For your love alone

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

Author: Boniface Hanley, O.F.M. · Year of first publication: 1976 · Source: For Your Love Alone. By Boniface Hanley, O.F.M. The title is from St. Vincent de Paul: "It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.".
Estimated Reading Time:

Paris was burning. The French themselves had set it on fire. Great piles of gray, yellow and black smoke poured from some of the city’s magnificent buildings, bearing on their filthy billows, the harsh odors of burning walls, furniture, draperies and paint. These fumes, acrid as they were, could not conceal the stench of death that hung over the tortured city like a poison fog. Hundreds of corpses, littered Paris’ narrow, twisting streets and broad boulevards. Cries of the wounded fused with shouts of hatred to create a wild and merciless melody that soared above the thumps of mortars, the whine of rifle fire, and the pounding of artillery.

It was June, 1848. The French had locked themselves into that most vicious of conflicts, civil war. Crying “bread or death,” France’s desperate poor had risen against their government. Federal authorities, long alert for a revolution, sent forty thousand Army National Guard and police to crush the uprising. And now, during this third day of furious fighting, Paris had gone mad with its own blood. The “City of Light” had become a suburb of hell.

In one sector of the city, a National Guard patrol, inching its way through a winding street, suddenly came under rebel fire. The insurgents, firing from behind barricades they had constructed from cobblestones torn out of the streets during the fighting’s first hours, quickly pinned down the patrol. The guardsmen hunkered behind a garden wall, seeking shelter from the hail of bullets. One of the patrol, Frederic Ozanam, thirty-five, a University professor in ordinary life, felt the barrel of his rifle. It was cold. This was Ozanam’s third day in combat and he had not yet fired the weapon. He hoped and prayed he would not have to shoot.

Guardsman Ozanam was no coward. His reluctance to shoot arose, not from fear, but from love. Much better than the cruel and ambitious politicians who led this ruinous revolt, Frederic knew the people he was fighting. He could hear some of them now, cursing and swearing from behind their stone fortress, challenging the patrol to charge. These were not the rebels’ true voices. Theirs was the voice of the poor. He had listened to them and loved them for years. It was only a matter of time, Frederic knew, until the government forces crushed these brave, courageous people. For Ozanam these few days were a nightmare. He was torn between two duties; to defend his nation and to protect his poor.

Cruel dilemmas were not new to Frederic Ozanam. Indeed, it seemed that he was born to endure them.

The Warrior Doctor

Frederic’s father, Jean Antoine Francois Ozanam, was a brave man. He had the honors to prove it. As a young cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army, he had been decorated for conspicuous gallantry by the great General himself. Retired from the Army at age twenty-five, Jean later studied medicine and became a doctor in Italy. During a typhus epidemic in 1813, the new doctor served so courageously that the Italian government granted him the Iron Crown, an award of highest degree. In that same plague year, the doctor’s wife, the former Marie Nantes, surprised Jean with their fifth child, a boy, whom they christened Frederic. The surprise was not so much that Marie had a child—she was to have no less than fourteen—but that this baby survived. Only three Ozanam children would reach adulthood.

Two years following Frederic’s birth the Ozanams returned to Lyons, France, their native city.

As Frederic grew into his teens, he manifested an unusual degree of intelligence, a gentle sense of humor, and a winning personality. The Ozanam offspring could also be stubborn, heedless and, like most teenagers, lazy.

Frederic read much of the anti-Catholic literature so popular in France during these years. His young mind, though sharp, was incapable of wrestling with the intellectual giants who strode across the French landscape, casting thunderbolts of scorn, ridicule and hatred for religion. Soon, young Frederic, over his head in his reading, was drowning in doubt.

The troubled teenager studied as many Catholic books as he could. They did not help. He prayed for rescue; his prayers went unanswered. One day, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, Frederic promised the Lord to spend his life defending the Catholic religion. “But,” he prayed, “how can I defend what I do not have? Only You, Lord, can restore my faith to me.”

