Founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Bl Frederic Ozanam

Blessed Frederic Ozanam

Date of birth: 23 April 1813
Place of birth: Milan, Italy
Died: 8 September 1853
Beatified: 22 August 1997
Feast Day: 9 September

Paris of the early 19th century was in the grip of great upheavals. During and following the French revolution 1788-1799, 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; scepticism was virtually triumphant in the teachings of Saint Simon.

Large numbers of the country people were moving to the cities to find work in the factories. Many arrived to discover that 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 1200 people each day. Large slums areas were forming in Paris; thousands of people lived without work, some without clothes, and many alcoholic. Homelessness, disease, and starvation were common.

A young student, Frederic Ozanam had to walk through the poorer suburbs on his way to university lectures each day and 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 debating society founded by the students 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 around him 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 heed to their comments, 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.

The small group decided to adopt the name The Society of St Vincent de Paul after 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. Sr 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.

It was not long after that other good citizens of Paris took note of the charitable works of the students. Within a year membership had expanded to 100 and it became necessary to split the conference (group) into three separate conferences. 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 and numbered over 9,000 members. After some years the Society reached Rome (1842), England (1844), Belgium, Scotland, Ireland (1845), the United States of America (1846) and Australia on 5 March 1854.

Until 1963 women were organised separately throughout the world as the 'Womans Society of St. Vincent de Paul', with headquarters in Bologna, Italy. It was founded in 1856 to render charitable aid to the afflicted in matters which men could not handle such as the care of widows, orphan girls and mothers with small families. 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.

Patron of the St Vincent de Paul Society, St Vincent de Paul

Saint Vincent de Paul

“Love the poor. Honour them, my children, as you would honour Christ himself”

Date of birth: 24 April 1581
Place of birth: Pouy, France
Died: 27 September 1660
Canonised a Saint: 16 June 1737
Feast Day: 27 September

Vincent de Paul was born in the small southern French town of Pouy (later renamed Saint Vincent de Paul in his honour) on 24 April 1581 and ordained as a priest in 1600 at the age of 19.

As a young man he ministered to the wealthy and powerful. However an appointment as chaplain to a poor parish, and to galley prisoners, inspired him to a vocation of working with those most marginalised and powerless.

Vincent urged his followers to bring God’s justice and love to people who were unable to live a full human life:
“Deal with the most urgent needs. Organise charity so that it is more efficient…teach reading and writing, educate with the aim of giving each the means of self-support. Intervene with authorities to obtain reforms in structure… there is no charity without justice.”

Vincent de Paul died in Paris on 27 September 1660 at the age of 79. He was canonised on 16 June 1737 and, in 1883, the Church designated him as the special patron of all charitable associations.

The Society was named after Saint Vincent de Paul and follows his teachings and compassion for people in need. Saint Vincent de Paul is the international patron of the Society.

Patroness of Social Workers, St Louise de Marillac

St Louise de Marillac

Date of birth: 12 August 1591
Place of birth: Paris, France
Died: 15 March 1660
Canonized: 1934
Feast Day: Since 2016, it has been celebrated on 9 May, the day of her beatification in 1920.

Louise did not know her mother and was raised by her father. From the time she was a small child, she was taken to the Dominican sisters, who gave her a good education. Later, she went on to further education at a residence for young girls in Paris. Her education was much better than that of most children her age, and Louise became one of the best educated women of her time.

Louise had a desire to join a religious order, but she was not allowed to join. She married Antoine le Gras, secretary to the Queen Mother, in 1611. According to Louise, Antoine was a good man. Throughout their marriage, Louise travelled a lot and socialised with the royalty and aristocracy of France. Louise and Antoine had a son, Michael, and lived together happily for many years. Antoine, however, became sick, and he died in 1625.

After her husband died, Louise met and became friends with Vincent de Paul. Despite the fact that she had come from a background of wealth, and knew many rich people, she was just as comfortable around poor people. Louise dedicated her time to helping abandoned children on the streets. She also visited sick men in the prison hospital and established a house near the hospital where, each day, many women would cook food that visitors would then take to the prisoners.

Throughout France, women set up centres to serve the poor. Louise pushed for every village to have its own clinic, school nurse and teacher. With Vincent, Louise started the Daughters of Charity in 1642. The Daughters of Charity were a revolutionary order of the poor. They helped abandoned children, people who were poor and sick, wounded soldiers, slaves, people who were mentally ill and the elderly. Today, there are over 20,000 Daughters of Charity, and they continue to help people in need.

Louise is the patron saint of sick people, widows and orphans, and in 1960, Pope John XXIII proclaimed her the Patroness of Social Workers.

Sister Rosalie Rendu

Blessed Rosalie Rendu

“Never have I prayed so well as in the streets” – Blessed Rosalie Rendu

Date of birth: 9 September 1786
Place of birth: Confort, France
Died: 7 February 1856
Beatified: 9 November 2003
Feast Day: 7 February

Jeanne Marie Rendu (later called Sister Rosalie Rendu) was the eldest of four girls in her family. Her parents were simple-living but well respected people who lived in the mountains. When Jeanne was only three years old, the French Revolution broke out in France. At this time, many faithful priests were forced to flee because people wanted to hurt them, and the Rendu family home became a refuge for many of these priests.

