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French Layman Showed Faith in Action
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


A Stinging Question
'Roll Up Your Sleeves' Faith
Poor Are 'Sacred Images of God'
Blessed Frédéric Ozanam

I deeply admired the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) long before I knew that Frédéric Ozanam had established it. This worldwide organization of men and women is committed to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and other works of compassion.

My father was very active in our parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Council. Whenever someone needing help from the Vincentians rang our doorbell during dinner, Dad never seemed to mind. He also regularly attended the Society’s state-level meetings. I saw faith in action years before I knew the Society’s link to Frédéric Ozanam.


A Stinging Question

Although his father wanted him to be a lawyer, Frédéric preferred literature. During his legal studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, he often defended the Catholic Church when professors mocked it in the fashion of the times. Frédéric organized a club where Catholics, atheists and agnostics debated current issues.

After Frédéric spoke about Christianity’s positive contributions to civilization, a club member asked, “What do you do besides talk to prove the faith that is in you?” The question prompted Frédéric to begin visiting Paris tenements with a friend, offering food and clothing.

A 20-year-old Frédéric began the Conference of Charity. It later evolved into the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, named for a 17th-century French priest famous for assisting poor people.

Frédéric taught law at the University of Lyons, earned a doctorate in literature and taught it at the Sorbonne. In 1841 he married Amelie Soulacroix, and four years later their daughter, Marie, was born.

Ozanam lived in turbulent times. Napoleon Bonaparte was in power when Frédéric was born. A constitutional monarchy preceded the Second Republic’s debut in 1848. That year’s revolution was fueled by dire social conditions. The Society put a human face on the urgent needs that Pope Leo XIII would later address in his groundbreaking 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the New Social Order).

In the United States, the Society took root in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 20, 1845. More information is available at

April 23, 1813
Born in Milan, Italy, where his French parents were living in temporary exile

April 23, 1833
At 20, established the Conference of Charity, which became the St. Vincent de Paul Society

September 8, 1853
Died peacefully in Marseilles

August 22, 1997
Beatified by Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day in Paris

What continues to impress me is the quiet but intensely prayerful faith of members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Yes, some people focus on answering social injustices with systemic change. That help, however, will come too late for the people whom the Vincentians are helping one-on-one today. They don’t neglect advocacy for the poor, either.

The Society helps people across lines of race, religion, nationality or gender, always protecting confidentiality and respecting the dignity of the people in whom they see the face of Jesus Christ.

In 1833, no Parisians were talking about “male spirituality,” but Frédéric Ozanam showed that Catholic men (and later women) were quite ready to carry out the corporal works of mercy that Jesus powerfully describes in Matthew 25:34-40.

Next: Agostino Thevarparampil


“The love of those in extreme need, of those with no one to care for them, became the center of Frédéric Ozanam’s life and concerns. Speaking of these men and women, he writes: ‘We must fall at their feet and say to them, like the Apostle: “Tu es Dominus meus.” You are our masters and we are your servants; you are for us the sacred images of the God whom we do not see and, now knowing how to love in another way, we love him through you.’....He understood that charity must lead to efforts to remedy injustice.”

—Homily from the Mass of beatification


Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

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