Frédéric Ozanam

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Frédéric Antoine Ozanam

Blessed Frédéric Antoine Ozanam
Birth 23 April, 1813
Death 8 September, 1853
Birthplace Milan, Italy
Beatified 22 August, 1997
Memorial 9 September


Frédéric Antoine Ozanam (April 23, 1813 - September 8, 1853) founded with fellow students the Conference of Charity, later known as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Important dates

  • 1813 - Birth of Frederic in Milan, April 23, to Jean-Antoine and Marie Ozanam.
  • 1815 - Move of Ozanam Family to Lyons.
  • 1829 - Experiences a "crisis of doubt" about his faith.
  • 1831 - Enters Sorbonne in Paris to study law.
  • 1833 - Establishes the Conference of Charity with other Sorbonne students.
  • 1834 - Leads petition to Archbishop for relevant sermons.
  • 1835 - Conference officially becomes Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
  • 1836 - Awarded Doctor of Laws degree.
  • 1837 - Publishes THE ORIGINS OF FRENCH LAW; death of Frederic's father.
  • 1839 - Awarded Doctorate in Literature.
  • 1840 - Named Professor of Commercial Laws at Lyons; death of Frederic's mother.
  • 1841 - Marriage to Amelie Soulacroix of Lyons.
  • 1842 - Represents Church in negotiations with the government.
  • 1844 - Assumes Chair of Foreign Literature at Sorbonne.
  • 1845 - Birth of daughter Marie. Society is recognized by Pope Gregory XVI.
  • 1847 - Publication of GERMAN STUDIES I.
  • 1848 - Cofounder of JOURNAL L´ERE NOUVELLE.
  • 1849 - Publication of GERMAN STUDIES II.
  • 1852 - Mediates in student riots at Sorbonne.
  • 1853 - Death in Marseilles of kidney ailment, September 8.
  • 1855 - Posthumous publication of CIVILIZATION IN THE FIFTH CENTURY.
  • 1989 - Society of St. Vincent de Paul established at St. John's University, NYC.
  • 1997 - Declaration of Frederic as "Blessed Frederic" on August 22 in Paris.

Frederic Ozanam was born on April 23, 1813 in Milan, Italy. He was the fifth child of fourteen born to Jean-Antoine- Francoise and Marie Nantas Ozanam, ardent French Catholics of middle-class circumstances. His father had served with distinction as an officer under Napoleon, retiring early to become a tutor and later to practice medicine. When the city of Milan fell to the Austrians in 1815, the Ozanams returned to their native city of Lyons in France where Frederic spent his early years.

At seven he suffered the loss of his sister, Elise, which came as a great grief to him because they had grown close as she patiently helped him with his early lessons. Frederic became a day student at the Royal College of Lyons where he quickly showed an aptitude for and an interest in literature and where he would later become editor of a college journal, The Bee.

In a letter written when he was sixteen we have something of an autobiographical account of these early years:

...They say 1 was very gentle and docile as a child, and they attribute this to my feeble health; but 1 account for it in another way. 1 had a sister, such a beloved sister! who used to take turns with my mother to teach me, and whose lessons were so sweet, so well-explained, so admirably suited to my childish comprehension as to be a real delight to me. All things considered, 1 was pretty good at this stage of my life, and, with the exception of some trifling peccadilloes, 1 have not much to reproach myself with.

At seven years old I had a serious illness, which brought me so near death that everybody said I was saved by a miracle,. not that I wanted kind care, my dear father and mother hardly left my bedside for fifteen days and nights. I was on the point of expiring when suddenly I asked for some beer. I had always disliked beer but it saved me. I recovered, and six months later, my sister, my darling sister, died. Oh! what a grief that was. Then I began to learn Latin, and to be naughty; really and truly I believe I never was so wicked as at eight years old. And yet I was being educated by a kind father and a kind mother and an excellent brother; I loved them dearly, and at this period I had no friends outside my family,. yet I was obstinate, passionate, disobedient. I was punished, and I rebelled against it. I used to write letters to my mother complaining of my punishments. I was lazy to the last degree, and used to plan all sorts of naughtiness in my mind. This is a true portrait of me as I was first going to school at nine and a half years old. By degrees I improved; emulation cured my laziness. I was very fond of my master; I had some little successes, which encouraged me. I studied with ardor, and at the same time I began to feel some emotions of pride. I must also confess that I exchanged a great number of blows with my companions. But I changed very much for the better when I entered the fifth class. I fell ill, and was obliged to go for a month to the country, to the house of a very kind lady, where I acquired some degree of polish, which I lost in great part soon after.

