Blessed Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853)
Blessed Frederic Ozanam is recognized as the main founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. He was that rare individual of intellectual genius and extraordinary holiness. He was a husband and father, a professor and researcher, a journalist and author, an apologist and defender of the faith. Above all, he personified the Good Samaritan.
Antoine Frederic Ozanam was born in Milan, Italy, on April 23, 1813 where his parents, residents of Lyon, France, had moved temporarily. His parents were devout Catholics who passed on to young Frederic a deep love of God and the poor. After graduating from high school at the Royal College of Lyon, he moved to Paris to study law as his father wished.
He gathered around him students of like-mind and faith, who together confronted faculty members of the Sorbonne University who attacked their faith. He persuaded the Archbishop of Paris to have Father Henri Lacordaire, a renowned preacher, deliver a series of lectures at Notre-Dame Cathedral. The success of these lectures was overwhelming and the “Conférences de Notre-Dame” were launched.
Ideas about social justice were promoted in the “Tribune Catholique”, a newspaper founded in 1832 by Emmanuel Bailly. A literary circle, “La Société des bonnes études” was linked to this newspaper. The aim of this circle was to develop among Catholics a taste for historical, philosophical and religious research. Ozanam had a similar idea, and with his friends became active in the “Conférences d'histoire”, which developed into a dynamic forum of discussion and research at the university.
One March night in 1833, a non-Catholic fellow student, challenged Frederic and friends. His question was "What are you doing for them (the poor), you and your fellow Catholic...? Show us your works!"
Ozanam knew that faith must be translated into action and that, like the apostles, they needed to evangelize by the practice of charity. He rallied the group when he cried out: "The blessing of the poor is that of God...let us go to the poor".
One evening in April 1833, Frederic and five other students met in the office of Mr. Bailly. The "Conférence de charité" was born. Frederic met Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, who served the needy and stood at the barricades with the poor. She taught and inspired them how to minister to the poor with love and respect, with so much kindness.
By 1834, there were more than 100 members and the Conference (Conférence de charité) had its own official rule and name: the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, taking the saint as an example to follow. It was placed under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ozanam was becoming a respected figure in professional areas. As a Doctor of Law in 1836, he began a career as a lawyer and then became professor of Law in Lyon. In 1839, he graduated as Doctor of Literature. He finished first, in the 1840 competitive examination of the Faculty of Arts and Literature at the Sorbonne. He was named professor of Foreign Literature at the same university in 1844.
Ozanam married Amélie Soulacroix in Lyon on June 23, 1841 in a wedding celebrated by his brother Alphonse.
Together, husband and wife, devoted themselves to the task of reconciling married life to a life of good works. In July 1845, Marie, their daughter was born: a joyous gift from God.
Frederic Ozanam is considered as one of the significant contributors to the first great social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891) which declared the Church’s Charter of Rights for Workers. It was the Church’s response to Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848) – only 43 years later! He reached out to the poor in their immediate need, but knew that was not sufficient. He had to work in a church that contributed to the transformation of society; Ozanam was one of the first to formulate the idea of a "natural salary” that claimed compensation against unemployment and accidents and asked for a guaranteed pension to workers.
By 1852 the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul could boast 2000 conferences, 500 of which were not in France. Ozanam, being exhausted from tuberculosis and excessive work over the years, was forced to rest. He was advised to move to Italy, as its warm weather was his only chance to get better. However his health continued to deteriorate. Ozanam was stricken and his family decided to return him to his home in France. He passed away in Marseilles on September 8, 1853, the feast of the birthday of the Blessed Mother, to whom he had such a great devotion. He is buried in the crypt of the Church of Saint Joseph des Carmes in Paris and his feast is celebrated on September 9. Pope John-Paul II beatified him in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on August 22, 1997.
Ozanam leaves a lasting legacy to all of us. His dedication to social reform and Christian social justice continues to move us deeply. The integration of his professional and spiritual life continues to challenge us daily. His belief in the relevancy of the Christian message to modern life continues to inspire us constantly. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul continues his active work of Christian charity, precisely because his legacy is lasting.