An international association of Catholic laymen engaging systematically in personal service of the poor; was founded in May, 1833, when eight young men, students at the Sorbonne, assembled in the office of the “Tribune Catholique” to formulate plans for the organization of a society whose object should be to minister to the wants of the Parisian poor. The master-mind conceiving the project, which was destined to make an indelible impress upon the history of modern charity work, was Frederick Ozanam, a brilliant young Frenchman, lawyer, author and professor in the Sorbonne. With Ozanam’s name must be linked that of Père Bailly, editor of the “Tribune Catholique”, the first president of the society, and whose wise and fatherly counsels did much to direct properly the activities of his more youthful associates. The society’s establishment was due partly to the desire of the founders to furnish a practical refutation of the reproaches directed against Christianity by the followers of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and other popular teachers of the day. “Show us your works!” taunted the Saint Simonians. “We admit the past grandeur of Christianity, but the tree is now dead and bears no fruit.” To this taunt Ozanam and his companions retorted by forming themselves into a Conference of Charity, later adopting the name of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
In organizing the Society, Ozanam, following the inspiration of its chosen patron Saint Vincent de Paul, modelled the rule upon the same principles that were in vogue in the seventeenth century. The rules adopted were very simple; it was forbidden to discuss politics or personal concerns at the meetings, and it was settled that the work should be the service of God in the persons of the poor, whom the members were to visit at their own dwellings and assist by every means in their power. The service of the members was to embrace, without distinction of creed or race, the poor, the sick, the infirm, and the unemployed. It is a noteworthy fact that, at the first Vincentian meeting, there was enunciated by Père Bailly a principle of vital importance, now universally accepted wherever organized charity is known, namely that the service of the poor ought to consist not merely of the doling out of alms, but must be made a medium of moral assistance and that each member should help in his special line. Simplicity characterizes the society. The membership is divided into three classes, active, subscribing, and honorary. The active membership is composed of Christian men who desire to unite in a communion of prayers and a participation in the same works of charity. Subscribing and honorary members are those who “cannot devote themselves to the works in which the society is engaged but who assist the active members by their influence, their offerings and prayers”. In the make-up of its membership the society is most democratic. Men of all walks of life are engaged in its service; the lawyer, the doctor, the professional and business man freely mingle with the untutored labouring man in relieving the wants of the poor. The conference is the unit of the society and is an integral part of the parish organization. While the clergy are not included in the normal membership, they are always welcomed in the work. The conference exists only with the approval of the pastor who as spiritual director enters actively into the work. Women are excluded from membership, but through auxiliary associations or as benefactresses they may co-operate in the work and share the numerous indulgences. The business of each conference is administered by a president, a vice-president, a secretary, and a treasurer who constitute the board of the conference. The president is elected by the conference, while the other officers are appointed by the president with the advice of the board. The parish conferences hold weekly meetings.
In cities, where there exist several conferences of the society, the control of affairs is vested in a particular council in which the respective conferences have representation. In a number of larger cities a central office is established by the particular council. Special committees are likewise usually created to deal with the larger aspects of charity, relief, and correction, which naturally fall beyond the scope of a parish conference. Over the particular councils and such conferences as are so scattered as to render impracticable the formation of particular councils, there is placed a central or superior council having jurisdiction over a territory embracing within its circumscription the councils of several dioceses or, as in some instances, of an entire country. On each of the four festivals of the society meetings are held by all the conferences embraced in each of the various jurisdictions. Superior councils hold regular monthly meetings and meet oftener as occasion may require. Finally, the scheme of organization provides for the establishment of a council general, which exercises jurisdiction over the entire society, and is established in Paris, France.
In outlining the activities of the society, the founders had an eye to the future needs of human kind, and dictated that “no work of charity should be regarded as foreign to the Society, although its special object is to visit poor families”. It is plainly evident from this that the society is given the widest latitude in the selection of the works in which the members may engage and in examining the reports of the various superior councils one marvels at the wonderful array of charitable activities which are therein portrayed. There are committees in charge of fresh-air work for poor children, convalescent homes, support of day nurseries, the custody of paroled prisoners, care of homeless boys, clubs for boys, the visitation of prisoners and the sick in hospitals, the maintenance of chaplains for the purpose of serving Catholic inmates in public institutions, employment bureaus, the care of immigrants, the maintenance of sailors’ missions, the finding of homes for orphans, and systematic inspection of their care until maturity. The society also co-operates uniformly with Catholic institutions charities and with other organizations of laymen and lay women engaged in relief work. The spiritual note predominates throughout the work of the society. The service of the poor is undertaken as a spiritual duty belonging to the integrity of Christian life. Throughout all the traditions of the society there is an endeavour to hinder every process by which charity might be made identical with philanthropy or by which the supernatural character of the service of the poor might be lost. The conference takes its name from the parish in which it is formed. The meetings are opened and closed with prayer and a short selection from some spiritual treatise is read. The society has its own feast-days, on which occasions the members receive Holy Communion as a body. By Briefs of Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII numerous indulgences are granted to the society, its benefactors, to the poor assisted by it, and to the fathers, mothers, and wives of the members. An endeavour is made uniformly to cultivate the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul and to follow the discriminating principle of relief given in the spirit of faith taught by him. The note of personal service stands out prominently in the work of the society. The duty of serving the poor, and the need of doing it wisely, is looked upon as one which the individual himself should fulfil; in fact, one of the conditions of active membership is that the conference member shall go personally to visit the poor in their own homes. He combines, when he is true to the spirit and teaching of the society, the function of friendly visitor with that of investigator and the work of upbuilding the dependent as well as that of relieving him.
