In 1833 a young and zealous Catholic student of law at the Sorbonne in Paris, in order to meet the criticisms of the followers of the French reformer, St. Simon, that the Catholic Church really did nothing for the poor, persuaded seven of his companions to organize for the more effectual aid of the needy. This little band of eight undergraduates, with Ozanam as their leader, met in the back room of a printing office in Paris and organized the first conference of St. Vincent de Paul. It would not be correct to suppose that when Ozanam arranged with his companions to meet weekly for the practice of good works he had conceived the plan of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as it subsequently developed.1 Nevertheless it was to these efforts of Frederick Ozanam to show the reality of his Christian faith that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul owes its birth.
While the suggestion which led to organization of the first conference came from Ozanam, it is likely that the method and spirit of the society came from Pere Bailly, a journalist who befriended them and gave them not only the use of his printing shop for their meeting, but also many helpful suggestions.2 By the skeptical, Ozanam and his companions were asked: “But what do you hope to do? You are only eight poor young men and you expect to relieve the misery that abounds in a city like Paris! Why, if you counted any number of members you could do but comparatively nothing.”3 It was true that they had but little money and their collections at their meetings amounted to but a f ew sous. Pere Bailly reminded them, however, that there was something worth even more to the poor, namely, that moral assistance which they could give. “If you intend the work to be really efficacious, if you are in earnest about serving the poor as well as yourselves,” wrote their councillor, “you must not let it be a mere doling out of alms, bringing your pittance of money or food; you must make it a medium of moral assistance, you must give them the alms of good advice.”4 He suggested to his young friends that much could be done to remedy misery and distress “by placing their education, their intelligence, their special knowledge of law and science, and their general knowledge of life at the disposal of the poor; that instead of only taking them some little material relief, they should strive to win their confidence, learn all about their affairs, and then see how they could best help them to help themselves. ‘Most of you are studying to be lawyers,’ he said, ‘some to be doctors, etc. Go and help the poor, each in your special line; let your studies be of use to others as well as to yourselves; it is a good and easy way of commencing your apostolate as Christians in the world.'”5
The disciples soon caught the spirit of their friend and guide. They visited the poor in their own houses, each member visiting two or three families a week. Receiving places were established for old clothes, old furniture, etc. Medical services were given where needed. Work was procured for those who had none. “The members interested themselves in all classes of the poor and miserable, from the infants in crêches to the condemned to death in the prisons; and they followed the funerals of those who died… In fact, the whole extent of the needs of the poor seems to have been in a measure considered by this association, either from its first beginnings or later.”6 Bearing in mind the teaching of Pere Bailly and the spirit with which Ozanam organized the new society, it is not surprising that in so doing he discouraged indiscriminate giving and insisted upon an inves tigation of all cases, and that “friendly visiting” was made the cornerstone of the new society; moral upliftting and encouragement to self-help having first place,—alms-giving being secondary. He took his stand on the universal nature of charity; there was to be no religious test in the distribution of alms to those in need.
In a letter written in 1834, one year after the founding of the new society, Ozanam declared that he longed “to see all young men who have intelligence and heart united in some scheme of charity, that thus a vast and generous association for the relief of the poorer classes might be formed all over the country.”7 Twenty years af ter the establishment of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, its foun der said with his dying breath: “Instead of eight visitors, we have grown to two thousand in Paris alone and we visit there five thousand families.”8 This meant that they were reaching probably 20,000 individuals-over one-fourth of all the poor of the city. There were five hundred conferences in France, and the movement had spread into England, Spain, Belgium, and even Jerusalem.9
The rules of the Society today, which are practically the same as those adopted by the first conference established by Ozanam in 1833, throw much light on the methods and purposes of the society. “Red-tape-ism” is avoided as much as possible, but certain fundamental rules are to govern. Thus, expenditures are for relief only, and the relief is to be given promptly and from funds voted by the conference only, not from the visitor’s own purse. These funds are to be collected secretly from its members and no one himself in need is to be a member. Visits are to be made in the home. The visitors are to go in couples. The number of families to each two visitors is not, limited. It is usually gov erned by the number of families to be cared for and the number,A members connected with the respective conferences. There is a register of poor which contains detailed information from each member. Records of all families visited are kept exclusively for the information of the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, no publicity being given to the conditions of the poor who may be in need of the assistance of the society.10
The attitude of mind with which visitors are enjoined to approach their work is so excellently revealed in the following words of Ozanam that they are quoted in full:
“Help is humiliating when it appeals to men from below, taking heed of their material wants only, paying attention but to those of the flesh, to the cry of hunger and cold, to what excites pity, to what one succors even in the beast. It humiliates when there is no reciprocity, when you give the poor man nothing but bread or clothes or a bundle of straw; what, in fact, there is no likeli hood of his ever giving you in return. But it honors, when it appeals to him from above, when it occupies itself with his soul, with his religious, moral and political education, with all that emancipates him from his passions and from a portion of his wants, with those things that make him free and make him great. Help honors when to the bread that nourishes, it adds the visit that consoles, the advice that enlightens; the friendly shake of the hand that lif ts up the sinking courage; when it treats the poor man with respect, not only as an equal but a superior since he is capable of suffering what we perhaps are incapable of suffering, since he is the messenger of God to us, sent to prove our justice and our charity and to save us by our works. Help then becomes honorable, but it may become mutual, because every man who gives a kind word of advice, a consolation today may, tomorrow, stand himself in need of a kind word, advice and consolation; because the hand that you clasp, clasps yours in return; because that indigent family you love, loves you in return and will have largely acquitted them selves toward you when the old men, the mothers and the little children shall have prayed for you.”11
One cannot understand the essential nature of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul without realizing that the purpose is not chiefly charitable but “the sanctification of its members”12 Although no work of charity is foreign to the society, especially its avowed object of visiting the poor, it is clear that “to unite in a communion of prayers” is equally, if not even more the object of the society.13 The foregoing did not, however, prevent Ozanam and Bailly (nor their followers today) from doing much unselfish work in the interest of others.
