The History of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

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On Nov. 1, 1830, Antoine Frederic Ozanam left his home in Lyon, France, to enroll at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris, to pursue a law degree. Not long after his arrival in Paris, Ozanam became acquainted with Emmanuel Bailly, publisher of La Tribune Catholique newspaper. Bailley had founded a student organization called The Conference of History. Ozanam joined the group.

The group met on Saturdays to discuss a wide range of subjects (except politics). The conference attracted diverse individuals with varying opinions and beliefs. A heated exchange occurred at one of the meetings when Jean Broët, a student and follower of the doctrine of Saint-Simonson, challenged Ozanam and his friends: “We agree that at one time your Church was a great source of good. But what is your Church doing now? What is she doing for the poor? Show us your works and we will believe you.”

Ozanam accepted the challenge, and he and several of his friends agreed to meet and discuss what they might do. On April 23, 1833, Frederic Ozanam’s 20th birthday, he and five of his friends (Auguste Le Tallandier, Paul Lamache, Francois Lallier, Jules Deveaux, Felix Clavé) gathered in Bailly’s newspaper office. Ozanam told them: “We must do what is agreeable to God. Therefore, we must do what our Lord Jesus Christ did when preaching the gospel. Let us go to the poor.” And, so the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was born.

These charter “Vincentians” then sought out Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, for her assistance and suggestions in ministering to God’s poor. Sr. Rosalie guided and mentored them.

The students elected Bailly as president, a position he held for 11 years. At first, they referred to themselves as The Conference of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, which was parallel their original Conference of History, their social and study group. Although they later changed the name to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, they retained the term Conference to refer to the individual unit.

The founding members realized that growth of the Society would necessitate regulations that would help preserve the objectives and spirit of the foundation. Consequently, in 1835 the Society formulated The Rule, a series of Articles based upon the practical experiences of the first Vincentians. The Rule has continued as a guide and blueprint for the Society ever since then.