I grew rather idle in the fourth class, but I pulled up again in the third. It was then that I made my first Communion. O glad and blessed day! may my right hand wither and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I ever forget thee!

I had changed a good deal by this time; I had become modest, gentle, and docile, more industrious and unhappily rather scrupulous. I still continued proud and impatient. 12

At sixteen the young Ozanam started his course in philosophy and became greatly disturbed by doubts of faith for about a year. However, he was able to survive the ordeal with the help of a wise teacher and guide, Abbe Noirot, who was to exercise a strong influence on Frederic throughout his life. In the midst of this crisis, he made a promise that if he could see the truth, then he would devote his entire life to its defense. Subsequently he emerged from the crisis with a consolidation of the intellectual bases for his faith, a life commitment to the defense of Truth and a deep sense of compassion for unbelievers.

Despite a leaning toward literature and history, Frederic's father decided on a law career for him and apprenticed him to a local attorney, M. Coulet. But, in his spare time, the young man pursued the study of language and managed to contribute historical and philosophical articles to the college journal.

In the Spring of 1831 Ozanam published his first work of any length, "Reflections on the Doctrine of Saint-Simon," which was a defense against some false social teaching that was capturing the fancy of young people at the time. His efforts were rewarded with favorable notice from some of the leading social thinkers of the day including Lamartine, Chateaubriand and Jean-Jacques Ampere.

Ozanam also found time outside of work to help organize and write for the Propagation of the Faith which had begun in this same city of Lyons.

In Autumn of the same year, Frederic was sent to the University of Paris to study law. :At first he suffered a great deal from homesickness and unsuitable company in boarding house surroundings. But after moving in with the family of the renowned Andre-Marie Ampere where he stayed for two years, he had not only the nourishment of a very Christian and intellectual milieu, but also the opportunity to meet some of the bright lights of the Catholic Revival like Chateaubriand, Montalembert, Lacordaire and Ballanche.

It was at this time that Frederic's attraction to history took on the dimensions of a life's task as apologist, to write a literary history of the Middle Ages from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries with a focus on the role of Christianity in guiding the progress of civilization. His aim was to help restore Catholicism to France where materialism and rationalism, irreligion and anti-clericalism prevailed. He made plans for the extensive studies he would need to equip him for this vocation.

It was not long before Ozanam found the climate of the University hostile to Christian belief. So he seized the opportunity to find kindred spirits among the students to join in defending the faith with notable success. Among these was one who was to become his best friend, Francoise Lallier .

Under the sponsorship of an older ex-professor, J. Emmanuel Bailly, these young men revived a discussion group called a "Society of Good Studies" and formed it into a "Conference of History" which quickly became a forum for large and lively discussions among students. Their attentions turned frequently to the social teachings of the Gospel.

At one meeting during a heated debate in which Ozanam and his friends were trying to prove from historical evidence alone the truth of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, their adversaries declared that, though at one time the Church was a source of good, it no longer was. One voice issued the challenge, "What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!" In response, one of Ozanam's companions, Auguste de Letaillandier, suggested some effort in favor of the poor. "Yes," Ozanam agreed, "let us go to the poor!"

After this, the "Conference of History" became the "Conference of Charity" which eventually was named the "Conference of St. Vincent de Paul." Now, instead of engaging in mere discussion and debate, seven of the group (M. Bailly, Frederic Ozanam, Francois Lallier, Paul Lamanche, Felix Clave, Auguste Letaillandier and Jules De Vaux) met on a May evening in 1833 for the first time and determined to engage in practical works of charity. This little band was to expand rapidly over France and around the world even during the lifetime of Ozanam.

In the meantime, Frederic continued his law studies, but kept his interest in literary and historical matters. He was also able to initiate other ventures like the famed "Conferences of Notre Dame" which provided thousands with the inspired and enlightening sermons of Pere Lacordaire. This was another expression of Ozanam's life-commitment to work for the promotion of the Truth of the Church.

