In the midst of the political, social, religious, and economic turmoil of early 19th century France, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul originated. As a young student at the Sorbonne, Antoine Frédéric Ozanam was appalled by the conditions he saw in Paris. At a student meeting, another student challenged Ozanam and other practicing Catholics, admitting that while the Catholic Church had done much good work in the past, he could not see what good the Church was doing currently.
On April 23, 1833, his 20th birthday, Ozanam invited five other students to a meeting, where they founded the first Conference of Charity to assist the poor. This Catholic lay organization was intended to help members increase in holiness by loving service to those in need.
The six students chose Emmanuel Bailly, a married layman, as their first president. Shortly thereafter, they changed their name to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in honor of their patron saint.
In the United States
Just 12 years after its founding in France, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul established roots in the United States. On November 20, 1845, the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul was established in St. Louis, Missouri at the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, popularly called “The Old Cathedral.”
Several people were instrumental in the Society’s growth and development in the U.S., including Father John Timon, an American Vincentian priest from Pennsylvania who brought copies of the Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from Dublin, Ireland, to St. Louis. Timon spoke with various people about the Society’s work with the poor, including Bishop Peter Richard Kenrick. Kenrick asked Father Ambrose Heim, known for extraordinary zeal and ministry with the poor, to establish the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and be its spiritual advisor. Father Heim became known as “The Priest of the Poor.”
The Conference was formally recognized by the Society’s International Council in Paris on February 2, 1846, and would never have opened without the dedicated laypeople who accepted the initial invitation to become members and serve the poor.
With nearly 100,000 Vincentian volunteers serving their communities, today’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul works in 4,428 parish-based Conferences across the United States. Our founding activity, still practiced today, is the face-to-face Home Visit, in which Vincentians visit the homes of those they serve, to identify both immediate and longer-term needs, including emergency assistance with utilities, rent, food, and clothing.
St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)
Founder of the Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity, Confraternities of Charity, and Ladies of Charity. A man of deep faith, keen intellect, and enormous creativity, St. Vincent de Paul has become known as the “The Apostle of Charity” and “Father of the Poor.” His contributions to the training of priests and organizing parish missions and other services for the poor shaped the Church’s role in the modern world.
St. Louise de Marillac (1591 - 1660)
A contemporary of St. Vincent, St. Louise was inspired and directed by Vincent’s spiritual leadership. She collaborated with St. Vincent in founding the Daughters of Charity and organizing hospitals for the sick poor, asylums for the orphaned, workshops for the unemployed, championing literacy for the uneducated, and establishing standards for local charities. Louise was a wife, mother, teacher, nurse, social worker, and religious foundress.
Blessed Frédéric Ozanam (1813 - 1853)
Founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul., Frédéric was a husband and father, professor, and servant of the poor. He founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a young student with others of the Sorbonne in Paris. Frédéric’s writings on social justice anticipated the first social encyclical of our modern times, Rerum Novarum.
Blessed Rosalie Rendu, DC (1786 - 1856)
The most Blessed Rosalie Rendu was a Daughter of Charity who served for 54 years in the Mouffetard area (the most impoverished district of Paris). Emmanuel Bailly, the President of the Society, sent the founding members of the Society to Sister Rosalie for guidance and direction. Sending the founders on Home Visits, she formed them in the spirit of St. Vincent, teaching them how to serve the poor with respect and compassion.