Following the death of her father and baby sister, Jeanne helped her mother to look after the family. Jeanne’s mother sent her to a boarding school so she could get a good education. During her two years there, Jeanne would walk around the town, and one day she discovered a hospital where the Daughters of Charity cared for the sick. Her mother gave her permission to spend some time at the hospital, and Jeanne soon felt called by God to become a Daughter of Charity.

When she was nearly 17 years old, Jeanne entered the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity and received the name Rosalie. She took vows to serve God and the poor, and spent over 50 years living out those vows. She opened a free clinic, a pharmacy, a school, an orphanage, a childcare centre, a home for the elderly and a youth club for young workers. She became known as the “good mother of all”, and helped Frederic Ozanam and his friends to do good works, which is how the St Vincent de Paul Society started.

As well as assisting the poor in the streets and in their homes, Sister Rosalie showed great courage and leadership during the bloody uprisings that took place in France in 1830 and 1848. During the battles, Sister Rosalie would climb up on the barricades – risking her life – to help wounded soldiers, regardless of which side they were fighting on.

Although her health was always fragile, Sister Rosalie never rested; she preferred to keep serving the poor, and managed to overcome fatigue and illness. Eventually, however, her huge workload – combined with her age and increased frailty – broke her resistance, and she became progressively blind during the last two years of her life. She died on 7 February 1856.

Founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia, Fr Gerald Ward

Fr Gerald Ward

Date of birth: 1806
Place of birth: London, England
Died: 14 January 1858

Gerald Ward was born in London 1806 and arrived in Australia on 7 September 1850 after being recruited to work in the Melbourne mission by the pioneer priest Fr Patrick Geoghegan.

Fr Ward knew of the workings of the St Vincent de Paul Society and initiated its establishment in Australia at St Francis' Church in Melbourne on 5 March 1854 after witnessing the plight of people following the discovery of gold in Victoria.

Fr Ward became the first president of the St Francis' Conference in Melbourne and began to address the problems he saw such as the increased number of homeless and deserted children roaming the streets.

In a submission to the government of the day, Fr Ward stated that the new conference aimed at “the relief of the destitute, in a manner as much as possible permanently beneficial and the visitation of poor families.”

One of his accomplishments was establishing the St Vincent de Paul orphanage in South Melbourne. The foundation stone for the orphanage was laid in 1855 and the first children were accepted in 1857.

Gerald Ward died on 14 January 1858 aged 52. A newspaper noted that “he was one in whom many a widow and orphan had found a good friend.” His enduring legacy is founded in such friendship.

Read more about Fr Gerald Ward, founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia

Founder of the Society in NSW

Charles O'Neill

Date of birth: 1828
Place of birth: Glasgow, Scotland
Died: 8th of November, 1900

Charles Gordon O'Neill was born in Glasgow in 1828. He was an engineer who led the St Vincent de Paul Society in the Western Districts of Scotland between 1859 and 1863. He moved to New Zealand in 1863 and became then one of the foremost civic engineers in the colony. He was also a New Zealand colonial parliamentarian from 1866 to 1875. He was instrumental in helping found the first conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society to be aggregated in New Zealand in 1876.

O’Neill’s faith-based charitable mission to Australia was undertaken during 1881-91 at the request of Society’s President-General Adolphe Baudon (1819-88), who wrote to O’Neill in 1877 concerned that the first Conference established in Australia by Father Gerald Ward in 1854 had dissipated.  O’Neill was unable to galvanise sufficient interest among local laity to re-establish the Society when he travelled to Sydney and Melbourne several times between January 1880 and May 1881.

Despite Baudon’s concerns about freemasonry, more serious was the sectarian ill-will directed at the Irish-Catholic minority in NSW, where O’Neill’s mission finally gained a foothold in July 1881. The mission successfully established the Society in NSW beginning with St Patrick’s Church Hill Conference and provided a Catholic alternative to the then flourishing evangelical slum missions. O’Neill served as President of St Patrick’s Church Hill Conference and from 1884, President of the Particular Council of Sydney. He successfully gained Catholic acceptance of the Society and recruited volunteers from among the male Catholic laity in Sydney. By 1891, the year of O’Neill’s resignation from Society leadership, the Society had 20 active conference with over 300 members undertaking almost 11,000 visits to people in need annually. The Society was consolidated under a Superior Council of Australasia in Sydney in 1895.

O’Neill’s mission coincided with a heightened campaign for Home Rule for Ireland peaking in 1883-84. It was a cause that O’Neill, as a prominent member of the Irish National League of NSW, supported passionately himself. O’Neill remained a bachelor and was supported in his charitable work by unmarried siblings, however the end of his life was dogged by destitution and such he is regarded as both a heroic and tragic figure.  He died in in St Vincent's Hospital on 8 November 1900 at the age of 72 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery in Sydney. In accordance with his wishes, in 1961, O’Neill’s remains were moved to the Society’s burial plot for the destitute in company of those he served so well.

Source: Captain Charles, Engineer of Charity, the remarkable life of Charles Gordon O'Neill by Steve Utick was published by Allen and Unwin in 2008 and