As in the case of other pioneers in the field of philan thropy, the work of Ozanam and Bailly was destined to influence the subsequent expression of the charitable spirit of the age.14 The emphasis placed by charity or ganizationists on friendly visiting received encouragement from the success which attended this phase of Ozanam’s and Bailly’s work15 while the use of a district conference to guide and help friendly visitors, a plan emphasized by all the pioneer charity organization socie ties, doubtless found its prototype in the “conferences” of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.16
- John Rochford, “Frederick Ozanam,” pp. 19 and 20 (1913), “So far was this from being the fact, that when one of the members proposed a friend for admission to the Conference,” writes the author, “the strongest objections were made to allowing any one else to intrude within the circle of intimate friends of which the Conference was comprised. Eventually, however, they gave way and admitted the proposed candidate. Other admissions soon followed, so that by August the Conference included about fifteen members.” Ibid., p. 20.
- See “The Letters of Frederick Ozanam,” translated by Ainslie Coates, Chapter V ( 1886) . Bailly was first president of the Council-General, serving for rr years. His successnr speaks of him as founder, mod erator, and father nf the society. See p. 2 77, “Manual of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul,” edition 1909, Paris. Bougand in his “History of St. Vincent de Paul,” p. 2 rr, says the Society of St. Vincent de Paul “is sometimes thought a birth of our day, but is in reality a revival of this great movement of charity.” Bailly in a circular of December, 1842, writes: “You are aware that those thoughts are taken from the most intimate writings of St. Vincent de Paul, from the rules which he laid after many years’ experience, for the blessed works that he had instituted, and to secure their increase and duration,” p. 252, “Manual of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul,” edition 1909, Paris. It is of interest to note in this connection that some of the young men who comprised the first conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul went to the well-known Sister of Charity (Rosalie Rendu), who, instructed them “in visiting the poor.” See “The Letters of Frederick Ozanam,” translated by Ainslie Coates, Chapter V (1886).
- Lettres de Frederic Ozanam,” 1831-1853, Tome Premier septième edition (1891), p. 76.
- Charities, Vol. III, p. 17 (1899).
- Kathleen o’Meara, “Life and Works of Frederick Ozanam,” quoted by Locke, Jesse Albert, “Frederic Ozanam,” Charities Review, Vol. IX, p. 74 (1899)
- “The Letters of Frederick Ozanam,” translated by Ainslie Coates, Chapter V ( 1886 ).
- “Lettres de Frederic Ozanam,” 1831-1853, Tome Premier septieme edition (1891), pp, 114, 115.
- Op. cit., p. 76.
- In 1914 there were 6,000 conferences of this same society, scattered throughout all quarters of the globe, with one hundred thousand active and one hundred thousand honorary members. The figures are an estimate. See “Report of the Superior Council of New York to the Council-General in Paris,” for the year 1914, p. 90 (1915).
- The registering of cases with a social service exchange (see p. II3) is viewed as a violation of this rule of the society and so is not practiced.
- Frederic Ozanam. “Words of the Wise,” Charities, Vol. III, p. 17 (1899) .
- See 2nd and 5th paragraphs of explanatory notes under Article I, and the first under Article II of “Manual of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.”
- See explanatory notes on both Articles I and II of the Manual. The following are the objects of a St. Vincent de Paul conference as stated by the Superior Council of New York: “First, to sustain its members by mutual example in the practice of a Christian life; second, to visit the pour in their dwellings, relieving their temporal wants and affording them religious conso.Jation; third, to teach catechism to the children of the poor; fourth, to foster the forms of charitable works springing from these.” See “Instructions for Forming Conferences, So ciety of St. Vincent de Paul, Superior Council of New York ( 1911), p. 3.
- “The Life of Frederic Ozanam,” by Kathleen O’Meara, is among the works of pioneers mentioned by Gurteen in his “Handbook of Charity Organization,” the first book published dealing with the charity organization movement in the United States (1882).
- It should be recalled in this connection that “conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was established in New York City as early as 1846. By 1876 there were 204 Conferences under the Council of New York. In a paper on “District Conferences,” in which the writer, Mrs. James T. Fields, one of the pioneers of the Boston Associated Charities, emphasized tlae value of “visitors” in the work of charity organization, it is stated that many suggestions in charity organization have been derived from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Reports and Papers, C.O. S. of N. Y. (May, 1882 ), No. 3, p. 1. Writing in 1886 on “What Shall We do for the Poor,” D. O. Kellogg, another of the early leaders, acknowledges the debt of charity organiza tion societies to Sylvan Bailly, of Paris, along with other predecessors, without the combined labors of whom “Charity Organization now would be impracticable.” Lend-a-Hand, Vo.J. I, p. 18 ( 1886).
- Writing in 1880, Robert Treat Paine, Jr., President of the Asso ciated Charities of Boston, said: “The Catholics claim, I think with justice, that the credit is due their admirable society of St. Vincent de Paul, of making the counsels of a conference an important agency in deciding what families to aid, and how much and what kind of relief to give.” lour. Social Science No. XII, p. 106 (December, 1880).