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Our history

Our history

St Vincent de Paul Society has grown from humble beginnings to a global organisation of members and volunteers who support our most vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

A photo of a stack of old papers, envelopes and photos bound up next to a fountain pen and ink.

History of St Vincent de Paul Society

St Vincent de Paul Society was founded in France in 1833 by a group of dedicated Catholics who put their faith into action to support the poor in their community.

Today, the St Vincent de Paul Society is active in 150 countries through 800,000 members and 1,500,000 volunteers. The Society helps over 30 million people every day.

A changing society in France

Paris of the early 19th century was in the grip of great upheavals. During and following the French revolution of 1788 to 1799, Paris was profoundly affected by social unrest. A new type of society was being formed – a republic based on liberty, equality and fraternity.

The 1830s brought the collapse of the old Bourbon monarchy which had dreams of strengthening the throne with the support from the Church. Religion was on the decline and atheism increasing.

Large numbers of the country people were moving to the cities to find work in the factories. Many arrived to discover there was no work, little pay or that the factories were closed due to revolution.

In 1832 an epidemic of cholera swept through Paris killing up to 1,200 people each day. Large slum areas were forming in Paris where thousands of people lived without work, some without clothes, and many suffered from the abuse of alcohol. Homelessness, disease and starvation were common.

Faith in action

During this time in 1832, a young student named Frederic Ozanam walked through the poorer suburbs of Paris on his way to university lectures each day. He soon became deeply moved at the hopeless state of families who had been left without the support of their breadwinners after the epidemic.

It was the taunt of an anti-religious opponent in a student debating society that stung him to action: ‘You are right Ozanam when you speak of the past! In former times Christianity worked wonders, but what is it doing for mankind now? And you, who pride yourself on your Catholicity, what are you doing now for the poor? Show us your works.’

Frederic Ozanam gathered a few friends and on 23 April 1833, they met to decide what they could do to assist the poor. After the meeting, Frederic and his flat mate took the remainder of their winter wood supply and gave it to a widow.

These young men attracted the comment:

“What can seven young men hope to achieve in alleviating the suffering of Paris? ”

Fortunately, Ozanam paid little attention to their comments. He was determined to satisfy his own conscience that he was doing what he could to bear witness to his Christian upbringing by assisting those less fortunate in the community.

A painting of a gentlemen in his forties with brown, collar-length hair and a brown moustache and beard. He is wearing a formal black jacket, white shirt and black tie.

From little things, big things grow

The small group decided to adopt the name 'The Society of St Vincent de Paul' after Saint Vincent de Paul, the Patron Saint of Christian charity.

They sought the advice of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who was visiting poor families in one of the poorer districts. Sister Rendu introduced the young men to people they could assist. They agreed to meet weekly to strengthen their friendship and to respond to the needs of those they served.

Not long after, other good citizens of Paris noticed the charitable works of the students and within a year membership had expanded to 100. They split into three separate groups, called conferences, to continue delivering their services across the city.

At the same time, other conferences sprang up in Parishes around Paris. In its first decade, The Society spread to 48 other cities in France and Italy with over 9,000 members. The Society extended to Rome (1842), England (1844), Belgium, Scotland and Ireland (1845), the United States of America (1846) and Australia on 5 March 1854.

Women in The Society

In 1856, the 'Womens Society of St. Vincent de Paul' was founded with headquarters in Bologna, Italy, to give care to widows, orphan girls and mothers with small families; matters which men could not handle.

This separation of the organisation continued until 1963. After a trial period, the women's Society was amalgamated with the men's Society in 1967.

Internationally, the Society now admits both men and women with equal responsibility.

 

Vinnies in Australia

Our Society was established in Australia in 1854, with the first conference in Melbourne.

Commonly known in Australia as 'Vinnies', today we have over 45,000 members and volunteers across every state and territory, providing support through over 200 programs and services.

Our work is supported by donations and proceeds from sales through our shops.

Find your local Vinnies shop