Society History and Growth

History of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Frederic Ozanam - Founder of the Society 

The "Conference of Charity," from which the Society of St. Vincent de Paul sprang, was founded in Paris in April, 1833 by a few young men and a Catholic publicist. The principal founder was a man of twenty years of age, hailing from Lyons, named Frederic Ozanam.

A short time after his arrival in Paris, Ozanam found himself unexpectedly the center of a little group of Catholic students. The atmosphere after the July revolution was stormy. The battles of ideas were lively. AU these young men took part in the battles, chiefly in a society called the Conference of History, which met under the auspices of Joseph Emmanuel Baily, founder of the Tribune Catholique and a one-time fellow-worker of Lammenais.

In this society Ozanam and his friends encountered one day an objection flung in their teeth: "You praise the Church to us as the benefactor of humanity., That was true in former times, but what are you doing in our times for the people? What do you provide for them?" This reproach caused them to think.

It did not suffice, then, to believe in or even to defend the faith; it was necessary to study its activity. It was not enough to adore the God of the Gospel, it was necessary to follow Him; it was necessary to love and assist His children in need. Thereupon one of the students attached to the Conference of History, Augustus Le Taillandier, asked himself whether it would not be possible to bring together a small number of the Christian members, not for the purpose of discussion but for action, to set up a "Conference of Charity."

Ozanam seized on the idea at once. It fulfilled one of his dearest wishes, namely to set up for these "birds of passage," those students taken away from their parental homes, a center for Christian friendship.

The Conference of Charity would be at once an intimate and cheerful circle, radiating healthy youthfulness, where those who had left home would find new life and the means by which they could both help one another and exercise a form of charity within their Conference which would be modest, intelligent and practical.

Once the decision was made by the students to form a "Conference of Charity," there was no delay in proceeding. A publisher, Emmanuel Bailly, was contacted; busy as he was in publishing material and relieving spiritual miseries which abounded in the city, he approved of the project and accepted the direction of the new group which consisted of Frederic Ozanam, Joseph Emmanuel Bailly, Francois Lailier, Augustus Le Tallandier, Paul Lamache, Felix Clave, and J. Devaux.


First Meeting of First Conference Our founders were very far from foreseeing that their first meeting, in the offices of Bailly's Tribune Catholique, was to be the origin of an institution destined to last and to extend. It is not surprising, then, that their memory should not have retained all the circumstances relating to that first meeting.

What is for us most important is the date of the first meeting; from the report of the first meeting the date Tuesday, April 23, 1833 is named in two places. The offices of the Tribune Catholique were located at No. 18, rue de Petit-Bourbon-Saint Sulpice. Today, No. 18 rue de Petit- Bourbon bears the address No. 38, rue Saint-Sulpice; this is the cradle of our Society.

At this first meeting, the seven members simply resolved to bring some assistance to- homes of a few poor persons. Sister Rosalie, of rue de Mouffetard, obtained the first addresses of these poor, and lent the necessary provisions.

It will be seen that the students of 1833 thought neither of founding a big organization nor of participating in a widespread campaign against misery. They wished to help one another to remain faithful to their baptismal promises and to carry out supported by their mutual friendship, one of the essential duties of the Christian life.

These modest ideas were quite in keeping with the tradition of St. Vincent de Paul whom the little Conference chose as their patron at an early stage. St Vincent who accomplished such great things, never proclaimed high ambitions.

His most astonishing creations began in small waves and their growth was the result of time and necessity. So it was with the Society which bears his name.

It was born at an opportune time. With objects and methods exclusively religious, interests entirely social and completely sundered from old- time political parties, its program harmonized with the ideals of a large section of Catholic youth.

So the Conference developed very rapidly. The founders were surprised and even a little troubled. What was going to become of the intimacy of their meetings? Ozanam, alone, appears to have understood the possibilities of the apostolate which success brought into being.

By the end of the first year the Conference in Paris had grown to the point where it needed to divide into several sections. It became necessary to set up a "Council of Management." When the development of the organization led to the establishment of intermediary links between the Conference and Council, the Council assumed the title of "Council General." It also became necessary to draw up a Rule. This was drawn up and formulated in 1835. The drawing-up of the general principles was the work of Bailly; the Articles of the Rule were prepared by Lallier.


First Annual Report The first Annual Report of the first Conference was stated in correspondence from Ozanam to Cumier in February, 1835 to have been lost. Read at the general meeting of the 27th of June, 1834, it had for its author Gustave de la Noue, member of the Conference of History, friend of Ozanam, whose ideas he reflects. He was introduced to it at the third or fourth session by Lallier, who, supported by Ozanam, overcame the hesitations of the other founders about expanding the Society.