A short time later, Father Noirot, a teacher at the Lyons College Frederic attended, took the young doubting Thomas under his wing. Convinced that Frederic needed fresh air as much as spiritual counseling, Noirot literally walked off the young man’s season of doubt. Day after day the priest and his youthful disciple strolled through the verdant woodland on the islands and river banks surrounding Lyons, probing the great problems of faith. Frederic’s doubts slowly disappeared, his depression lifted, and his normal good spirits returned. This painful passage behind him, young Ozanam now turned to face a fresh trial.

His Father’s Choice

Doctor Ozanam dreamed a great dream for his son. Frederic, so obviously gifted, would pursue a successful law career, make a good living, and be a consolation to the doctor and his wife in their old age. The doctor’s dream was not unrealistic. Only one obstacle prevented its coming true. Son Frederic hated law; he yearned instead to dedicate his life to literary studies. The usually compassionate and understanding father stubbornly insisted Frederic become an attorney. Feeling duty-bound to obey, Frederic left Lyons in his nineteenth year to undertake law courses at Paris’ famous University of the Sorbonne.

The Law Student

A short time after his arrival at the University in late Fall, 1831, Frederic, homesick, lonely and, no doubt, feeling full of self-pity for yielding to his father’s wishes, wrote home: “I hate Paris, I am chained to it as to a corpse. Its cold congeals my blood . . . its corruption paralyzes my spirit.” If Doctor Ozanam experienced little joy as he read those words, he must have felt almost completely depressed when his son later wrote, “In Paris I am buried and lost.”

Doctor Ozanam correctly judged that his son would not stay isolated for long. The irrepressible Frederic, with his warm and cheerful personality, inevitably attracted friends.

At first, law studies left little time for social life. Ozanam recalls in later years, “Many a time, in those first days, the shaded light of my lamp and the glowing embers of the fire were my only companions from tea to bed.”

But within a few months Frederic had many student chums and became so involved in University life that he gave less time to sleep and less concentration to his studies. His natural energy made up for his lack of sleep; his extraordinary intelligence, for fewer study hours.

It was the unhappy lot of Catholics at the University that first drew Frederic into student affairs. There were certain Sorbonne faculty members who made it a practice to distort and mock Catholic teachings in their lectures. Catholic students sat silent and helpless, fearing these teachers would flunk them or expel them if they objected. Young Ozanam, a born leader, appealing to all Sorbonne students’ sense of fair play, mounted petitions demanding the opportunity to reply to these charges against the faith. So effectively did Frederic rally the students’ assistance that he could gleefully write home, “Every time a professor raises his voice against our faith, Catholic voices are now raised in protest.” The mocking soon stopped.

In another effort to revitalize the Sorbonne’s dispirited Catholics, Frederic joined a revered professor, Monsieur Bailly de Surcy in reviving a defunct Catholic discussion club. This venture was to have an outcome that neither Bailly nor Ozanam, in their wildest imaginings, could foresee. The club, encouraging free discussions, attracted professors, scholars, and students of every religious and non-religious conviction. Before the end of Frederic’s first Spring semester, the group, extremely popular at the Sorbonne, numbered sixty permanent members. But Frederic and Bailly had created a monster. For, as the club debates grew increasingly volatile, atheists and doubters often bested their Catholic hosts. No matter what arguments Catholics raised, their opponents replied: “True, the Church was once a great force for good in this world. But what, my friends, is it doing now?” One night during hot debate, the articulate Frederic marshaled a finely honed argument concerning Christianity’s role in civilization. His adversary waited patiently for Ozanam to conclude and then responded: “Let us be frank, Mr. Ozanam; let us also be very particular. What do you do besides talk to prove the faith you claim is in you?”

The question hit hard and hit home. Frederic, long ago, had promised he would dedicate his talents and energies to defending his faith. So far, the only talent he had really used was his mind, tongue, and ability to lead student protests.

The more Frederic pondered the bitter challenge, the more he determined to answer it. He just did not know how. One evening in early Spring, 1833, Frederic finally had his answer. He was convinced God’s blessing would not be on his writings, speaking, or organizing until he went to the poor with works of love. He had to back up his words with deeds. “We must do what our Lord Jesus Christ did when preaching the Gospel,” he told his friend, Le Taillandier; “we must go to the poor.” That very night, Frederic and Le Taillandier took their own meager winter wood supply and carried it to a poor family.

