St. Vincent de Paul, Society of
ST. VINCENT DE PAUL, SOCIETY OF
An international association of Catholic laity devoted to the service of the poor; the first conference was formed in Paris in 1833 by Antoine Frédéric Ozanam and his associates.
Origins. At the initial meeting, over which Vincent bailly presided as first president and which Sorbonne students Ozanam, Felix Clare, François Lallier, Paul Lamache, Auguste Le Taillandier, and Jules Devaux attended as charter members, the name Conference of Charity was adopted and the principal objective stated as the sanctification of members and of society through good works. By 1834 there were more than 100 members of the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul, as the organization was retitled. July 19 was chosen as the society's principal feast, and at Ozanam's suggestion, the conference was placed under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and the feast of the Immaculate Conception was chosen as the day to pay her special honor. A rule, based on the writings of St. vincent de paul, was ratified at the general meeting held on Dec. 8, 1835. It was published ten years later and, with revisions, has continued to be used.
Growth. During the first five years the membership increased to more than 2,000 in 15 centers throughout France, of which the one at Nîmes was the first established
outside Paris. Although the society was still composed primarily of students, by 1838 Ozanam counted among the participants "a peer of France, a chancellor of state, several generals, and distinguished writers." In 1845 the Vincentians had increased to 9,000. Moreover, the society spread to other countries: Italy (1842); Belgium, Scotland, and Ireland (1843); England (1844); Germany, Holland, Greece, and Turkey (1846); Switzerland (1847); and Austria and Spain (1850). Shortly after Ozanam's death in 1853, the president general of the society reported to Pius IX that more than 1,532 conferences had been established throughout Europe, Africa, Asia Minor, and North America. By 1855 more than 2,900 conferences existed, including 1,360 in France and its colonies, 14 in Austria, 208 in the German states, four in Luxembourg, 374 in Belgium, 229 in Spain, 137 in Great Britain and Ireland, 374 in Italy, 105 in the Netherlands, 31 in Switzerland, and one each in Denmark, Turkey, and Greece. There were three in Asia outside Turkey, 17 in Africa, and 72 in the Americas. By 1860 worldwide membership exceeded 50,000.
The 1860s were difficult for the society in France and Spain. In October 1861 the French government suppressed the central and provincial councils of the society; there followed nine years of struggle between the government and the society during which a centralized authority and international unity survived only by delegating the powers of the president general to the superior councils of Brussels (Belgium), Cologne (Germany), and The Hague (Netherlands). Eventually the original position of a council general was restored, but by then France had lost almost half its conferences. Moreover, from 1870 on the society's growth was very slight. The 1913 report recorded 8,000 conferences with 133,000 members, and an annual expenditure of 15 million francs for the alleviation of human distress. Although World War I affected recruitment, a notable experiment was the formation of conferences in prisoner of war camps. At the society's centennial in 1933, the number of conferences had risen to 13,000, with an active membership exceeding 200,000. Organizations developed in China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indochina, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and East Africa.
Lay Character. The conferences began and developed as lay organizations, and the approbation of ecclesiastical authority was not sought, nor were conferences erected by act of ecclesiastical superiors. In 1845 Gregory XVI formally approved the lay character of the society. Other pontiffs, including Pius IX, also desired that the society retain its character as a lay or nonecclesiastical society.
In the period of rapid growth between 1845 and 1850, opposition to the authority of the council general revealed itself both within the society and in its relationships with ecclesiastical authority. Prevention of schism and dissolution became the concern of Adolphe Baudon, the third president general of the society. Although no historical precedent existed for the appointment of a cardinal protector to a lay organization, Baudon's petition led Pius IX to name Cardinal Nicolò Fornari for the post, and each succeeding pope has followed this practice. A decree of Nov. 13, 1920, further clarified the legal status of the society as an association that does not take its existence from the Church and "so neither is it governed and ruled by the ecclesiastical authority, but by the laity designated in its own statutes." However, the society itself has interpreted the term "lay" to connote faithfulness rather than independence, and new conferences are formed and work undertaken only with ecclesiastical approval. Moreover, conferences and councils are presided over by the ordinary and parish priests as honorary presidents and members, and cordial relations with the Holy See and the local hierarchy and clergy are manifested in various ways.
Structure and Activities. Catholic women and men who desire to unite in prayer and perform works of charity are eligible for active membership and participate personally in the charitable works and regular life of the society. Corresponding members, former active members residing where no conference exists, continue membership by performing as far as possible the usual Vincentian conference practices. Honorary members ordinarily do not participate in active work or weekly meetings of the conference but do attend general religious festivals and meetings, and contribute a fixed yearly sum for the support of conference works. In addition to members, the rule enumerates subscribers, persons of either sex including non-Catholics, who are benefactors of the society. Although the first article of the Vincentian statutes refers to Catholic young men as members, the emphasis on youth is not interpreted literally.