This report has probably been handled by several persons who did not realize its importance. It does not seem to have been searched for. Structural alterations made in the offices of the Council General in 1947 and the results of several changes of residence had upset, to some extent, our archives. A Paris brother, a conservator of the National Archives, devoted himself to a fresh classification of the documents. In a miscellaneous bundle of papers he found this little copybook. He at once recognized it and in this way has restored to us our most ancient annual report which went astray 120 years ago. This report takes up 18 pages and is in the somewhat romantic style characteristic of La Noue. Ozanam had certainly inspired certain parts of it.

Rapid Growth of the Society

Between 1833 and 1860 the growth of the Society was rapid; not only young intellectuals but Christians of every class were eager to do some- thing to improve the lot of the people. After spreading throughout France, the Society reached into Italy (Rome) in 1842; England in 1844; Belgium, Scotland and the United States in 1845; Germany, Holland, Greece, Turkey and Mexico in 1846; Canada and Switzerland in 1847; and Austria and Spain in 1850. The Society from that time onward was built on a solid foundation.

The Holy See approved of its aims and methods, and at the end of 1845 enriched it with precious Indulgences.

Twenty-seven years after Its foundation, the Society throughout the world comprised about 2,500 Conferences embracing 50,000 members. Its in- come amounted to almost four million francs.

The period from 1860 to 1870 was a critical one for our Society, especially in France. On the one hand, the parallel progress of luxury and materialism caused men's minds to grow colder. On the other, the public authorities, in particular the French Empire, and later the Spanish Republic, took measures against the Society which they wrongly regarded as a possible center of opposition. With the dissolution by force of law of the Council General, many French Conferences disappeared. Nevertheless, a certain amount of progress was shown elsewhere, chiefly in North and South America.

After 1870 the Council General, having fully resumed its activity, devoted itself to repairing the losses in France and to renewing the links with other countries. The fiftieth anniversary (1883) was solemnly celebrated.

On the eve of the World War, in 1913, the results achieved were manifested in the course of the jubilee celebrations which marked the centenary of the birth of Ozanam.

In spite of the breaking off of diplomatic relations between France and the Holy See, St. Pius X arranged to be represented in Paris by a Cardinal Legate. The statistics of that year, 1913, showed 8,000 Conferences, 133,000 members and that fifteen million francs had been distributed to the poor.

The War of 1914-1918 gave an opportunity to the Brothers of the St. Vincent de Paul Society to exercise their devotedness both to civilian casualties and to prisoners.

Amongst the latter, Conferences were started in certain German camps. But the mobilization dried up recruitment and economic difficulties diminished funds.

With the coming of peace, much ruin was evident, especially in the countries which had been the principal theatres of operations. In the endeavor to restore things, the Society made every effort to adapt its pro- gram and methods to the new social conditions and to penetrate into places where it was hitherto unknown.

China, Japan, the Malayan Archipelago, Indo-China, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and East Africa saw Conferences established or multiplied. The United States of America now counted as many Conferences as France itself.

The centenary celebrations in 1933 consummated this world-wide expansion, since no less than 33 nations were represented at them. His Eminence Cardinal Verdier, who presided in the capacity of Papal Legate, was greeted on this occasion by representatives of the public authorities.

In 1950, there were about 20,000 Conferences with an active member- ship of a quarter of a million. In September 1953, the Society solemnly commemorated the centenary of the death of Frederic Ozanam under the presidency of His Eminence Cardinal Feltin, Archbishop of Paris, Legate of the Holy Father, with the participation of delegates from all countries of the Christian world where the Society existed. These festive meetings have drawn closer the fraternal bonds existing between even the most distant countries and have strengthened the Society's approach to the mission undertaken by our principal founder.

Following the International meeting of the Society in Paris, 1960, the Council General embarked on an extension and development program throughout the world. The idea of adopting Conferences between Nations was initiated; this later led to self-help projects, assistance in times of National disaster, and, finally, Council to Council adoptions. This plan led to the International Congresses in Europe, South America and S.E. Asia in order to develop a closer liaison and knowledge of our Society between members in many countries. The International meeting of National Presidents in Paris, 1960 was followed by similar assembles in Paris (1963), Paris (1967), Dublin (1973), Paris (1979), Montreal (1986), and Paris (1992).

The Society is still expanding throughout the world and at the present time (1995), it is established in about 130 countries with about 875,000 members. In 1983, the Society celebrated its 150th anniversary with

celebrations world-wide. The Society has had for International Presidents General-. Joseph Emmanuel Bailly (1833-1844) and after him Jules Gossin (1844-1847); Adolphe Baudon (1847-1883); Antonin Pages (18&3-1902); Paul CaHon (1902-1913); Vicomte d'Hendecourt (1913-1924); Henri de Verges (1924-1943); Jacques Zeiller (1943-1954), Pierre Chouard (1955-1969); Henri Jacob (1969-1975); Joseph Rouast (1975-1981); Amin A. de Tarrazi (1981-1993); and Ceasar A. Nunes-Viana (1993-).

