This is the story of a man whose love for the poor was so great that he founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and spent his whole life of forty short years helping others.
Frederic Ozanam was born in Milan, Italy, on April 23, 1813. At that time Milan was owned by France. His parents were devout French Catholics who, in spite of their many difficulties and sorrows in life, had always turned to God for help, and in Him had always found it.
Frederic’s father had fought in a cavalry regiment under Napoleon Bonaparte for five years. In sixteen famous battles, Jean-Antoine Ozanam fought so bravely and sustained so many wounds that at the age of twenty-five he was retired from the army with the rank of captain. Although his health was broken and he was heavily in debt because of an unfortunate business transaction, Frederic’s father went to Milan where he became a fine doctor.
Frederic’s mother, Marie, was a woman who had lived through the days of the Reign of Terror in France. To escape death on the guillotine, she and her family hid for days in dark cellars in the city of Lyons and finally were able to flee to Switzerland for safety.
The marriage of Jean-Antoine and Marie Ozanam had been a happy one in spite of the fact that eleven of their fourteen children died either in infancy or early youth.
When Frederic was two, his father moved the family to Lyons, France, since the Austrian army came to take over Milan after the fall of Napoleon’s Empire. Slowly the doctor built up his practice, and before long he was well able to support his family. He never became a wealthy man because he devoted much of his time to the poor who could not pay for his services. But at all times, Doctor Ozanam was able to supply all the needs of his family abundantly.
)’ The childhood of Frederic was a happy one. His sister, Eliza, spent much time looking after him, his older brother, Alphonse, and his younger brother, Charles. Eliza played with her little brothers, taught them their first lessons, took them on long walks and acted as a second mother to each of them.
When Frederic was six, he was suddenly stricken with typhoid fever. At times the fever was so great that the face of the thin child turned a bright crimson, and sweat poured from his frail body as he writhed in delirium and cried out for water.
For days and nights his parents refused to leave his bedside, and finally when all hope of saving his life had been abandoned, the good doctor threw himself on his knees beside the bed of his dying son.
“There is nothing more that I, as a doctor, can do for you,” he sobbed, stroking the small face gently. “Only God in His mercy can help you now. May He cure you, if it be His will! St. Francis Regis, pray for you!”
Mrs. Ozanam knelt down beside her husband and gathered the other children around her. Together they prayed to St. Francis Regis for quick aid for the suffering child.
When they had finished and had risen to their feet, Frederic seemed to rest more easily. Slowly the crimson left his cheeks, and his breath came more regularly.
“I think St. Francis has worked a miracle for us,” the doctor sighed, putting his hand on the boy’s forehead. “The temperature is much lower already!”
It was true. Slowly the dreaded illness left the frail, young body, and in a few days, Frederic was well on his way to complete recovery. He was never to be strong or husky, but he was to use all the energy and strength God had given him to do great things for troubled souls and suffering bodies not only in his own life’s span, but in all later generations through his St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Hardly a year had passed before another blow struck the family. Eliza, the older sister who had cared for her brothers so well, contracted an illness and died. Frederic was heartbroken. Through the influence of her good example, Eliza had taught Frederic to be gentle and kind. She had given him his fundamental training in school work, also, and now that she had gone, he was terribly lonely.
In the year that followed, the boy paid little attention to his studies. He became headstrong and lazy. When told to do things, he refused. When he was punished for his faults, he only grew worse, and he played every trick on his brothers that he could think up in his fertile mind. He had a quick temper, too, which on some occasions was given full freedom to express itself. At such times it was not safe to be near him!
Even at so young an age, however, Frederic had a wonderful love and sympathy for the poor. His father spent hours each day in serving the poor who were sick, and his mother went to different homes to nurse those whom her husband had treated. Their example had much to do with Frederic’s attitude toward the unfortunate both in his youth and later life.
When Frederic was nine years old, his father took him to the Royal College of Lyons to enroll him in classes there. After his fine training at home, the boy was well-prepared for the more formal lectures and classes in the school.
Some weeks after school began, his mother asked him, “How do you like the Royal College?”
“It’s fine,” Frederic replied. “My teachers are kind to me and the classes are interesting.”
“And are you studying hard?”
“I suppose I could spend more time on my lessons and books,” the boy said sheepishly, “bu t as it is, I am able to get good marks.”
“What subject do you like best, Fred?” his mother asked.
“Literature!” he said at once. “I like to read short stories and poems! By the way, what are you writing?” As he spoke, he moved closer to the desk at which his mother sat. The pen in her hand was poised over a sheet of music paper.
“Oh, it’s nothing, dear,” she smiled. “Just a little surprise for Christmas.”
“It must be another of your songs for our family celebration!”
Marie Ozanam smiled and nodded. “I guess I just can’t keep a secret to myself, can I?”
“You always write songs and poems for the big feast days of the year,” Frederic commented, “so they are hardly secrets.”
“Why don’t you try your hand at some poetry for Christmas,” his mother suggested. “After all, if your father has gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to have you educated in the Royal College, I am sure he would be thrilled to learn that your ability to express yourself in poetry has improved since you started classes there.”
The boy liked the idea and hurried off to his room to begin the composition of a literary work for the coming feast. Thus began the writing career of one of the most gifted men of the nineteenth century.
As the years passed peacefully and happily for the Ozanam family, Frederic advanced from one grade to the next, taking high honors in his classes, improving in his efforts as a poet and writer, and growing closer to God. When he was eleven, he received his first Holy Communion. It was the happiest day of his life, for it brought for the first time into his body the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Son of God, Himself.
“May my tongue stick to my palate if I ever forget that day!” he once wrote. “That my disposition improved was plain to see, for I became modest, gentle and teachable. I could still be proud and stubborn, however.” That the young fellow had his faults was evident, and he openly admitted them. That he constantly fought to overcome them was clear, also. His conscience was always a delicate one, and his greatest dread was that of committing sin. From early youth, Frederic Ozanam set out to become a saint. That by the grace of God he was successful in this quest is clear from the fact that his cause for canonization has been introduced in Rome and goes forward rapidly in our own time.
In 1826 when Frederic was thirteen, a famous preacher came to the college to give a series of Lenten sermons for the student body. His name was Father Donnet and he was to become in later years one of the important figures of the Church in France. As a Cardinal, he was to be made Archbishop of Bordeaux and exert a profound influence on thinking Catholics in France for many years.
During one of his sermons, Father Donnet said, “Young men, at the same time that you are being trained here to be GOOD CHRISTIANS, you are being trained to be GOOD CITIZENS of France. Learn here to follow honorable careers to which you will be called by God. Thus you will serve your Creator and your nation!”
The words seemed to burn themselves into the mind of the young Frederic, for he wrote them down in his notebook and thought of them often. At that time, many Frenchmen believed that to be a good citizen, one had to forget about God and His Church. It was a period in which atheism had a free hand. After the fall of Napoleon, many errors were taught openly in the schools in the midst of great confusion and unrest.
In the quiet and peace of his happy family, Frederic was not disturbed by the unrest and troubled conditions about him. He continued to study hard, to think much and to compose good poetry. At the age of thirteen, he was able to write excellent poems and pieces of prose in both French and Latin.
When he showed his work to his teachers, they marveled.
“It is amazing that one so young can write so well!” one of them exclaimed after reading some of the boy’s work.
“I think we can look for great things from Ozanam when he grows older and becomes more mature. With his talent, he will be able to influence the minds and hearts of many!”
The words of the teacher were a prophecy. Before Frederic Ozanam was twenty years of age, his writings were commanding the respect and admiration of the leading minds in France.