In 1834, after passing his bar examination, Frederic turned to Lyons for the holidays and then went to Italy where he was to gain his first appreciation of medieval art. After this, he returned to Paris to continue studying for his doctorate in Law. When he finished, he took up a practice of law in Lyons, but with little satisfaction. His attention turned more and more to literature. When his father died in 1837, he found himself the sole support of his mother which kept him in the field of law to make a living.

In 1839, after finishing a brilliant thesis on Dante which revolutionized critical work on the poet, the Sorbonne awarded him a doctorate in literature. In the same year he was given a chair of Commercial Law at Lyons where his lectures received wide acclaim and where, after an offer to assume a chair of Philosophy at Orleans, he was asked to lecture also on Foreign Literature at Lyons which enabled him to support his mother. She died early in 1840, leaving him quite unsettled about his future. At the time, Lacordaire was on his way to Rome to join the Dominicans with the hope of returning to France to restore religious life. For a while, Ozanam entertained the idea of joining him, but again under the guidance of Abbe Noirot and with the consideration of his commitment to the constantly expanding work of the Conference of Charity which were multiplying around France, he decided against pursuing a life of celibacy and the cloister.

In the same year (1840), to qualify for the Chair of Foreign Literature at Lyons, Ozanam had to take a competitive examination which demanded six months of grueling preparation. He took first place easily with the result that he was offered an assistantship to a professor of Foreign Literature at the prestigious Sorbonne, M. Fauriel. When Fauriel died three years later, Ozanam replaced him with the rank of full professor, no mean accomplishment for a man of his early years. This established him in the midst of the intellectual world of Paris. He now began a course of lectures on German Literature in the Middle Ages. To prepare, he went on a short tour of Germany. His lectures proved highly successful despite the fact that, contrary to his predecessors and most colleagues in the anti-Christian climate of the Sorbonne, he attached fundamental importance to Christianity as the primary factor in the growth of European civilization.

After years of hesitation concerning marriage, Frederic was introduced by his old friend and guide, Abbe Noirot, to Amelie Soulacroix, the daughter of the rector of the Lyons Academy. They married on June 23,1844, and spent an extended honeymoon in Italy during which he continued his research. After four years of happy marriage, an only daughter, Marie, was born to the delighted Ozanams.

All during this time, Ozanam, who had never enjoyed robust health, found his work-load increasing between the teaching, writing and work with the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. In 1846 he was named to the Legion of Honor. But at this time his health broke down and ,he was forced to take a year's rest in Italy where he continued his research.

When the Revolution of 1848 broke out, Ozanam served briefly and reluctantly in the National Guard. Later he made a belated and unsuccessful bid for election to the National Assembly at the insistence of friends. This was followed by a short and stormy effort at publishing a liberal Catholic journal called The New Era which was aimed at securing justice for the poor and working classes. This evoked the ire of conservative Catholics and the consternation of some of Ozanam's friends for seeming to side with the Church's enemies. In its pages he advocated that Catholics play their part in the evolution of a democratic state.

At this time, too, he wrote another of his important works, The Italian Franciscan Poets of the Thirteenth Century, which reflected his admiration for Franciscan ideals.

During the academic year 1851/52, Ozanam barely managed to get through his teaching responsibilities as a complete breakdown of his health was in progress. The doctors ordered him to surrender his teaching duties at the Sorbonne and he again went with his family to Southern Europe for rest. It did not deter him, however, from continuing to promote the work of the Conferences.

In the Spring of 1853, the Ozanams moved to a seaside cottage at Leghorn, Italy, on the Mediterranean, where Frederic spent his last days peacefully. Though not fearing death, he ex- pressed the wish to die on French soil, so his brothers came to assist him and his family to Marseilles where Frederic died on September 8, 1853.

He has been revered since as an exemplar of the lay apostle in family, social and intellectual life. The work he began with the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul has continued to flourish. At his death, the membership numbered about 15,000. Today (in 1979) it numbers 750,000, serving the poor in 112 countries, a living monument to Frederic Ozanam and his companions.

The first formal step for his beatification was taken in Paris on June 10, 1925. On January 12, 1954, Pope Pius XII signed the decree of the introduction of the cause. He now (in 1979) enjoys the official title, "Servant of God."