Little did the two students, clumping up a Paris tenement staircases their arms full of logs and their clothes covered with wood dust, realize they were forerunners of a movement that would touch the lives of millions and spread the teachings of Christ far more effectively than any student protest or intellectually stimulating discussion club.

The Society

Frederic’s heart burst with enthusiasm. Every instinct he possessed told him he had found in the service of the poor, the only sure way to fulfill his teenage promise to defend his Catholic faith. His joy was infectious. Five other students joined him and Le Taillandier. Monsieur Bailly and Sister Rosalie, a nun of the Congregation of St Vincent de Paul, offered to guide the young men. Bailly and his wife, for years, visited slum families, quietly helping in whatever way they could, to lighten the brutal burden of the poor. “You must serve Jesus suffering in the poor man,” Bailly warned the boys; “otherwise you will do nothing more for them than the bureaucrats.”

Sister Rosalie, a veteran slum worker, provided the boys with lists of families to visit, food to distribute and common sense advice, learned from her years in the streets and tenements.

Bailly, Sister Rosalie and the boys met from time to time to reflect on their progress, seek new directions, and to pray. From the very beginning, the little band put their work under the patronage of the great French apostle of charity, St. Vincent de Paul. After all, they were doing the same work Vincent had done nearly two centuries before for their beloved French poor. Bailly reminded the youngsters that, “Like St. Vincent, you, too, will find the poor will do much more for you than you will do for them.”

The students must have had trouble believing Bailly. Paris’ poor people, exploited by the wealthy, oppressed by the government, were as helpless as any people could be. Those lucky enough to find work, often labored from early morn to late at night, seven days a week, for a miserable salary. Unscrupulous factory owners shamelessly overworked and underpaid little children, who had no laws to protect them. In tenements and alleyways, in twisting cobblestone streets and filthy hallways, drunkenness, vice and immorality flourished. The slums had shortages of food, fuel and fresh air, but no lack of thieves, murderers or procurers—nor tough police to maintain order and keep Paris’ prisons well filled.

From time to time all the rage buried within the slums would explode in bloody violence. At the end of Frederic’s first year in Paris a frightful riot erupted. Mobs fought each other in Paris’ streets, while Army and National Guard Units attempted to restore order. A cholera epidemic struck, heightening the atmosphere of fear and terror. Disease, death, murder and hatred filled the city’s cup of suffering. Before the tragedy ended, municipal authorities were counting fifteen hundred deaths per day.

It was into these tortured tenement districts, long the focal point of France’s troubles, that Frederic and his chums entered with such simplicity and courage. Bailly had warned them not to plan big schemes. “Remember,” he counseled, “you are dealing with individuals.” With amazing ingenuity the boys responded with what they called “their little works of kindness.” A loaf of bread for old Monsieur Chouinard, a few sous to tide over the Widow Oligny, a warm shirt for Monsieur Charbonneau, who was ill. Begging, borrowing and scrounging from every possible source, the students, penniless themselves, always seemed to find what they needed for their poor.

They found something else. A spirit of peace and joy grew among them and bound them together in fraternal love. Ozanam and his group had brought into being a new style of student fraternity and in so doing, had discovered a treasure of fellowship, more delightful because it was unexpected. Old Bailly was right. In the long run the poor did do more for the students than they did for the poor.

A Rule Of Life

During the next two years, Frederic witnessed the rapid and steady expansion of what came to be known as the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Each new group established was called a “Conference” and each new member a “Vincentian.” As students returned home from the University they brought the seeds of the Society with them. Soon the movement spread to various corners of France. By the end of 1835, with Bailly’s cooperation, Frederic had established a formal rule for the organization.

And The Gargoyles Wept

Although absorbed in his visitation of the poor, Frederic lost no opportunity to encourage France’s discouraged Catholics to proclaim their faith more vigorously. It wasn’t an easy task. A half century of persecution and harassment had battered the French Catholic Church into timidity. Even the hierarchy was close to losing heart. None of this deterred Frederic, who now came up with a new and exciting plan.

