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The Poor are Part of our Family

by | Aug 10, 2020 | Formation, Reflections

Through his writings, we invite you to discover Frederic Ozanam, co-founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and one of the most beloved members of the Vincentian Family (and about whom, perhaps, we may still know very little).

Frederic wrote much in his 40 plus years of life. These texts — which come to us from the not too distant past — are a reflection of the family, social and ecclesial reality lived by their author and which, in many aspects, bears similarities with what is currently lived, especially as regards the inequality and injustice suffered by millions of impoverished men and women in our world.

Commentary

Ten months after her marriage with Frederic, Amélie became pregnant. Unfortunately, on the night of May 29-30 she suffered a miscarriage. With her health greatly weakened, the couple agreed that the best thing for her was to move to Lyon, to rest at her parents’ house and continue to recover her health. Amélie, accompanied by her mother, left Paris in mid-July. That was their first separation since their marriage. They had a great love for one another and Frederic missed his wife very much … so much so that during this period of separation (which continued until August 11, when Frederic traveled to Lyon for a short vacation) he wrote to her almost daily.

From the text of this letter, we have no doubt that Amélie was aware of her husband’s work with the poor whom he visited in their homes. It is very likely that she herself accompanied him —  although it must be remembered that the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was composed solely of men at that time[2].

Rue du Flour and rue de Dragón are located not far from the parish church of Saint-Sulpice and the Latin Quarter [3], where the first members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul exercised their apostolate. They are also not far from the rue de Sèvres, where the church that preserves the body of Saint Vincent de Paul since April 25, 1830 is located. In fact, rue du Flour is an extension of rue de Sèvres.

In this area Frederic visited some families, and informed Amélie of their illnesses and problems related to the high cost of rent and basic food products (a result of speculation).

In light of the situation of the impoverished, Frederic accuses himself of living a life that is too comfortable and calm. He proposed to Amélie that part of the money destined for her birthday present be dedicated to alleviating the situation of these families, whose children “will pray for you, for the two of us, so that so that the misfortune of this year may be taken away from us and grant us the little angel that awaits our house.”

The couple were generous with their alms. Years later, Amélie wrote that at least a tenth of the family income was dedicated to alleviating the needs of the poor: “Almsgiving was not a duty for him, but a great honor”[4].

Frederic’s example impels us to do the same: today many people could not survive without some form of charity. We are honored to be able to serve the neediest members of Christ’s body. However, we must not forget that the ultimate goal is to work for the promotion of the poor, so that those who are able to work have the possibility of doing so … and are also able to live a dignified life.

Vincent de Paul also sought the integral promotion of men and women, so that they could fend for themselves through their own work.  On April 26, 1651 he wrote to Marc Coglée, superior of the house in Sedan, regarding the distribution of aid to the people devastated by the wars:

The original intention was to assist only those who cannot work nor earn their living and would be in danger of dying of starvation if someone did not assist them. In fact, as soon as anyone is strong enough to work, tools of his trade are bought for him and nothing more is given to him[5].

The right to work and to obtain the necessary means to carve out the future is recognized in the Declaration of Human Rights. Also, from its origins, the right to decent work appears in the modern Social Doctrine of the Church.

An important place in the Church’s social doctrine belongs to the right to dignified labor. Consequently, given the high rates of unemployment found in numerous countries  … and the harsh conditions in which many industrial and rural workers find themselves, “it is necessary to value work as a factor of the fulfillment and dignity of the human person. It is the ethical responsibility of an organized society to promote and support a culture of work”[6].

Unfortunately, today there are many who, even being competent, are unable to find a position that allows them to live independently, either because they are unemployed, or because the work they have is so precarious that it does not resolve their situation. This, as we have already seen, also occurred in Fredric’s time among the factory workers.

In addition to immediate help, it is necessary to offer these individuals the tools that will enable them and allow them to fend for themselves. At the same time, almsgiving, material aid, is not only necessary, but essential.

Suggestions for personal reflection and group dialogue:

  1. Can equality be achieved in our society? … in the work place? … in the Church? …How can this be achieved?
  2. How can we involve the members of our immediate family in the work that we are doing as followers of Saint Vincent de Paul? … In other words, how do we invite them to do the same?

Footnotes:

[1] The feast of the Assumption. In several family writings and genealogies and archives, it is pointed out that Amélie Soulacroix was born on August 15, 1821 … but that is incorrect. Thanks to the research of Magdeleine Houssay, the great-great-granddaughter of Frederic, we know that August 14, 1820 was the day of her birth. That is the date that appears on her birth certificate:

[2] The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul came into existence in the midst of the university environment in Paris. At that time women were excluded from higher education. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that it was a Daughter of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, DC, who encouraged the members of the Conferences in their first activities of service on behalf of the poor. Also Amélie dedicated much of her life to charitable endeavours and without a doubt was an important person in the Society: she collected and zealously preserved the documents of her deceased husband.

Women did not delay in incorporating themselves into the activities of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul:

  • In the Positio for the beatification of Santiago Masarnau, founder of the Conferences in Spain, it is stated that “in 1855 conferences of women were established, and the first president was Encarnación Villalba de Hore (Anecdotario de Federico Ozanam, published in 2017 by the International Vice-president for Formation of the International Confederation of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul).
  • On January 10, 1856, Celestina Scarabelli established the women’s branch of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Bolonia: “The group quickly multiplied in Paris. New conferences were established in the Provinces and at the same time conferences were established in Europe and America. Women, absent during the establishment of the first conferences, rapidly joined their fathers and spouses and helped them during the time of their home visits to various families. They observed the same Rule and yet the customs of the era did not allow for men and women to participate in the same conference. Another century would pass until the groups were combined (October 20, 1957))!” (Marie-Françoise Salesiani-Payet, Presentation de la Société de Saint Vincent de Paul, in the Regional Assembly of Piamonte, Turín, March 27, 2011).

[3] In the Middle Ages, the Latin Quarter was inhabited by many students who used Latin as their academic language, hence the name of the area.

[4] Cf. Chevalier-Montariol (ed), “Notes biographiques sur Frédéric Ozanam“, in I. Chareire (ed), Frédéric Ozanam, Actes du colloque de Lyon des 4 et 5 décembre 1998, Paris, 2001.

[5] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conference, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-13b), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11-12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-13b); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014, volume IV, p.188.

[6] John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, #54.

Javier F. Chento
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