From A Layman for Now (Reproduced with permission of the author, Shaun McCarty)

Cultural Context

...the environment in which Frederic Ozanam sought to realize the Christian ideal was much like our contemporary culture. [t was a world full of violence and turmoil -secular, unstable, crisis-ridden. [t was a world of uncertainty and fear 3

Thus writes an American biographer of Ozanam in the mid-1960's.

From the time of the fourth century when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, French Catholics, like most Western Christians, assumed that their culture was Christian. It took the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of the eighteenth century to bring to a boil the secular trends that were simmering beneath the surface of the culture.

The French Revolution had left in its wake the uprooting of old beliefs and traditions as well as the destruction of old institutions. With the coming of Napoleon, the country was almost without religion. (To this day, ancient churches like the Cathedral at Chartres bear the scars of vicious destruction and profanation.) Reason was literally enthroned as goddess in the Pantheon, once a sacred shrine to St. Genevieve, one of France's great patronesses of the poor whose relics were desecrated at the time of the Revolution. Atheism and freethinking had become vogue. Religious instruction was absent outside the home. Religious orders had been banished, the faithful clergy scattered. The philosophers declared the "death of Christianity." In 1797 Napoleon himself named religion as "one of those prejudices which French people had yet to eradicate." 4

Yet a Concordat was signed in 1801 which pleased no one, but provided at least some room for a reconstruction of a new order on the ruins of the old.

Understandably, the Church had grown very defensive about the encroachments made upon its claims. In Ozanam's time, Catholics were divided as to what stand to take. 'there was a widespread rejection not just of the excesses of the Revolution, but also of its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Conservative Catholics grimly favored retrenchment. Liberal Catholics sought reconciliation and, though rejecting the anti-Catholic dimensions of secular liberalism, saw the acceptance of those ideals of the Revolution and the meeting of legitimate demands of the oppressed as vital to the reconciliation of the Church and modern society.

The basic issue between conservative and liberal Catholics was not a political one, but rather one of defending what the attitude to be taken by the Church toward modernity. On the one hand, should there be a withdrawal from or reconciliation with it? An unyielding defense against it or a search for new applications of Christian principles? To regard change with pessimism and resist it or to look with optimism and hope at the possibilities of development?

We will see that Ozanam made a clear and consistent choice in the liberal direction of bringing the Church to a more positive view of the modern world. This put him out of step with the prevailing conservative mood of French Catholics. But it would anticipate the more universally Catholic view that would surface in the social encyclicals and more recent pronouncements like those of Vatican II.

There was also a strong anti-clerical ( or perhaps anti-Church is a more accurate term) spirit in many quarters. Certain features of it are worth noting.

First, not all enemies of the Church were enemies of religion. Anti-clericalism was due primarily to the political involvement of Church and State.

It was originally a protest against the political pretensions of the Church. In 1798 and again in 1848 the Church cooperated in revolutions which destroyed privilege, but on both occasions it quickly abandoned the popular cause and emerged on the winning, reactionary side. It was rewarded with a reinforcement of its position. 5

Socialism and Christianity had grown close in France by 1848.

...but the Church was too deeply instilled with the medieval idea that. ..the government of lay and spiritual matters was inextricable and that the state should lend its authority to the Church to ensure that religious principles were obeyed. 6

It is further noted...

For a whole century, Catholicism and democracy seemed incompatible. ..Politics thus made the people increasingly reject religion -or in occasional reactions, adopt it -for reasons which were not inherently religious. 7

Second, anti-clericalism was strongest in areas where the monastic orders had large land holdings under the ancien regime where the presence of the Church had been felt most strongly and especially where the Jansenists had been most deeply entrenched.

This was somewhat of a paradox as one historian has noted:

Jansenism ...was also a source of individualism and of a certain kind of egalitarianism -but its moral rigorism undoubtedly had the effect of turning people away from the Church. It set up traditions of anti- clericalism and it was by no means a mere memory in the nineteenth century.

Finally, anti-clericalism to a certain extent was France's alternative to Protestantism elsewhere, but which had been largely stamped out in France by the combined efforts of Church and monarchy. Thus. .."It was no accident that Protestants took a leading part in the anti-clerical movement. ..and its revenge was therefore twofold." 9

A word must be said about the socio-economic scene. The France of Ozanam's time was marked by increasing numbers of poor people and inadequate measures of assistance for them. The Napoleonic system left public charities to the discretion of each of the nation's communes most of which had very limited re- sources. Cities like Paris had a disproportionate number of very poor people. In 1829, one in twelve were classified as "indigent." By 1856, the figure had declined one in sixteen. 10 Thus there was enormous need and scope for charitable efforts at the time.