Heading a student delegation of three, and bearing still another petition, Ozanam approached Paris’ Archbishop DeQuelen, requesting the prelate to appoint the great French preacher, Father Lacordaire, to the special task of defending the faith from the pulpit of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Aware that Lacordaire had been denounced to the government as a possible revolutionary, and to Church authorities as a possible heretic, De Quelen deferred his decision for more than a year. Eventually the Archbishop relented, and Lacordaire mounted the Notre Dame pulpit in March of 1835 to begin a series of Lenten sermons. Six thousand Frenchmen gathered in the great cathedral to hear the magnificent Lacordaire, “whose words,” it was said, “made the cathedral’s stone gargoyles weep.” To this day, the Archbishop of Paris continues to appoint the best preacher in the land to give the Lenten series Lacordaire initiated and Ozanam inspired.

My Son The Lawyer

If Frederic seemed to forget that he originally went to Paris to study law, his father didn’t. His parents fretted at all his extra-curricular activity, fearing Frederic would ruin his health. They were less than pleased when their son took extra courses in literature. His mother and father were anxious that Frederic finish the law studies he had so conscientiously, if unenthusiastically, pursued. Finally, in April, 1836, five years after he came to Paris, the Sorbonne granted Frederic the Doctorate in Law. The few students who earned the degree could look forward to rapid advancement in the legal profession. For Frederic, the degree was a sentence of doom to a career he detested. After graduation he returned to his parents’ home and began his law practice. It was soon evident he had no stomach for the work. He dutifully carried on nevertheless, simply to please his father.

One day in May, 1837, Doctor Ozanam, while visiting a patient in a tenement, stumbled on a broken stair and fell, injuring himself fatally. For all the suffering he had caused his son by insisting he become a lawyer, Frederic nevertheless respected him and loved his father. “I owe him this tribute,” he wrote; “at least one third of his patients were poor people from whom he refused payment.” Within two years Frederic’s mother, ill and disheartened by the loss of her husband, joined him in eternity.

Frederic deeply mourned his loss. His parents had given him priceless gifts of love, provided him with a decent home and fine education, and, above all, offered their children a sterling example of Christian living. Marie, as well as her husband, often visited the poor in Lyons slum areas, doing whatever they could to alleviate their suffering.

Frederic often recalled how, in their old days, both his mother and father, fearing for each other’s health, made a mutual pact to climb no higher than the fourth floor of any slum tenement they visited in their work for the poor. Only a short time after this solemn agreement was reached, Jean and Marie met each other accidentally in a garret just under the roof of a tenement that rose high above four stories.

Cupid In A Cassock

Following his mother’s death, Frederic found himself in a peculiar position. At age twenty-six he had conquered many worlds. Although hardly a success as a practicing attorney, his deep knowledge of law won him the esteemed position of professor of Commercial Law at the University of Lyons. He had, in an exercise of extraordinary brilliance, won a second doctorate at the Sorbonne after his father’s death. The new degree was in literature, the field he had always wished to enter. The young scholar had already published a learned book on the Italian poet Dante that won him international acclaim. And all the while he was engaged in studies, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, numbering two thousand men, continued to look to Ozanam from every corner of France for guidance.

Despite his near frantic activity and remarkable success, Frederic, alone in this world save for a younger brother, Charles, a student, and an older brother, Alphonse, a priest, was melancholy, depressed and bored.

Once more his old friend, Father Noirot, came to the rescue. “Get married,” counseled the priest. His advice fell on deaf ears, for Frederic needed freedom to pursue his many careers. Noirot, not above playing cupid, plotted a “chance meeting” between Frederic and Marie Amelie Soulacroix, daughter of the Rector of the Lyons Academy. On the pretense of introducing Frederic to the Rector, a friend of his, Noirot took the youth to the Soulacroix home. As Frederic met the Rector, his eye wandered to a windowsill in the corner of the room. There, surrounded by the early morning sunlight, a beautiful girl sat tending her crippled brother with such good cheer and affection that Ozanam’s heart broke with tenderness. So absorbed was the girl in her brother that she didn’t notice Frederic. But he noticed her and begged to meet her. Goodbye loneliness, goodbye boredom, goodbye freedom. Nobody, as far as we know, observed the small smile on Noirot’s face as, concluding his visit, he left Frederic and returned to his professor’s study.

