The First Members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and the Pandemics

by | Aug 31, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Society of St. Vincent de Paul

The world is suffering the effects of a pandemic caused by Covid-19. Pandemics are nothing new in the history of humanity. They are unfortunately all too common: we have experienced several during the 21st century[1].

Saint Vincent and the plague

Saint Vincent de Paul also lived through a plague pandemic which, in the mid-17th century, blighted France, northern Italy and Poland[2]: “The missionaries faced war, hunger and plague, between 1630 and 1645; ten missionaries and many Daughters of Charity went throughout Picardy and the Champagne region; Saint Vincent himself visited and observed the impact and the work being done. […] The poor were everywhere, and Vincent and Louise organised and dealt with the assistance and relief provided”[3].

Epidemics in the 19th century

There were several pandemics in Europe during the 19th century, mainly cholera and typhoid. France was particularly badly hit by the second cholera pandemic (from 1827 to 1835). This, as we note, coincided with the date the first Conference of Charity was founded (1833), which shortly afterwards became the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SSVP). It is not unreasonable to think that this health emergency influenced the foundation of the SSVP. At one of the conferences of history, Ozanam was very much affected by the accusation that the Catholic Church did little or nothing for the needy: some young people criticised the Church for having done little of note in contemporary society, despite the great works it had achieved in the past. This incident, the real seed of the initiative to found the first conference of charity, had a profound effect on Frederic Ozanam, who was led to exclaim: “the reproach was well deserved”[4]. Living through a total cholera pandemic in Paris was certainly one of the aspects which inspired the initiative to do something for those experiencing need or poverty.

Frederic Ozanam first mentions this pandemic in a letter to his mother on April 8, 1832:

Cholera has spread horrendously [in Paris]; within a fortnight it has struck 3,075 people, causing the death of 1,200. Yesterday, 717 new cases were reported, and carts are seen in the streets loaded with five, ten or twelve coffins. […] It’s horrible. The conference[5] I belong to has set aside a small sum of 15 francs, from the collection

In a letter on May 26. 1832, he described further the efforts the Parisian students were making to help those affected by cholera:

Collections are held everywhere for those suffering from cholera, for orphans, etc. No-one can refuse, in conscience; we join in enthusiastically, without thinking about it, and so the purse empties, but at least this money is not being wasted; it will come back one day.

At that time, Frederic was a lodger in the house of André-Marie Ampère, the famous French mathematician and physicist. As so many were dying in just a few days, every evening Ampère said to Frederic: “Ozanam, if cholera strikes me down tonight, I will bang on the floor with my stick. Don’t come to help me, just go quickly to find my confessor”[6].

In Paris, at this time, “cholera seemed to be death and terror. At one point, there were up to 1,300 deaths every day. The epidemic swept away almost the whole of one side of Rue Fossés-Saint-Victor, while Ampère’s house on the other side of the street seemed safe at that time. Ozanam wrote to his mother, translating a psalm from the Office of Compline: ‘A thousand will fall at your left, and ten thousand at your right. But death will not approach you, because you have said: You, Lord, are my hope; and you have chosen the Most High for your refuge.”[7] We no longer have this letter, with its admirable faith and courage; but we are told that Madame Ozanam read it to all her friends, with tears of indescribable tenderness.”[8]

Sr Rosalie Rendu, Daughter of Charity, who played such an important role in the early days of the SSVP, also provided help to those affected by cholera in Paris:

The premises which [Sr Rosalie] had available were small, but many facilities were provided from them: clinic, pharmacy, clothing store, affordable cooking, school. […] The cholera epidemic (1832) revealed the exceptional organisational skills of the Mother Superior. The premises gradually become the “heart of the district,” a district where, according to her own account, it was “difficult to find a woman who could remember her prayers.”[9]

In 1832, Father Lacordaire, a great friend of Ozanam and supporter of the SSVP, also “had to dress as a layman in order to be able to enter one of the Paris hospitals, to hear the confession of one or two of the dying,”[10] because of the isolation restrictions.

Shortly afterwards, Ozanam again mentions the pandemic to his friend Joseph Arthaud, in a letter dated August 22, 1835:

We are in constant danger from cholera here. Already self-sacrifice and flight are both in evidence, the people are crying out in the face of the epidemic. If Our Lady of Fourvière[11] does not preserve us from the epidemic, we will be very deserving of pity.

On September 21, 1835, Ozanam wrote to Henri Pessonneaux describing the isolation situation in which he was living, similar to ours because of Covid-19:

The fear of cholera has frozen hearts when we meet; we are isolated and wild; no eating with friends, or walks in the country.

Cholera also approached Lyon, where Ozanam was on September 23, 1835. He wrote to François Lallier:

Cholera, which has so severely punished the southern provinces, seems to be approaching our doors. The Rhône passes some fifteen leagues from our city, carrying before it a multitude of fugitives who bring us horrifying tales and greater fear than the sickness itself. Our people, warm-hearted and easily touched, are deeply moved. While some coarse and brutish spirits were starting to speak about rumours of poisonings, and preparing to respond to the invasion of the scourge with rioting and violence, a devout crowd of people ascended the hill to Our Lady of Fourvière and knelt in the open air, in the atrium of the church, to sing sorrowful songs; at the same time, many selfless people came to care for the poor when the epidemic arrived;  more than fifteen hundred signed up in advance.

Members of the SSVP were among those who volunteered to help the poor during the pandemic.