The Society in the United States

The first Conference in the United States was organized at the "Old" Cathedral (Church of St Louis of France) in St Louis, Missouri on November 20, 1845. Both clergy and laity had important roles in these beginnings. The Society's Rule was brought from Ireland by Rev. John Timon Oater to become the Bishop of Buffalo) who gave a copy to Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick. The rafter brought the idea to the attention of his assistant priest Rev. Ambrose Heim, affectionately known as the "Little Priest of the Poor." He catalyzed the early organization of the Society. Dr. Moses Linton, a prominent physician and convert to the faith, was elected president of the nascent group. Bryan Mullanphy, widely known for his wealth and philanthropies, served as vice president. Application for affiliation with the SVDP parent union followed quickly and the American unit was aggregated by the Council General on February 2, 1846.

Just as Vincentianism had spread throughout France with spontaneous enthusiasm, so also was the movement quickly and widely supported in the United States. Early foundations included New York 1847; Buffalo 1847; Milwaukee 1849; Philadelphia 1851; Pittsburgh 1852; Louisville 1853; Brooklyn 1855; St. Paul 1856; Chicago and Washington D.C. 1857; New Orleans 1858; Dubuque 1859; San Francisco 1860; Boston 1861; Baltimore 1864; Cleveland 1865; Cincinnati and Portland 1869; and San Antonio 1871. To New York belongs the distinction of having organized the first District Council in this country, in March, 1857.

Movement towards national unification proceeded slowly. After 1860, several major Vincentian centers developed, each reporting directly to the international headquarters. From time to time general assemblies were convened, the first of which took place in New York in 1864. In 1915 the seven major independent jurisdictions - New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn - agreed to form a single national body; and the Superior Council of the United States was officially instituted by Paris on June 7, 1915.

Formal inauguration ceremonies took place at the Catholic University of America on November 21, 1915. Thomas Mulry, "The American Ozanam," served as the Council's first president. He died the following year and was succeeded by George Gillespie, who held the post for many years and under whom the Society continued to experience notable growth.

Each U.S. National President has been associated with a particular phase of Vincentian organization or activity: Thomas Mulry (1915-16), ecumenical cooperation with others; George Gillespie (1916-1952), expansion of the Society; Borgia Butler (1952-1956), introduction of presidential tenure; George Heneghan (1956-1969), twinning arrangements with SVDP in Third World countries; T. Raber Taylor (1969-1975), introduction of women into the Society in the United States; Howard Halaska (1975-1981), Council Leadership development; John Simmons (1981-1987), reorganization of National Committee structure; John Coppinger (1987-1993), establishment of permanent national headquarters; and Joseph Mueller, elected in 1993, who focused on developing adherence to the Rule, strengthening the spiritual life of members of the Society, and encouraging the Society to be an advocate for those we serve.

The story of the Society in the United States constitutes a significant chapter in Catholic social action and awareness in the developments of the Catholic Charities movement. In the beginning, Vincentian efforts were largely at the parish level. These contacts, however, acquainted members with the broader needs and problems of struggling immigrant groups. Solicitude for the immigrant impelled Vincentians to investigate and try to change conditions in public life that were prejudicial to the faith of Catholics. The Society founded or helped to establish such institutions as the Catholic Protectory in New York, the Industrial School for Boys in Chicago, St. Vincent's Home for Boys in New Orleans. Vincentians established boys' clubs, libraries, and home-finding bureaus; they worked with juvenile officers to provide rehabilitation rather than punitive care for errant youngsters.

It is interesting to note that, just as the Society was the first to challenge public child care policies that were hostile to the rights of Catholic children, so also was the Society among the first to recognize the many genuine contributions of non-Catholic and secular organizations and to effect with such groups sound and cordial working relationships.

The late Msgr. John O'Grady, generally recognized as a significant Catholic Charities leader, credits the Society with being a prime originator and sustaining force in developing among Catholics a consciousness of national socio-religious problems and the need for a national response. Vincentians became in fact the backbone of the National Conference of Catholic Charities when it was first established in 1910. The two organizations have maintained strong ties throughout their separate but closely associated histories.

The Society continues to show modest and steady growth and remains an influence in more than one-fifth of the operating parishes in the United States. It is represented in every diocese.

Special emphasis on recruitment of youth and youth programs form the basis for the Society's capacity to serve in the future.

As Vincentians try to ease the burden of suffering they do so with a scrupulous devotion to the protection of the privacy and dignity of those they serve. At the same time the Society recognizes that it must assume a role of advocacy for those who are defenseless or unable to speak for themselves.

It is important that a growing number of individuals know of the Society's work and are moved to participate by sharing themselves and their means in furthering this cause.


(reprinted from United States Manual of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, 1995 pgs 7 - 14) 




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