In 19th Century France, Frédéric served the poor of Paris, and drew others into serving the poor of the world. Through the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, which he founded, his work continues to the present day.
Frédéric was the fifth of Jean and Marie Ozanam’s 14 children, one of only three to reach adulthood. Although he wanted to study literature, his father wanted him to become a lawyer and Frédéric yielded to his father’s wishes, arriving in Paris in 1831 to study law at the University of the Sorbonne.
At a discussion club which Frédéric organised, Catholics, atheists, and agnostics debated the issues of the day. Once, after Frédéric spoke about Christianity’s role in civilization, a club member said: “Let us be frank, Mr. Ozanam; let us also be very particular. What do you do besides talk to prove the faith you claim is in you?”
Frédéric was stung by the question. He decided that his words needed a grounding in action. He and a friend began visiting Paris tenements and offering assistance as best they could. Soon a group dedicated to helping individuals in need under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul formed around Frédéric.
Feeling that the Catholic faith needed an excellent speaker to explain its teachings, Frédéric convinced the Archbishop of Paris to appoint Dominican Father Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire, the greatest preacher then in France, to preach a Lenten series in Notre Dame Cathedral. It was well-attended and became an annual tradition in Paris.
After Frédéric earned his law degree at the Sorbonne, he taught law at the University of Lyons. He also earned a doctorate in literature. Soon after marrying Amelie Soulacroix on June 23, 1841, he returned to the Sorbonne to teach literature. A well-respected lecturer, Frédéric worked to bring out the best in each student. Meanwhile, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society was growing throughout Europe. Paris alone counted 25 conferences.
The revolution of 1848 left many Parisians in need, with 275 000 unemployed. The government asked Frédéric and his coworkers to supervise the government aid to the poor. Vincentians throughout Europe came to the aid of Paris. Frédéric then started a newspaper, The New Era, dedicated to securing justice for the poor and the working classes.
In 1852 his health deteriorated and he died on September 8, 1853. In his sermon at Frédéric’s funeral, Fr. Lacordaire described his friend as “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.”
Frédéric was beatified in 1997. Since his sense of the dignity of each poor person was so close to the thinking of Saint Francis, it seemed appropriate to include him among Franciscan “greats.” His Liturgical Feast Day is September 9.
Frédéric Ozanam always respected the poor while offering whatever service he could. Each man, woman, and child was too precious to live in poverty. Serving the poor taught Frédéric something about God that he could not have learned elsewhere.