In the Bulletin of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1849, Frederic Ozanam describes the work the companions did during the epidemic. Over a two-month period, led by Sister Rosalie, some of them worked “just like the first founders of the Society, fifteen years before.”[12]

At the same time, and for the same reasons, Frederic organised a group of young people “on April 22, 1849, together with his colleagues from the Council General, forming an association of forty brave souls”[13] to help those who could not be taken to hospital. And as reported at the next general assembly held on June 19, these first caregivers of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul “had increased from forty to a hundred and twelve.”[14]

The atmosphere in the city was grim, as Ozanam described in a letter:

Whole streets depopulated in a few nights, but at the same time, a harvest of grace was gathered everywhere. […] All wished to die with a priest by their side. […] It was moving to see those young people who, driven only by the thought of the Saviour’s glory, […] went to succour the sick and bury the dead[15]

— – —

It was an epidemic also which was the source of the female branch of the SSVP in Italy[16]. In 1855, the city of Bologna was struck by a serious cholera epidemic. The members did everything possible to help families afflicted by the illness, either at home or in the hospital. However, a clause in the SSVP Rule meant that the men could not assist single women, especially if they were young. Some female relatives and friends of the members, led by Celestina Scarabelli and encouraged by Antonio Costa (president of the Conferences in Italy), offered to provide assistance to sick women.

The commitment of these women was highly valued; Antonio, who did not wish to hinder their efforts, suggested to establish a women’s conference, along the lines of those of the men. So on 10 January 1856, the first meeting of the female conference was held, and the number of these grew quickly, spreading not only throughout Italy, but also in France, Chile, Peru, the Philippines and many other countries. After some years, they received recognition by Pope Pius IX, who, in a brief of February 25, 1875, granted all the female conferences, “in the diocese of Bologna and in any other diocese, legitimately established, and to be established, the same indulgences already granted to the male conferences, so that their work should produce plentiful and worthy fruit.”[17]

The SSVP and the present epidemic

In its Rule, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul states: “The vocation of the Society’s members is to follow Christ, through service to those in need. […] No work of charity is foreign to the Society. […] It includes any form of help that alleviates suffering or deprivation and promotes human dignity and personal integrity in all their dimensions.”[18]

We are presently besieged by a global pandemic, which drives us to redouble our efforts on behalf of those most directly affected by this illness. But not only the sick, who need to be supported and helped both materially and spiritually (always in accordance with the health and safety standards from experts), but also people who are affected by the consequences of the pandemic: unemployment, loss or reduction in their economic resources, increasing poverty which will without doubt get worse as a result of the global economic crisis which is already appearing.

The example of Saint Vincent de Paul, our Vincentian brothers and sisters in the past, and other well-known people of faith, is an incentive for us to address these extraordinary challenges with strength and creativity. Much can be done to alleviate the needs of millions of human beings who will unfortunately fall into poverty as a result of this pandemic.

There are already many initiatives underway, within the SSVP and the Vincentian Family, to improve the lives of all those affected.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and Saint Vincent de Paul, to whom members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul have prayed for protection for themselves and all those they help, and all the work they do, will accompany us on this path of charity, the heart of faith and Christian hope.


[1] The world has experienced a number of pandemics or epidemics during the 21st century, which have affected several countries; we might mention SARS (severe, acute respiratory syndrome); HeN1 (avian flu, which spread around the world between 2004 and 2006); and the Ebola epidemic (from 2014 to 2016, which spread across a wide area of the African continent, parts of Europe and the United States.

[2] The plague caused havoc “in Bovesinado in 1625, in Digne and Montpellier in 1629, in Moulins in 1630, in Paris in 1631-1633. There was, in fact, not a city or a region of France which did not suffer from terrible epidemics, especially during the reign of Louis XIII. The police applied the most draconian measures, aiming both to calm the population and to stop the contagion. A cross was placed on the front of houses where plague victims lived, to warn people not to enter; the last rites could only be administered at night, with no bell rung. The nobility of the area was forbidden to flee, bells could not be rung, holy water stoups had to be emptied. (…) Monsieur Vincent defied all these instructions” (André Dodin, “Saint Vincent and the sick”, in Annals of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity, 1974 edition).

[3] Jean-Pierre Renouard, CM, “The plague at the time of Saint Vincent”, at

[4] Frederic Ozanam, speech at the Florence conference, 1853.

[5] Ozanam belonged to a number of discussion groups for university students, known as conferences (of law, history).

[6] Raphaëlle Chevalier-Montariol (ed), « Notes biographiques sur Frédéric Ozanam, par Amélie Ozanam-Soulacroix », at Frédéric Ozanam : actes du colloque des 4 et 5 décembre 1998, p. 313..

[7] See Ps. 91:7-10

[8] Mgr. Baunard, Frederic Ozanam in his correspondence, chapter 3.

[9] Gérard Cholvy, Frédéric Ozanam : L’engagement d’un intellectuel catholique au XIXe siècle. París: Fayard, 2003, chapter 5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Basílica of Our Lady of Fourvière is located at the top of the hill of the same name in Lyon. Devotion to the Virgin Mary of Fourvière or else Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal among other titles, increased enormously because of the pandemic: “the recent
cholera epidemic contributed greatly to the growth in Marian devotion” (Cholvy, ibid.).

[12] Bulletin de la Société de Saint Vincent de Paul, vol. 1 (1849), 250-252.

[13] Mons Baunard, op. cit., chapter 21.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See Letter to Mme Soulacroix, 6 June 1849.

[16] At the start, the SSVP was a male-only organisation.

[17] Anonymous, “La Società Femminile di San Vincenzo de Paoli”, available at

[18] Rule of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (2003), Nos. 1.2 and 1.3.

Javier F. Chento
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