At the turn of the 17th century, Father Vincent, a Catholic priest in a small town in France, asked his congregation about a family who he had not seen in recent weeks. He learned that they lived several miles away, had all fallen ill and were too weak to make the long walk to town to get food or to attend Mass. This family shaped Father Vincent’s ministry: he began walking to their farm each day to bring food and companionship. He continued to reach out to others who were in need and who could not advocate for themselves.
Later in 1833, a young man in Paris named Frederic Ozanam was inspired to continue that tradition by founding an organization, based on two important ideas. The first was a reflection from Father Vincent on exhorting volunteers to help. It often happened that so many people would donate food that it would be spoiled before being eaten. “The poor suffer less from a lack of generosity than they do from a lack of organization,” he mused.
The second inspiration for Ozanam was a challenge from one of his university classmates, who demanded that Frederic show him what value the Catholic Church had in the modern world. In response to that challenge, Frederic and contemporaries began to radically seek out and visit the poor, coming to know them as individuals and offering to help them from a place of friendship.
The tradition continues today. “No form of charity is foreign to the Society.” SVdP volunteers are organized into “conferences” who serve their neighbors in need who live nearby, the better to mobilize local resources. We are trained to honor the dignity and confidentiality of our friends, and to help them escape the burdens of poverty for better living.