The conference, the basic unit of Vincentian organization, is nearly always associated with the parish, from which it derives its name. Conferences obtain their official status in the society by aggregation, which entails approbation by the council general, following a probationary period. Each conference enjoys autonomy in functioning, provided it adheres to the general rule of the society. The parish conference, with its weekly meeting and visitation of families under care, holds the most honored place within the society. It is in immediate relationship with members who serve the poor and the poor who are served by them. As in Ozanam's time, under the leadership of the president or spiritual director, the meeting opens with prescribed Vincentian prayers and spiritual reading. Then follow the reports of conference visitors on family care, discussion of works of charity to be undertaken, an accounting of conference funds, and the secret collection from the participating members to sustain charitable activities. The rule prescribes also the celebration of the quarterly feasts of the organization and other meetings associated with them.
Purpose. The fundamental work of the society is the visitation of the poor in their own homes. Other activities of councils and conferences include hospital and institutional visitation on a regular basis, ministry to immigrants and refugees, social outreach to the homeless, summer camps for needy children, guidance programs for young men, work with delinquent youth, visitation of prisoners and work with probationers, maintenance of hospices, operation of Catholic centers for seamen, employment services, providing of clothing and furniture for needy families, operation of thrift stores, and catechetical instruction for children and adults
Development in the U.S. On Nov. 20, 1845, the first conference in the U.S. was organized at the old cathedral parish in St. Louis, Mo., after the Vincentian John timon had interested Bp. Peter Kenrick in the project. With Rev. Ambrose Heim, assistant priest at the cathedral, as spiritual guide, Dr. Moses L. Linton as president and Judge Bryan Mullanphy, vice president, the Cathedral Conference was formally aggregated by action of the council general, Feb. 2, 1846. Thereafter the society established itself in New York City, 1847; Buffalo, N.Y., 1847; Milwaukee, Wis., 1849; Philadelphia, Pa., 1851; Pittsburgh, Pa., 1852; Louisville, Ky., 1853; Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855; St. Paul, Minn., 1856; Chicago, Ill., and Washington, D.C., 1857; New Orleans, La., 1858; Dubuque, Iowa, 1859; San Francisco, Calif., 1860; Boston, Mass., 1861; Baltimore, Md., 1864; Cincinnati, Ohio, and Portland, Ore., 1869; and San Antonio, Tex., 1871. The Particular Council of New York was instituted in March 1857 and the Superior Council of New York in February 1860. By 1915 there were seven major independent jurisdictions in the U.S.: the Superior Councils of New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago; the Metropolitan Central Councils of Boston and Philadelphia, and the Particular Council of Brooklyn. The first general assembly of the society in the U.S. was held in New York City in 1864; the first printed report of the Superior Council of New York was published the same year. The value of national unity was periodically discussed and on June 7, 1915, the Council General in Paris instituted the Superior Council of the U.S. The first national president, Thomas M. mulry, known as the American Ozanam, was inaugurated at formal ceremonies held at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21, 1915.
The society's early years in the U.S. were limited to relief efforts on the parish level. After 1860 a larger program included religious instruction to Catholic children in almshouses and in parishes. Solicitude for the immigrant impelled Vincentians to investigate and to change conditions in public life and institutions prejudicial to the faith of Catholics. The society founded or helped to establish the Catholic Protectory in New York City, the Industrial School for Boys in Chicago, St. Vincent's Home for Destitute Boys in New Orleans, and St. Vincent's Lodging House for Boys, which became the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin at Mount Loretto in New York. Foster home programs under Catholic auspices were pioneered by Vincentians. They established Catholic boys' clubs, libraries, recreational and cultural programs, and home-finding bureaus and worked to modify existing practices of incarcerating boys for slight infractions of the law. The first central office of the society was set up in Baltimore and was soon followed by a similar bureau in Chicago, with others following for all large Vincentian centers.
The national meetings of the society helped to prepare for the formation of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (1910), and cooperation between the two organizations continued. The society has also established cooperative arrangements with Catholic Relief Services. Despite the vast involvement of government in social security and public relief programs, which characterize 20th-century and 21st-century U.S., the society continues to perform a significant role in alleviating the misery of material want.
Bibliography: c. k. murphy, The Spirit of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (New York 1940). a. p. schimberg, The Great Friend: Frederick Ozanam (Milwaukee 1946). e. o'connor, The Secret of Frederic Ozanam (Dublin 1953). d. t. mccolgan, A Century of Charity, 2 v. (Milwaukee 1951). Manual of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, tr. from Fr. by the Superior Council of Ireland (21st ed. Dublin 1958). The Ozanam News (New York 1956–). Bulletin de la Societé de Saint-Vincent de Paul (Paris 1848– ).