The Society of St. Vincent de Paul began in Paris, France, in 1833 when a young law student at the Sorbonne, Frédéric Ozanam, was challenged during a debate to demonstrate what he and his fellow Catholic students were personally doing to help the poor in Paris.
Ozanam’s reaction was immediate. Within weeks, Ozanam, at 20 years of age, and six of his peers formed the first “Conference of Charity.” Under the conference, this group of seven men financed their works of charity out of their own pockets and from contributions of friends. They visited the poor in their homes, providing them with needed aid and assistance. At the prompting of Monsieur Emmanuel Bailly and Sister Rosalie Rendu, superior of a convent of the Daughters of Charity, Ozanam soon placed the conference under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul who had spent his life in 16th century France serving the poor.
Within a few years, the original group of seven grew to 600, spreading to 15 other cities and towns in France, numbering more than 2,000 members.
Twelve years later, in 1845, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul crossed the ocean to St. Louis, Missouri, where the first American conference was formed. To this day, St. Louis remains the Society’s national headquarters.
Respected by the powerful and loved by the poor, Vincent bridged social classes through his works of charity and his advocacy for the disenfranchised. In collaboration with St. Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), Vincent founded the Daughters of Charity. Together they organized hospitals for the sick poor, founded asylums for the orphaned, opened workshops for the unemployed, championed literacy for the uneducated, advocated for the incarcerated, and established local charities.
Vincent also reformed the education and formation of the clergy throughout France where his community of priests and brothers, commonly known as Vincentians, undertook the spiritual care of the poor, particularly those in rural areas.