Frederic Ozanam from an 1862 edition of his writings. (Wikimedia Commons)
Frederic Ozanam from an 1862 edition of his writings. (Wikimedia Commons)
At age 15, Frederic Ozanam seriously doubted his faith and considered leaving the Catholic Church. But when the founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society died a quarter-century later, he would be remembered as an apostle of charity who devoted his life to those in need.

Ozanam was born in French-occupied Milan April 23, 1813, the fifth of 14 children; he was one of just four who survived infancy. Two years later, the Ozanams returned to their home in Lyons, France.

Early on, Ozanam witnessed his parents’ Christ-like commitment to serve the needy. His father worked at the city hospital but also would administer medical care to people inhabiting the slums around the local parish. His mother constantly helped those in need, providing care and comfort to the poor and sick. This motivated Ozanam to dedicate his life to doing the same.

Ozanam struggled with his faith as a teen, but the friendship and counsel of his Dominican professor, Abbe Noirot, revived his fervor for faith and a desire to minister to God’s people.

A talented writer, Ozanam studied law at the College of Sorbonne and began a discussion group with his peers, welcoming people regardless of religious affiliation. It was at a meeting of this group in the 1830s that someone challenged him. “I know the church can do much good for society,” the visitor reportedly said. “But what do you do now?”

Spurred by the question, Ozanam and his friends formed a “Conference of Charity,” dedicating themselves to serving the poor. This would become the St. Vincent de Paul Society. In 1834, the society began welcoming others into their conference, and it grew to 100 members. More conferences formed as members graduated and moved to other parts of France.

After graduating with a law degree in 1836, Ozanam became a professor and married Amelie Soulacroix in 1841. The couple welcomed a daughter in 1845. However, Ozanam was ill and suffered a breakdown in 1847, forcing him to spend several months of rest in Italy.

That August, Ozanam returned to a France fraught with political tensions that culminated with the 1848 revolution overthrowing King Louis-Philippe. Ozanam began fighting for workers’ rights and launched a newspaper advocating for a Christian democracy founded on principles of justice and charity.

With unemployment affecting as many as 275,000 Frenchmen, Ozanam and the society aided the French government in helping the needy. As Columbia University professor Parker Thomas Moon noted in 1921, Ozanam “perceived the opportunity for the Catholic Church to become the protectress of the common people in both economic and political life.”

In 1849, Ozanam and 112 society members cared tirelessly for 2,000 people affected by a bout of cholera sweeping through Paris.

Ever sickly, Ozanam died in 1853 at age of 40. At his funeral, his close friend, Dominican Father Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, said Ozanam wa “one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God in whom God joins tenderness to genius in order to enkindle the world.” In 1997, Pope John Paul II beatified Ozanam, lauding him as an “apostle of charity and grand figure of the Catholic laity.”

“Frederic Ozanam believed in love, the love of God for every individual,” said the pontiff, who was himself a member of the society as a student. “He understood that charity must lead to efforts to remedy injustice. … He found his road to sanctity. And he followed it with determination.”