Early Days of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: Difficult Decisions

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric Ozanam, Society of Saint Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Claire Sweeney DC · Year of first publication: 2012 · Source: Justice Matters Ireland.
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The Society started by Ozanam and his friends on 23 April 1833 in the offices of La Tribune Catholique was set to grow and develop very quickly. Ozanam had a vision of expansion, but four of the original group of seven, Auguste Le Taillandier, Felix Clavé, Paul Lamache and Jules Devaux wanted to limit the society to the founding members. They feared there would be problems if it expanded.

Ozanam knew other parishes were going to look for a conference. Already Pere Faudet of St. Etienne was asking for their help. Aware of this demand for help from outside and wanting to be able to reach more poor people, Ozanam used all his skills of persuasion to convince his friends of the necessity for the expansion. Finally they agreed.

Many of the new members of the Society came from the Conference of History, which was looked upon as their recruiting ground. Very soon the seven became eight; then it was fifteen, then twenty, then twenty five and so on. Already in 21 July 1834, in a letter to his friend, Ernest Falconnet, Ozanam put forward the idea of extending throughout France: ‘I would further wish that that all young people might unite in head and heart in some charitable work and that there would be formed throughout the whole country a vast and generous association for the assistance of the working classes.’1

Ozanam encouraged his friend, Léonce Curnier, to start a branch in Nimes, and he wrote to Bailly to get the approval of Paris for the Nimes conference to affiliate with them2. He also told Curnier that he expected the Paris conference would number a hundred by the beginning of the new academic year and would have ‘to divide into several sections’3.

Writing to Bailly from Lyons, 20 November 1834, he suggested ‘that our charitable society in order to survive ought to make changes, and the spirit of intimacy on which it is built and the daily growth it should have can only be achieved by breaking up into groups.’4 At the meeting of 16 December 1834, held in their new quarters in the Place de l’Estrapade, he put forward his view that the time had come to divide the conference in a way that would strengthen rather than weaken the society. His formal proposal was that the conference divide into two or more sections, each distinct from the others, but all united as links in a chain. The sections would communicate with each other through regularly scheduled central meetings to be held once a month. In this way they could increase their strength. They could grow without limit, to the benefit of the poor and to all who might join their ranks now and in the future. Francois Lallier quickly seconded the proposal, but the conference was split between those who did not want to divide and those who realised that it was necessary. Bailly suggested taking time to reflect on the motion; a committee was set up to study the pros and cons and report back at the following meeting. Again on 23 December they failed to reach agreement. When they failed a third time, 30 December, they decided to call a special meeting for New Year’s Eve.

Ozanam was aware that many members felt they would lose a great deal by the division since they saw the meetings as opportunities of being with friends. However, he was even more convinced that the society could work more effectively in small groups and that division would bring new life. He assured them that they would still have togetherness, that each conference would support the others, that they would have frequent communication with each other, that periodically they would have common meetings, and would be ruled by guiding principles emanating from a central source.

Again the New Year’s Eve meeting was inconclusive and when it was nearly midnight, Bailly suggested postponing the decision further. He suggested they part as friends in the spirit of the New Year and give the proposal time to find a solution. The members decided to entrust solution of the question to Bailly. Taking some weeks to ponder, he announced his decision on 24th February 1835. The conference was to be divided into three sections. The unlimited extension of the society was assured.

Growth was rapid; not only young intellectuals, but Christians of every class were eager to do something to improve the lot of the people. Apart from spreading throughout France, by 1850 it had spread to Italy, Ireland, England, Belgium, Scotland, United States, Germany, Holland, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. The Society from that time onward was built on a solid foundation. It is now established in 132 countries, with almost 1,000,000 members and 46, 650 conferences5. Ozanam’s dream, ‘to encircle the world in a network of charity’6.

has become a reality.

  1. Ozanam to Falconnet, 21 July 1834, J. Dirvan, Frederic Ozanam: A life in Letters, (St. Louis, 1986) p.47.
  2. Ozanam to Curnier, 4 November 1834, Dirvan, p.54.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ozanam to Bailly, 20 November 1834, Dirvan, p.59.
  5. Michael Casey, a River Of Love: Frederic Ozanam and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, (Dublin, 1997) p.29. 6 Ozanam to Curnier, 3 November 1834, quoted in Sister Louise Sullivan, Sister Rosalie Rendu: A Daughter of Charity On Fire with Love for the Poor, p.212.
  6. Ozanam to Curnier, 3 November 1834, quoted in Sister Louise Sullivan, Sister Rosalie Rendu: A Daughter of Charity On Fire with Love for the Poor, p.212.

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