The Conference of History, the student movement founded by Ozanam and his friends under the protection of Emmanuel Bailly, for the defence of the faith, had among its objectives to provide spiritual nourishment for young people coming to study in Paris. It formed a rallying-point and a place of shelter for all who were disposed to be Christians. Students coming to the metropolis for the first time could join the Conference of History on condition that they desired to live a Christian life. M. Bailly watched over the members of the society with a fatherly care and goodness.
The Conference of History played an important role in the Paris society of its time. However the Conference of Charity which was to emerge from it was to be of much more lasting and wide-reaching influence in the society of the world from the time of its inception to the present day. In response to a challenge by Jean Broet, one of the St. Simonians who claimed that Christians did nothing for people and therefore Christianity was a thing of the past, Ozanam and his friends realised that ‘religious ideas can have no value if they have not a practical and positive value.’1 Once again the students placed themselves under the direction of Bailly. Ozanam would later write to him, ‘you have accustomed us to look upon you as the rallying point, the adviser and friend of young Christian youth’2. And so on April 23, 1833, six men, Frédéric Ozanam, Jules Devaux, Paul Lamache, Auguste Le Taillandier, Francois Lallier, and Félix Clavé gathered in the office of Emmanuel Bailly, owner of La Tribune Catholique, to form a new organization – The Conference of Charity.
As well as having an advantage of years over the young students, Bailly had many contacts, among them Sr. Rosalie Rendu, Daughter of Charity, and M. Leveque, Administrator of the Bureau of Public Assistance. Through collaboration between these three people the young members of the Conference of Charity were introduced to the poor people of the Mouffetard district. The Mouffetard was only a short distance from the Sorbonne geographically, but it was very far removed in terms of demography. It was the poorest district of Paris. It is clear that both Bailly and Leveque appreciated the value of having Sr. Rosalie as a mentor for the young enthusiastic men of the Sorbonne. Leveque wrote to Bailly: ‘I asked Sr. Rosalie to make a choice and put the Conference in contact with those she considered best disposed to welcome the visits of our novices in the practice of charity’3; and Bailly in turn wrote to Sr. Rosalie: ‘I am sending you two young men, M. Ozanam and M. Taillandier ….’
Another of Ozanam’s dreams was finding fulfilment. Although he had a burning desire to convert all of France, he saw the wisdom of starting with what was possible. In a letter to his friend, Ernest Falconnet, he wrote: ‘Now, we others, we are too young to intervene in the social strife. Shall we then remain inert in the suffering and sighing world? No ; there is a preparatory way open to us ; before doing public good, we can endeavour to do good to some individuals; before regenerating France, we can solace some individuals amongst her poor’4. They were undertaking what was possible in practical terms. They became aware of their neighbour in need, and they were going to address that need. Referring to the founders of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Lacordaire was to speak of: ‘… the inspiration to prove once again that Christianity can accomplish in favour of those who are poor what no doctrine could do before or after it. While innovators wore themselves out with theories for changing the world, these young men set about climbing up to the floors where the misery of the quarter hid.”5
Sr. Rosalie took her role as mentor seriously. She knew that the Mouffetard district was a very dangerous area and you didn’t just let these young eager middle class men in top hats loose here; she was also aware that there was a danger that they would become overwhelmed with the enormity of the task and the material poverty before them.
She carefully chose the poor families for Ozanam, Taillandier, and the others to visit; she supplied them with vouchers; above all she shared her heartfelt conviction on how poor people should be served. And her name opened doors for them.
From Sr. Rosalie and the other Daughters of Charity, the young men learned the Vincentian spirit of service of people in need. Sr. Rosalie met with them individually and in groups. She recommended patience, which never considers the time spent listening to a poor person as wasted, ‘since the person already takes comfort in the good will that we demonstrate by attending to the recitation of their sufferings … with politeness – so sweet to a person who has never experienced anything but disdain and contempt’.6 She taught them to be kind and to love the people, for love is your first gift to the poor. She explained to them that poor people appreciate your kindness and love more than all else you can bring them. Apostolic Reflection would be the term used today to describe the process Sr. Rosalie initiated with the young members of the Society in 1833.
In 1834, accepting the proposal put forward by Jean-Léon Le Provost, it was decided to place the Conference of Charity under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul7. To his friend Lallier, 1838, Ozanam wrote: ‘we read the life of Saint Vincent de Paul …. His is a life that we must continue, a heart where we must warm our hearts, an intelligence where we must seek light.’8 Fifteen years later , in the Society’s bulletin, Ozanam again refers to the influence of the Sister Rosalie: ‘for a two month period some of [the confreres] placed themselves under Sister Rosalie’s guidance and direction as did the first founders of the Society who had come together fifteen years earlier’9. It is clear that the young Vincentians appreciated Sr. Rosalie’s direction in serving poor people in the Mouffetard district. As Armand de Melun, Sr. Rosalie’s first biographer, had written: ‘I soon grew accustomed to the visits to those who were poor in the Mouffetard district and the conversations that preceded and followed them. There I learned … to discern … to distribute to each what was appropriate … and even conversation’10.
And thus was born the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We might say of this Society what St. Vincent said of the Community of the Daughters of Charity in February 1646: ‘As it is was not then what it is now, there is reason to believe that it is still not what it will be when God has perfected it as He wants it’11. Indeed the Society of St. Vincent de Paul continues to grow and develop and to bring the compassion and love of God to people all over the world.
- To Ernest Falconnet, April 1834, Ainslie Coates, Letters of Frederic Ozanam, p96
- To Emmanuel Bailly, November 1834,Joseph I. Dirvin, Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, p53
- Cited in Louise Sullivan, Rosalie Rendu: A Daughter of Charity on Fire with Love for the Poor, (Chicago, 2006), p210
- To Ernest Falconnet, Dirvin, Life in Letters, p47.
- Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, Notice et panégyrique sur Ozanam (Paris, 1872) 223-224), quoted in Louise Sullivan, Rosalie Rendu, p209
- Melun, Vie de la Soeur Rosalie Rendu, 99-100, quoted in Louise Sullivan, Rosalie Rendu, p210
- Minutes of Meeting, 4 Feb 1834,quoted in Jean-Léon Le Provost , Sister Rosalie and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, http://www.r-s-v.org/, 4 Feb 2013
- Dirvan, Life in Letters, p143
- Bulletin of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul 1849
- Le Camus, Mémoires de Melun, quoted in Louise Sullivan, Rosalie Rendu, p231
- Pierre Coste, Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, IX, p194