An economic survey of the time summed up the plight of the urban poor in this way:

When work is continual, the salary average, (and) the price of bread moderate, a family could live with a sort of ease and even make some savings if there are no children. If there is one, it is difficult; impossible if there are two or three. Then it can survive only with the assistance of the government or some private charity. 11

In addition to the more obvious problems of the poor - wages, living conditions, lack of necessities of life -a new, industrial, mass society was being born. And its violent birth was met with fear and resistance by the upper-classes.

It was not merely a matter of low wages and long work hours. Living conditions, especially in the rapidly growing cities were dreadful. Violence, disease and immorality were rampant.

Furthermore, the plight of the poor was worsened by the greed and indifference of the upper-classes. The power of the State only strengthened the position of the wealthy. The whole spirit of society was hostile to the poor.

In the midst of this exploitation of the wealthy, indifference of the State and alliance between Church and State, it is little wonder that the workers responded with hatred and violence. And it became imperative for Christians like Ozanam to speak and to act so that the Church could be a Church incarnating Jesus in a modern world.

From Shaum McCarty

His Works

Material to be added

His spirituality

Material to be added

Model for Today

An Appreciation by Amin A. De Tarrazi former International President of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul


Bibliography from - "A Layman for Now" by Shaun McCarty
Reproduced with permission of the author, Shaun McCarty

Auge, T. E., Frederic Ozanam and His World, Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966.

Baunard, L., Ozanam in His Correspondence, by the Right Reverend Monsignor Baunard. Trans. by a member of the Council of Ireland of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1925.

__________, Ozanam in His Correspondence, trans, by a member of the Council of Ireland of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Dublin: Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, 1925. _

________, Ozanam in His Correspondence, trans. by a member of the Council of Ireland of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Australia: National Council, 1925. Br

dy, T. A., Frederic Ozanam Speaks To Us, St. Louis: Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Brodrick, J., Frederic Ozanam and His Society, London: Burns, Oats & Washbourne, Ltd., 1933.

Camus, L. Y ., Pionnier de son epoque, precurseur de la notre: Frederic Ozanam, 1813-1853; Paris: 1953.

Cassidy, J R., Frederic Ozanam: A Study in Sanctity and Scholar- ship, Dublin: Talbot Press Ltd., 1943.

Celier, L., Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853) Preface de Robert d'Harcourt de l'Academie Francaise, Paris: P. Lethielleux, 1956.

Celier, L., Federico Ozanam 1813-1853. Pref. de Robert d'Harcourt, Rome: Edizioni 5 lune, 1958.

Chauveau, P., Frederic Ozanam, sa vie et ses oeuvres, Avec une introduction par M. Chauveau, membre de la Societe royale du Canada, Montreal: Beauchemin & Fils, 1887.

Coates, A., trans. Letters of Frederic Ozanam, New York: Benziger, 1886.

Deflandre, M., Frederic Ozanam: son oeuvre, son temps, Bruxelles: Editions LaLecture au Foyer, 1953.

Delany, S., Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853) (In his Married saints). New York: 1935, p. 269-290.

Derum, J., Apostle In A Top Hat, New York: All Saints Press, 1962, c1960.

__________, Apostle In A Top Hat; The Life Of Frederic Ozanam. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1960.

Drury, T., Ozanam and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Webster Groves, Mo.: Kenrick papers, v. 1., no.1 (1933), p. 60-68.

Drzazgowska, M. B., Sr., Frederic Ozanam as a Historian; A Critical Study. St. Louis: Thesis St. Louis University, 1954.

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Recent works

Sister M. Teresa Candelas, D.C. Biography of Frederic Ozanam (Translated from the Spanish)

External Links

Frédéric Antoine Ozanam Wikipedia article - Excellent background on his scholarly activities.

Frederic Ozanam - Life, Times, Words a brief introduction at The Vincentian Center Web site, St John's University

Ozanam Feast Day Mass - pdf format from the Canadian SVDP site, Litany, Prayers and readings for the mass for Frédéric Ozanam's feast day.