On June 23, 1841, Father Alphonse Ozanam witnessed the marriage of his brother Frederic to Amelie Soulacroix in the church of St. Nizier in Lyons. Although a typical absentminded professor, Frederic never forgot this date. On the twenty-third of each month of their marriage, he always presented Amelie with a bouquet of flowers.


A few months before his marriage to Amelie, Sorbonne authorities requested Frederic to join their faculty as a Professor of Literature. Ozanam was honored and delighted by the appointment. Paris was his spiritual home, and the nerve center of the St. Vincent de Paul movement. Further, the Sorbonne was a University enjoying world fame. He and Amelie settled in an apartment near the Luxembourg Gardens and Frederic began a teaching career that was to win him honors, love, respect and not a few tears.

The Professor

Neither handsome, elegant, nor particularly graceful, afflicted by near-sightedness and hair that refused to be tamed, Frederic’s professorial appearance left something to be desired. That is, until one looked at his face. It was full of light, simple refinement, and cheerful exuberance.

His students revered him. His love of literature was so powerful that it could smash the shell of boredom in which most students had encased themselves. Ozanam’s lectures were masterpieces of oratory. “He prepared like a monk,” a friend remarked. “He had the secret fire,” another noted. Alive, lighthearted and learned, Frederic could crack up a class with his humor or bring them to tears as he, himself weeping, would lay bare the beauty of a literary masterpiece.

Fearlessly he proclaimed Catholicism from his professor’s chair. More than one student, moved by the learning and simple faith of Ozanam, rejected the Sorbonne’s cold atheism, and returned to the faith of his fathers.

The young professor had a knack for bringing out the best in all his students. He was particularly concerned about the dull ones. Once, following an introductory lecture, Ozanam sought out the student who occupied last rank in the class. The youngster, used to many years of scorn, derision and, even worse, condescension from his teachers, steeled himself for some sarcasm from the great Ozanam. Instead, the professor took time to patiently go over every detail of the lecture until he was sure the boy grasped it. The next day Ozanam received a note from the young fellow. “I promise you most faithfully that I shall show my gratitude to you by achieving the impossible,” the boy wrote. At the end of the school year, the dunce achieved the impossible. He earned first prize in general excellence. Subsequently this young man became a professor.

Frederic continued to rally Sorbonne Catholic students and encouraged them to join the St. Vincent de Paul movement. By now, Paris claimed twenty-five Conferences, and their charitable works drew much attention. Fearing lest the larger organization lose the spirit of simplicity so characteristic of the Society’s early days, Frederic warned: “God is pleased to bless this tiny and inconspicuous group. We must not hamper our progress with too much organization and red tape.”

I Am A Father

“After a succession of favors, yet another is added,” Frederic wrote to a friend in August, 1845, “probably the greatest we can have on earth: I am a father…. ” Ozanam’s tender, gentle heart, thrilled with sheer joy and delight when he looked over the cradle at his new baby daughter, Marie, born in August, 1845. Well it was that the professor experienced such deep joy, for only a year after Marie’s birth, Ozanam, worn out by all the teaching, writing, research and Vincentian work, fell severely ill and almost died. Skilled physicians pulled him through, but the fever he suffered left him weak and enervated. Frederic did not convalesce well; as soon as he gathered any strength at all, he would try to study or write. Invariably the effort exhausted him. “An hour’s light work,” he complained, “and I am finished.” Even in these straits he could neither forget nor resist his poor. Although unable to make his visits, Ozanam ordered a supply of fresh bread for the poor who came to visit him. As they were leaving, Ozanam would offer them the bread and beg for their prayers.

University authorities, concerned lest they should lose Ozanam completely, suggested the professor take a year’s leave of absence and pursue literary research in Italy. Grateful for the opportunity, Frederic, Amelie and Marie left Paris in August, 1846. As the little family traveled through Italy’s lovely cities and villages, Frederic visited, not only libraries, but parish houses as well. In Italy’s libraries he mined the rich treasure of Italian literature; but in the parishes he planted the seeds of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It wasn’t long after this tour that the Society took firm root in Italy.

