When Frédéric Ozanam arrived in Paris in 1831 to study law, it was not the beloved City of Light familiar to tourists today. “Paris disgusts me,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. This was the Paris of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables—the filthy, dangerous, overcrowded tinderbox that Hugo immortalized in his book a few years later.
Ozanam’s dissatisfaction stemmed not only from his firsthand exposure to the extreme poverty but also from his exposure to the rampant hostility to the Catholic Church evident everywhere. “There is no life, no faith, no love,” he said, and he might have added, because he felt the loss keenly, there was no family life for him there. He had left his parents and two siblings back in Lyon, and alone in the big city at the age of eighteen, he missed them.
Frédéric was in Paris, however, in obedience to his father, who insisted he become a lawyer—a more secure career path than that offered by the study of literature, Frédéric’s own preference. Nevertheless, he threw himself into his studies, soon adding to these his determined efforts to defend the faith on all fronts, including in the classroom where professors routinely mocked it. Once, when a professor derided Christianity in a lecture, Ozanam wrote a rebuttal and asked the professor to read it to the students at the next class meeting. The professor agreed but didn’t follow through although Frédéric confronted him twice. Ozanam persisted, gathered signatures in protest, and the professor finally complied and even apologized for his comments.
Under the guidance of a sympathetic former professor, Frédéric and some other students started a Catholic discussion group in which he rose to the top as “first among equals,” as a friend later described him. “He has the sacred fire,” another friend said of him. “There is such an air of interior conviction in this man, that without the appearance of doing so, he convinces and moves you.”
It was a time of revolution in France: riots, bloodshed, and bitter politics divided the country, and the Church was under siege, perceived by some as irrelevant and by others as too closely allied with a conservative point of view and too distant from the poor. Entering into the fray, the student group held lively, freewheeling discussions and debates, open to all and attracting large crowds. At one of these meetings, when the topic centered on Christianity’s role in history, someone in the crowd called out, “What is your Church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe.”
In response, Frédéric and his friends began going to the slums, offering whatever relief they could, from food to firewood to any money they could spare. They made it a point to get to know the poor, spending time with them. “Social welfare reform is to be learned not in books or from a public platform,” he said, “but in climbing the stairs to a poor man’s garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secrets of his lonely heart and troubled mind.”
The group placed itself under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul, the French apostle of charity, and focused both on serving the poor and encouraging the spiritual life of its members. It became known as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and within a few years, there were twenty-five conferences (chapters) in Paris; by Ozanam’s death there were fifteen thousand members in eighteen countries. Ozanam’s charism of mercy found full expression there, and though he never claimed to be the Society’s founder (there were five or so others involved at the start), the title is rightly his. He threw himself into the laity-led charitable initiative right up until his death and is largely responsible for its wide acceptance, rapid expansion, and international presence today.
In the midst of this whirlwind of activity, he also wrote extensively and studied foreign languages in his spare time. Frédéric received a bachelor’s degree in law, a bachelor’s degree in arts, and in 1836, a doctorate in law. He returned to Lyon to practice law and was soon appointed to the law faculty at the University of Lyon. Shortly after his return, his father died. Ozanam had revered him, describing him as his guardian angel and a wellspring of sound advice, and he now assumed responsibility for the care of his mother, whom he also revered. “Happy the man to whom God has given a holy mother,” he wrote to a friend on her death in early 1840.
With his mother’s passing and unhappy as a lawyer, Frédéric now felt at loose ends in Lyon. He had pursued his interest in literature alongside his other activities, and while in Lyon had produced a groundbreaking thesis on the poet Dante. The Sorbonne granted him a doctorate in literature and in 1841 asked him to join the faculty in Paris as a professor of literature. He was only twenty-seven years old at this point, but his extraordinary intellectual gifts were undeniable and were equally as strong as his love for his Catholic faith.
His students revered him for his scholarship, sense of humor, faith, and compassion, which were all at the fore in his classroom. He was particularly attentive to the students who seemed to struggle. On one occasion, for example, he pulled aside the lowest-ranking student and walked him carefully through all the details of the class. The student, accustomed to being scorned by his professors and classmates, sent a note of thanks the next day. He finished the school year with the “first prize in general excellence” and went on to become a professor himself.
In the midst of these challenging years, Frédéric had left the question of his state in life unsettled. He considered the priesthood but decided against it, immersed as he was in a full life as a layman. A priest who was a longtime friend and spiritual guide urged him to marry and acted as a matchmaker, setting up a visit between Frédéric and the warmhearted, intelligent Amélie Soulacroix. They were married on June 23, 1841, and, in a gesture that reveals something of the depth of their union, throughout their marriage, Frédéric brought her a bouquet of flowers on the twenty-third day of every month. In 1845, Amélie gave birth to their daughter, Marie, a blessing that Frédéric considered perhaps the greatest of his life.
Ozanam had never been physically robust but he contracted tuberculosis, and under the years of intense labor, his health finally broke in 1846. He took a year off from teaching, and he and his family traveled through Italy where he worked to foster the St. Vincent de Paul Society while continuing his literary research and trying to rest. Meanwhile, across Europe, the Revolutions of 1848 loomed, events that Ozanam in some ways anticipated. He had long advocated not only for active charity but also for social justice as intrinsic to the dignity of humanity, especially of the poor and the workers on the margins of society. “It is a struggle between those who have nothing,” he wrote, “and those who have too much,” promising a “violent clash of luxury and poverty.” In spite of his health, he served briefly in the National Guard in Paris during the 1848 uprising, but by 1852 he was on the brink of complete collapse.
He gave up his position at the Sorbonne and once again headed to Italy with his family, hoping to recover his health. When death appeared inevitable, the family returned to France, and he died in the port city of Marseille. He struggled, at the end, not only with leaving his family behind but also with intense regret over leaving his scholarship unfinished. But he had always strived, he said, to abandon himself to the will of God. “We are here to accomplish the will of Providence,” he wrote, and when the end came, he made “these sacrifices when Providence” required them, “with love and joy.”
Frédéric Ozanam was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997.
This is a selection from saints Who Transformed Their World by Sherry Weddell (The Word Among Us Press, 20019). Available at wau.org/books