A Catholic Monthly Magazine

150 Years of Generosity, Service and Compassion

by Michael Fitzsimons

The Society of St Vincent de Paul

When Pope Francis described the kind of church he would like to see, he could have been talking about the vision that inspired the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty,’ said Pope Francis, ‘because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.’

The Society of St Vincent de Paul was founded in Paris in1833, a time of great poverty and social unrest in France. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, large slum areas had formed in Paris and thousands of people were homeless and without work. Fatal diseases and starvation were commonplace. At the same time religion was in decline and atheism on the increase. The church of the day was under attack for its preference for rhetoric over action.

This was the context in which a meeting took place in Paris on 13 April 1833, attended by six students determined to live out their Christian faith. The meeting took place in the office of 39-year-old Emmanuel Bailly, publisher of The Catholic Tribune, who chaired the meeting. The group chose St Vincent de Paul, the renowned champion of the poor, as the patron of their new Society.

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty ...

The students agreed that the basic work of their ‘Conference of Charity,’ later renamed the Society of St Vincent de Paul, would be home visits to poor families. The six students were Paul Lamache, Felix Clavé, Auguste Le Taillandier, Jules Devaux, Francois Lallier and Frederic Ozanam. Frederic Ozanam is acknowledged as the leader of the group and the principal founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society. He was just 20 years of age at this time.

Enthusiasm for the new Society spread rapidly. Thirty-four Conferences of Charity were soon established in Paris and from there the movement spread to the French provinces, including Lyon where the Society of Mary was founded.

In the 1840s the Society experienced spectacular growth. It spread to Rome in 1842 and to England and Ireland in 1844, followed by foundations in Germany, Holland, Greece, the United States and Mexico in 1846, then Switzerland and Canada in 1847, Austria and Spain in 1850, and Australia in 1854.

Frederic Ozanam

Frédéric Ozanam, Principal Founder

Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam (1813 –1853) was a French literary scholar, lawyer, journalist and social justice advocate. As a young man, he dedicated himself to improving social conditions for the poor and disadvantaged, and restoring the Catholic faith in France.

He was born in Milan, at that time a French city. In 1815, his family moved to Lyon where Frederic spent his youth. While studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, he and his fellow Catholic students were challenged to ‘show us your works’ that would prove the truth of their faith. Their response was to establish the Conference of Charity, a group ready to act on behalf of the needy, the sick and the lonely.

In 1841, he married Amelie Soulacroix, a kindred spirit, and they had one daughter. He died 12 years later at the early age of 40 after a long illness. His short and prophetic life was a powerful witness to an authentic Christian life. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in 1997.

‘Yours must be a work of love, of kindness,’ he once wrote. ‘You must give your time, your talents, yourselves. The poor person is a unique person of God’s fashioning with an inalienable right to respect. You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis. You must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of a long-term improvement.’


Founders of the Society of St Vincent de Paul
Above: Frédéric Ozanam, Jules Devaux, Paul Lamache
Below: Auguste Le Taillandier, François Lallier, E J Bailly
Not pictured: Félix Clavé

150th Anniversary

2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in New Zealand. It was established in Christchurch in 1867 by Fr Jean-Baptiste Chataigner sm, the first parish priest of the city and one of the pioneering French Marists in New Zealand. There were 22 members at the first meeting, with seven ladies assisting. Fr Chataigner was well aware of the work of the Society in France and was one of many early Marists who were enthusiastic supporters of the fledgling organisation.

A Conference was established at Sacred Heart parish in Wellington in 1876 by Fr Jean-Baptiste Petitjean sm and a dynamic Scotsman by the name of Charles O’Neill, who was its first President. Charles O’Neill, engineer and charity worker, is sometimes called the founder of the Society in New Zealand and Australia; he certainly played a large part in its development.

The Society flourished in New Zealand with the steady growth of Conferences around the country. In 1932, the Society formed its own Superior Council of New Zealand, with headquarters in Wellington. From 1895 until 1931, New Zealand Conferences and Councils had been affiliated to the Superior Council of Australasia.

A gathering of Young Vinnies from Wellington Catholic Colleges at Sacred Heart Cathedral

The story of the Society in New Zealand over the last 150 years is a story of service, generosity and compassion, offered without fanfare or fuss. It has lasted the distance, making it surely one of the oldest welfare organisations in the country. Today the Society in New Zealand has 1,600 members and 135 Conferences, powered by the same vision that inspired the first Conference in Christchurch. It also has around 2,000 ‘Young Vinnies’ or youth members who bring great faith and vitality to the Society. Worldwide the Society is the largest lay organisation in the Church, with 50,000 Conferences and around 800,000 members.

Students from St Mary’s College, and other volunteers at the St Vincent de Paul Book Fair in Wellington
Photo: Welcom

The 150th Anniversary of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in New Zealand will be celebrated on the weekend of 13-15 October, 2017 in Christchurch. There will also be many local celebrations hosted by the Society around New Zealand to mark this special occasion.

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