That Terrible Year

Returning to Paris in August, 1847, Frederic experienced a sense of impending doom for France. The forces of hatred, injustice, greed and violence that lay just under the polished surface of French society were gathering like the fires of an underground volcano.

“It is a struggle,” Frederic noted, “between those who have nothing and those who have too much. The violent clash of luxury and poverty is shaking the ground under our feet.”

In February, 1848, the first eruption occurred. Revolutionary mobs of unemployed workers broke into the Tuileries Palace, vandalizing it and setting fires. During the rioting, a young Vincentian rushed to the palace chapel to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from the mobs. A clutch of rioters spotted the youth leaving the chapel and immediately paused and surrounded him. The Vincentian froze in fear. But when the hard-eyed vandals discovered the young man was not stealing the Eucharist but only attempting to protect it, they immediately formed an honor guard to accompany him through the riot to a nearby church. As the little procession progressed through the streets, the workers shouted, “Long live liberty! Long live the Catholic Faith!” Arriving at the church, the men knelt down before the parish priest and requested his blessing. The poor and the workers did not wish to abandon the Church. It is a sad footnote to French history that so many French clergy could not believe that and refused to labor among the nation’s working classes.

Eventually the February rioting came to an end, only to break out with new and terrible force on June 24, 1848. This time the government determined to grind the Revolutionaries into powder. Like a great bear eating off its own foot to escape a trap, the French nation, at that time the world’s wealthiest, turned to destroy its own people in an insane attempt to escape the trap of injustice and greed which it had forged for itself. Over one hundred thousand armed rebels rampaged through Paris in the first hours of the June fighting. But the insurgents, without leadership, strategy or resources, were no match for the better-equipped, trained and disciplined government troops. Soon government forces drove their opponents behind the makeshift stone barricades. From there the rebels, although out-manned and out-gunned, refused to retreat any farther and fought it out, preferring to die rather than starve. Ozanam, still weak from his illness, nevertheless felt duty-bound to respond when he was called up for the National Guard, as were eight hundred thousand other Frenchmen. He bade Amelie and Marie good-bye. “It was a terrible moment,” he remembered; “I thought I would never see them again.”

It was a week of terrible moments. Frederic suffered bitter anguish as he saw his Parisian poor so mercilessly and methodically cut down. On the third day of the fighting, Ozanam and two of his comrades approached Archbishop Affre with a plan to stop the slaughter. Ozanam inquired if His Grace would be willing to approach the insurgents and offer them a promised government pardon. The prelate, whose heart, too, was broken by the madness that gripped his people, was only too willing to comply. General Cavaignac, commanding the government army, advised the Archbishop that a pardon could indeed be arranged, but that approaching the rebel barricades was dangerous. Only the day before, Cavaignac had sent one of his generals under a flag of truce to parlay with the rebels. The insurgents, refusing to honor the truce flag, imprisoned the officer. Archbishop Affre listened politely and, when the general concluded, simply said, “I must go.”

Shepherd In The Midst

As the Archbishop left Cavaignac’s headquarters and proceeded through government lines, soldiers, sensing his mission, leaped to attention and saluted him. The prelate stopped briefly to bless the wounded and then walked deliberately and without hesitation past the last government outpost and into the no man’s land between the two lines. As he did so, a young Vincentian climbed high in a tree to raise a white handkerchief of truce. Firing from the barricades lessened and then ceased. Affre pressed on through the strangely silent streets. No one spoke, no one moved. A thousand eyes watched the brave Archbishop. A thousand breaths came shorter as he approached the barricades. He seemed so small, so helpless. After an eternity Affre reached the front of the main rebel barricade. Insurgents came from behind their fortress to greet him. The Archbishop read a beautiful statement of reconciliation, and then in gentle tones urged the rebels to accept the pardon. The workers’ hearts were deeply touched and they sat silent. Suddenly a shot rang out, and within moments a frightful fire fight erupted. Affre was cut down and mortally wounded. Rebel soldiers, braving a hail of government bullets, dragged the Archbishop’s broken body behind the barricades.

