Our Organization's History

The History of the St. Vincent de Paul Society

God gave me the grace to be born in the Faith.

Later the confusion of an unbelieving world

surrounded me. I knew all the horror of the doubts

that torment the soul. It was then that the instructions

of a priest and philosopher (Abbé Noirot) saved me. I believed

thenceforth with an assured faith, and touched by so rare a goodness. I promised

God to devote my life to the services of the truth which had given me peace. Frederic Ozanam

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a worldwide Catholic lay organization celebrating 170 years of service. Currently, there are one million members operating in 130 countries. 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. 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, 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.

First Meeting of First Conference

Our founders were very far from foreseeing that their first meeting, in the offices of the newspaper, 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 exclusivelyreligious, 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.

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 something 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.

Twenty-seven years after It’s foundation, the Society throughout the world comprised about 2,500 Conferences embracing 50,000 members. 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, and many French Conferences disappeared. On the eve of the World War, in 1913, jubilee celebrations were held to mark the centenary of the birth of Ozanam. The statistics of that year showed 8,000 Conferences and 133,000 members. The War of 1914-1918 gave an opportunity to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to exercise their devotedness both to civilian casualties and to prisoners. 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 program 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. In 1950, there were about 20,000 Conferences with an active membership of a quarter of a million. In September 1953, the Society solemnly commemorated the centenary of the death of Frederic Ozanam. 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.

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, later to become the Bishop of Buffalo, who gave a copy to Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick who, in turn, 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.

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.

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. 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.

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