The rules of the society require that minutes of all meetings be kept carefully and that the reasons for all relief accorded be stated; the conference members in charge of a family are required to study the condition of the family and to give the reasons for the decision leading them to ask relief. Their reasons and their judgment may be questioned by the other members present. These minutes of the meetings, when taken in conjunction with the personal knowledge of the poor families aided, serve every purpose of record-keeping. Every care is taken to respect the privacy of the poor. The records of relief work are not open to inspection except by those who have a well-founded right to the knowledge, and this spirit is so characteristic of the society that it places at the disposal of the spiritual director certain funds which may be used in relieving exceptional cases from which no report of whatsoever kind is made to the society itself. Another characteristic is that of deep-seated reluctance on the part of the society to make known the extent of the work or the generosity of its members in giving either money or personal service to the cause of charity. While all the work of the society is done by its members voluntarily and without remuneration, a readiness to employ paid workers in the specialized activities is developing under the exacting and complicated conditions of modern relief. The funds of the society are procured in a number of ways. At all conference and particular council meetings secret collections are taken up, the proceeds going into the treasury. A box is located generally in a conspicuous place in the parish church to receive contributions from the charitably-disposed. The amounts thus received are applied to the work of the conference. Committees engaged in special works solicit subscriptions. Considerable amounts are received in donations and from bequests. In addition there are large numbers of generous subscribing members.
Two years after the foundation of the society the membership had increased so rapidly that it was no longer possible to continue working alone as one body and in one place; consequently, the founders realized that the time had come when, to regulate matters properly, it was imperative to divide the society into sections or groups arranged geographically. A meeting was held, geographical divisions made, and the rules under which the society has since lived were then adopted. They were of the simplest character, merely embodying in the form of regulations the usages which had been followed and cherished from the inception of the society. There are over 100,000 active members and an equal number of honorary members. The society is represented in every European country, and thriving branches are to be found in China, India, Turkey in Asia, Ceylon, Egypt, Natal, Transvaal, Philippine Islands, Canada. United States, Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Argentine Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, and British Guiana. Twelve years after the inauguration of the work, the society was introduced on the American continent. To Saint Louis, Missouri, must be given the honour of having established in 1845 the first conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in the United States. In 1846 a conference was organized In New York City. In 1856 the work of the society had grown to such proportions in New York that it became necessary to establish a particular council, through which correspondence was opened with the authorities of every Catholic diocese in the United States. As a result other sections of the country gradually entered into the work, and year by year the society gained headway, making its influence felt and accomplishing wonders in the work of uplifting the poor. The following statistics of the work of the society in the United States for the year 1910 will serve to give some slight conception of the progress made: superior councils, 4; central councils, 4; particular councils, 34; conferences, 730; members, 12,062; families relieved, 24,742; visits made, 233,044; situations procured, 2949; amount received (exclusive of balances), $384,549; amount expended, $387,849.
An important step in the reorganization of the administration of the society in the United States was taken at the national conference held in Boston in 1911, when it was unanimously voted to create a council in each archdiocese of the United States, to be known as the metropolitan central council; diocesan councils in each diocese, to be styled diocesan central councils; and one general council for the administration of all, to be known as the superior council of the United States. This plan of reorganization is now being perfected by a committee appointed at the Boston National Conference. Since it has received the unqualified endorsement of the hierarchy of the United States and has been approved by the council general of the society in Paris, the near future probably will see the new plan of administration put into effective operation. While the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul quite naturally calls forth a rather extensive literature concerning its spirit, aims, purposes, and works, it produces of itself relatively little literature, owing to its policy of refraining from publishing any extended account of its varied activities. Reports are issued by the local conferences and councils, and the council general in Paris publishes “The Bulletin”, which is regarded as the official organ of the society. The official organ of English-speaking countries is “The Bulletin”, published monthly by the superior council of Ireland. “The Quarterly”, published be the superior council of New York, is the official organ of the society in the United States. Superior councils of the society in some other countries likewise issue similar periodicals.
- Thomas Mulry. “Society of Saint Vincent de Paul”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 6 August 2013. Web. 24 October 2016. <>