The insurgents took the dying Archbishop to a nearby parish house, and early next morning Affre died. “May my blood be the last to be shed,” was the final prayer the humble hero uttered.

Peace At Last

The news of Affre’s death was enough to stop the insane fighting, which by now claimed 10,000 killed and wounded. At first Frederic and his companions felt terrible remorse. After all, it was at their suggestion that Affre took his last desperate journey. But the more they pondered the Archbishop’s magnificent courage the more they felt that Affre gladly gave his life to stop the frightful slaughter.

Despite the bloodletting and great promises, French social conditions failed to improve following the Revolution. No one yet seemed to realize that unless justice and charity prevailed in the land, the nation would inevitably destroy itself. The 1848 Revolution’s aftermath left two hundred and sixty-seven thousand workmen unemployed in Paris. Companies and corporations, factories and businesses, having already suffered heavy losses, refused to reopen in that politically unstable city. Paris without commerce, business or money, was once more paralyzed. The city, lacking any resources, could not care for its sick, its children or its poor. Trust between France’s moneyed and laboring classes broke down almost completely. The workmen and poor felt they were duped into the June surrender; the upper classes refused to make even a show of compassion or forgiveness for the revolt. Paris’ poorer classes had no work, no credit, no food and, worst of all, no hope.

St. Vincent de Paul members threw themselves tirelessly into their slum work. Frederic, using every bit of influence he had, obtained help from every quarter to relieve the sufferings of the poor. The government collected enough money to provide a small assistance for the city’s poor. It requested Ozanam and his men to supervise the distribution of this fund. By this time, the Vincentians had spread beyond France to other European nations. Conferences of many lands sent funds for French relief. Particularly touching was the money sent from Ireland, which had so many troubles of its own.

As if poor Paris did not suffer enough, a cholera epidemic struck the city near the end of 1848. The Vincentians joined the Sisters of Charity in tending the thousands of sick and dying in the tenements. Ozanam, the gallant warrior and gentle poet, walked through the streets of his beloved, bewildered, and bedeviled Paris. The faith of his poor, who faced death so courageously and asked nothing more than that a priest be with them to close their eyes, moved him to tears.

The New Era

Although depressed by the endless political wrangling, the prattling of intellectuals, the timidity and blindness of the French clergy, Frederic was not yet ready to surrender hope. He began publishing a newspaper whose policy was to secure justice for the poor and working classes. He called the paper <The New Era>. His enemies entitled it <The New Error>.

Many fellow Catholics, angry with Frederic because of his gentleness and genuine compassion for the Church’s enemies, accused him in print and in public speech, of compromise, timidity, and even complicity in anti-Catholic efforts. The charges tore the nearly exhausted Frederic apart.

“All my life I have followed the poetry of love in preference to the poetry of anger,” he explained; “I will not change now.”

A sensitive, dedicated man, Frederic could not believe fellow Christians would so unjustly and venomously attack him. Meanwhile, in <The New Era>, he continued to stir the conscience of the French people. He reminds his readers that France owes assistance to the poor, not an assistance that humiliates but an assistance which honors. In Frederic’s eyes the poor man can pray for the rich and in this way give more than he receives. Ozanam reminds France that the poor man is the nation’s priest. His hunger, his sweat, his blood constitute a sacrifice which can redeem the people’s broken humanity. In his newspaper Frederic continually warns that if the French government continued to ignore the needs of the poor it would drive them back into the arms of those who led them into the June upheaval. Frederic lost patience with those intellectuals who tirelessly propagate social programs to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. “Social welfare reform is to be learned,” Frederic admonished, “not in books nor from a public platform but in climbing the stairs to a poor man’s garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secrets of his lonely heart and troubled mind.”

Stations Of The Cross

Until the Spring of 1850 Frederic continued his struggle to bring peace and justice to his own people. Laboring in the classroom, at the editor’s desk, visiting the poor, lecturing, writing, and doing his scholarly research, Frederic soon consumed the small resources of strength he had. As his physical health began once more to deteriorate, he realized that the hatreds unleashed by the 1848 revolution would not be healed. The passions were too bitter, the resentments implacable. “It is full time God let light into this chaos,” he prayed. All his work began now to appear so futile. Depression dogged him. “I had thought I had some ideas,” he wrote, “and some work to do in this world. I’m afraid I have greatly overestimated myself.”

