A brief but productive life (1813-1853)
Frédéric Ozanam was born on April 23, 1813 in Milan, Italy. He was the fifth child of fourteen born to Jean-Antoine-François 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 Lyon, where Frédéric spent his early years.
Early years, loss of his sister
At seven he suffered the loss of his sister, Elsie, which came as a great grief to him: "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." -from a letter he wrote at age 16
Writing about his childhood
"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 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."
Doubts of faith
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 Frédéric 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.
First major publication
Although a law student, 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.
Despite a leaning toward literature and history, Frédéric's father decided on a law career for him and apprenticed him to a local attorney, M. Coulet. In 1831 he entered the Sorbonne in Paris to study law.
While away at school, 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 environment, 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 Frédéric's attraction to history took on the dimensions of a life's task as apologist... His aim was to help restore Catholicism to France where materialism and rationalism, irreligion and anti-clericalism prevailed. It was not long before Ozanam found the climate of the University hostile to Christian belief.
Conference of Charity
1833 - Establishes the Conference of Charity with other Sorbonne students. 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. The "Conference of History" became the "Conference of Charity" which eventually was named the "Conference of St. Vincent de Paul."
Origin of St. Vincent de Paul Society
At one meeting during a heated debate among Ozanam and his friends, 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!"
"Little Band" of St. Vincent de Paul
Now, instead of engaging in mere discussion and debate, seven of the group (M. Bailly, Frédéric 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. In 1835 the Conference officially became the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. This little band was to expand rapidly over France and around the world even during the lifetime of Ozanam.
Doctorates in Law and Literature
In 1834, after passing his bar examination, Frédéric 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 Lyon, 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.
Named Professor at Lyon; death of his mother
In 1839 he was given a chair of Commercial Law at Lyon where his lectures received wide acclaim and where, after an offer to assume a chair of Philosophy at Orléans, he was asked to lecture also on Foreign Literature at Lyon which enabled him to support his mother. She died early in 1840, leaving him quite unsettled about his future.
Decision to marry
One of Frédéric's role models, Père Lacordaire, was on his way to Rome to join the Dominicans. For a while, Ozanam considered joining him, but under the guidance of Abbe Noirot and considering his commitment to the work of the Conference of Charity which were multiplying around France, he decided against pursuing a life of celibacy and the cloister. After years of hesitation concerning marriage, Frédéric 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, 1841, and spent an extended honeymoon in Italy during which he continued his research.
Birth of daughter
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.
Military Service, Cofounder of Journal
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 (L'Ere Nouvelle) 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.
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.
Death of Bl. Frédéric Ozanam
In the Spring of 1853, the Ozanams moved to a seaside cottage at Leghorn, Italy, on the Mediterranean, where Frédéric spent his last days peacefully. Though not fearing death, he expressed the wish to die on French soil, so his brothers came to assist him and his family to Marseilles where Frédéric died on September 8, 1853.
Legacy; Rapid Spread of the Society
Frédéric has been revered 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 already numbered about 15,000 in 18 countries. Today the Society of St. Vincent De Paul (SSVP) numbers over 750,000, serving the poor in 142 countries-- a living monument to Frédéric Ozanam and his companions!
Candidate for Beatification
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.
On August 22, 1997, during the XIIth World Youth Day, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam was beatified — declared “Blessed” — by Pope John Paul II at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where Frédéric was the primary founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
See this timeline in another format, here.