In Your Midst

The Story of the St. Vincent de Paul Society

Fall 2001

In This Issue:
Once a month, parishioners at St. James contribute very generously to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to help the needy in our parish. But for many parishioners the contributions made as they exit the cathedral may be as much as they know about the Society and its work. There is much more to the story, and it starts with two very dedicated and courageous men, Vincent and Frederic.

Frederic Ozanam, a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833. The founding meeting took place on Frederic’s 20th birthday. Frederic chose St. Vincent de Paul as the model and patron of this first “conference” of students dedicated to visiting the poor in their homes.

A little over two centuries earlier, Vincent had arrived in Paris to begin his career and a rather comfortable life. Through a series of events over a number of years, Vincent’s spiritual journey overwhelmed his intended climb up the social ladder. His first major contribution to the betterment of others was an effort to attract true servants of the poor to the priesthood.

Vincent eventually founded the Congregation of the Mission, an order of priests who preached throughout France. Eventually the order spread around the world. He became spiritual director for a widowed noble woman, Louise deMarillac, with whom he organized the Ladies of Charity from which grew an order of religious sisters called the Daughters of Charity. These groups were joined by people touched by the suffering they encountered; by the lack of religious education among the poor; the needs of the ill, the orphans, the hungry, the prisoners, and all other outcasts of society.

Vincent died at the age of 80, having lived his vision that the Good News should be brought to the poor through serving their needs and addressing injustice. It is not surprising that this great man of charity would inspire Frederic and his companions some 200 years later as they sought to serve the poor and outcasts of their own day. These young men were motivated by a desire to put their faith into action as a way of responding to the very vocal atheists at the university who were issuing strong challenges to believers.

With the guidance of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity working with the poor of Paris, they went to the poorest neighborhoods, visiting people in their homes and bringing their love and concern along with food and whatever else was needed. Students, professors and others in the community sought to join the group, which soon had to be divided into smaller, more manageable conferences. The Society quickly spread throughout France, then to the rest of Europe and the whole world.

The U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul celebrated 150 years in 1995 in St. Louis, with over 4,000 conferences and more than 60,000 members. Although the numbers are impressive — millions of people served, millions of dollars spent, tens of thousands of volunteer hours given to the needy — the main motivation for members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (or “Vincentians”, as they are known) is to grow spiritually by being servants of the poor and sharing spiritual insights with each other.

In addition to the most fundamental practice of visiting the poor in their homes, Vincentians also visit people in prisons, hospitals, and nursing homes. In many communities, Vincentians prepare and serve meals in dining halls; provide showers, haircuts, clean clothes, and counseling to the homeless; assist those just passing through to complete their journey; provide medical equipment and medicines, furniture, and clothing at no charge; and a myriad of other services. “No work of charity is foreign to the Society.”

In addition to these forms of local assistance, many conferences with resources “twin” with other, poorer conferences, sharing money, goods, manpower, and prayers. These needy conferences may be in the same city or in another country. The national office distributes funds and aid to disaster areas around the world.

The true value and meaning of Vincentianism is found in the personal witness of God’s love for all people, especially the poor. Frederic and Vincent continue to inspire members and to attract others to this life of love for all people. You join Frederic and Vincent in their love for the poor every month with your contributions to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. You can also join in their work by becoming a Vincentian. For more information on how to become a member of the St. James Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, please e-mail Matt Zemek at

Matt Zemek is a St. James Cathedral parishioner and a member of the St. James Conference of St. Vincent de Paul.

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