The illness that plagued him for the past few years struck and struck again. Fever inexorably destroyed his strength.

Just after Easter, 1852, doctors ordered him to surrender his teaching post at the Sorbonne. Summoning all his strength and in a clear, resonant voice, Frederic delivered his last lecture. As he concluded, his students, overcome with emotion, clapped, cheered and wept all at the same time. The Sorbonne would never see his like again and everyone knew it.

In July doctors ordered him once more to Southern Europe, where they hoped the sea air and warm climate would restore his strength. And once more the little Ozanam family, this time traveling much more slowly, made its way to Southern France, detoured briefly into Spain, and finally arrived in Italy. During this painful journey, Frederic, although suffering from swelling feet, weakening heart, and the ever-present fever, never lost his sense of humor. Arriving at Pisa, he noted, “I am like this city’s famous tower, leaning but not quite falling.”

Leaning and near falling though he was, Frederic managed at every turn of this year-long journey to establish new Vincentian groups wherever he went. As the Spring of 1853 broke, Ozanam, Amelie and Marie moved to a tiny seaside cottage on the Mediterranean coast. The love between Amelie and himself grew deeper and more tender as each day passed. The couple often sat for hours in silence contemplating the clear blue skies and sparkling Mediterranean Sea. As Spring ripened, the poet within him sensed death was near. “April smiles,” he wrote, “but to deceive.”

Area fishermen and farm folk came to love the gentle, thoughtful Frenchman. Each day they brought him baskets of his favorite flowers as well as fresh fish and fruit. With remarkable Italian ingenuity, the people found ice even in the summer to keep his fever down. Frederic during his lifetime had opened his heart to the poor of France, and now as he was dying it was the poor of Italy who filled his last days with great love and peace. As summer waned he yearned to see once more his beloved Paris. In late August his two brothers, Charles the doctor and Alphonse the priest, arrived at the seaside cottage to assist him home. The family set departure for the end of August. Before Frederic left the cottage he had one more task to accomplish. He had spotted a myrtle tree in flower on the seashore. With an effort that must have drained his last bit of strength, he cut some of the beautiful flowers and arranged a bouquet for Amelie. It was, after all, the twenty-third of the month, their wedding anniversary, and there are some things a gallant Frenchman never forgets.

In early September the Ozanam entourage reached Marseilles, France, where Amelie’s mother came to meet them. The Ozanam’s relatives had prepared a house for him to stay in Marseilles on his way to Paris.

Immediately after his arrival in Marseilles the exhausted Frederic took to his bed. He was at peace. “Now that I have placed Amelie in your arms,” he remarked to his mother-in-law, “God will do with me what he will.”

Lacordaire, writing of these last hours of his friend’s life, said: “He spoke little but he had a pressure of the hand, a smile, a sign for those whom he loved. Feeling his end approaching, he himself asked for the Last Sacraments. As the priest who attended him enjoined him to entrust himself to the goodness of God without fear, Frederic replied, “Ah, why should I fear him? I love him so.” On the eighth of September, the feast of the birthday of the Blessed Mother, Frederic, surrounded by his family and with his brother Alphonse reciting the prayers of the dying, left this world to meet his Lord. Those who knew him were sure it was no meeting of strangers. It was Lacordaire, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with Frederic to restore Catholicism to France, who best described his friend in his eulogy at the funeral in Paris. “Ozanam,” the mighty preacher declared, “was one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God, in whom God joins tenderness to genius in order to enkindle the world.”

At his death in 1853, the St. Vincent de Paul Society which he had started with Le Taillandier numbered fifteen thousand “brothers,” as they were called. Today Vincentians, numbering nearly 700,000, are found in every quarter of the globe, carrying on a multitude of charitable works. Surely their charity is the greatest monument to the life of Frederic Ozanam.

The cause for Frederic Ozanam’s beatification was formally introduced in 1953.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *