Frédéric was the fifth of Jean and Marie Ozanam’s 14 children, one of only three to reach adulthood.
As a teenager he began having doubts about his religion but eventually came to terms with his doubts. Frédéric wanted to study literature, although his father, a doctor, wanted him to become a lawyer. Frédéric yielded to his father’s wishes and in 1831, arrived in Paris to study law at the University of the Sorbonne. When certain professors there mocked Catholic teachings in their lectures, Frédéric defended the church.
A discussion club that Frédéric organized sparked the turning point in his life. In this club, Catholics, atheists and agnostics debated the issues of the day. Once, after Frédéric spoke about Christianity’s role in civilization, a club member said: “Let us be frank, Mr. Ozanam; let us also be very particular. What do you do besides talk to prove the faith you claim is in you?”
Today we would say, “If you are going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk!”
This challenge to Frédéric led him and a friend to begin visiting Paris tenements and helping as best they could. Soon a group dedicated to helping individuals in need under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul formed around Frédéric.
After Frédéric earned his law degree at the Sorbonne, he taught law at the University of Lyons. He also earned a doctorate in literature. Soon after marrying Amelie Soulacroix on June 23, 1841, he returned to the Sorbonne to teach literature.
A well-respected lecturer, Frédéric worked to bring out the best in each student. Meanwhile, the St. Vincent de Paul Society was growing throughout Europe. Paris alone counted 25 conferences.
The revolution of 1848 left many Parisians in need of the services of the St. Vincent de Paul conferences. The unemployed numbered 275,000. The government asked Frédéric and his co-workers to supervise the government aid to the poor. Vincentians throughout Europe came to the aid of Paris. Frédéric also started a newspaper, The New Era, dedicated to securing justice for the poor and the working classes.
Fellow Catholics often were unhappy with what Frédéric wrote. Referring to him as “the nation’s priest”, Frédéric responded that the hunger and sweat of the poor formed a sacrifice that could redeem the people’s humanity.
In 1852, Fedrick went to Italy in hopes of curing his poor health but died on Sept. 8, 1853. In his eulogy, Father Lacordaire described his friend as “one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God in whom God joins tenderness to genius in order to enkindle the world.”
Adapted by A.J. Valentini