discuss historical and literary topics. Many times the discussions focused on the social teachings of the Gospel.
At one meeting during a heated debate in which Ozanam and his friends were trying to prove from historical evidence alone the truth of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, their adversaries declared that, though at one time the Church was a source of good, it no longer was. One voice issued the challenge, “What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!” In response, one of Ozanam’s companions suggested some effort in favor of the poor. “Yes,” Ozanam agreed, “let us go to the poor!” Frederic decided that another conference was needed, not for debate but the direct service to the poor.
On April 23, 1833 Frederic and five other students began the Conference of Charity. In February 1834 the Conference became known as the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. For Frederic, as for Vincent, it was not enough to bring the poor something to eat, but also to bring them God’s love. Frederic said,
“Yes, one thing is wanting that our apostolate may be blessed by God – works of charity. The blessing of the poor is the blessing of God. What are we going to do to translate our faith into deeds? Let us go to the poor”
Sr. Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who served for many years in one of the poorest districts of Paris, became teacher and mentor to Frederic and the early members of the Conference. With Sr. Rosalie’s help the members of the Society began making home visits to poor families.
In the meantime, Frederic continued his law studies. In 1834 he passed the bar examination, then began studying for a doctorate in law. After completing his doctorate he practiced law in Lyons. He was not happy as a lawyer; however after his father’s death in 1837 he was the sole support for his mother, which kept him in the field of law to make a living. His academic interests turned toward literature, and in 1839 he finished a doctorate in literature at the Sorbonne. In the same year he was given a chair of Commercial Law at Lyons where his lectures received wide acclaim and where, after an offer to assume a chair of Philosophy at Orleans, he was asked to lecture also on Foreign Literature at Lyons which enabled him to support his mother. After her death he was unsettled about his future. He considered becoming a priest, but decided against it, devoting himself to teaching and to the constantly expanding work of the Conference of Charity which was multiplying around France. By 1843 Ozanam was a full professor at the Sorbonne.
The Society of Vincent de Paul grew by leaps and bounds. When students graduated and returned home they started the Society there to help the poor and care for the needy. During his lifetime the Society spread throughout Europe, as well as Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The Society of Vincent de Paul’s presence in the U.S. began in St. Louis in 1845.
Frederic Ozanam died in 1853. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997.