«Blessed Frederic Ozanam A Life in Outline Kevin Slattery Frederic Ozanam at age 20 Pastel by Sophie Bouvet 2 St Vincent de Paul Society Early life, ...»
Blessed Frederic Ozanam
A Life in Outline
Frederic Ozanam at age 20
Pastel by Sophie Bouvet
2 St Vincent de Paul Society
Early life, parental influences
Antoine-Frederic Ozanam was born on April 23rd, 1813, in Milan,
which was then occupied by the French. He was the fifth of fourteen
children born to Jean-Antoine and Marie Ozanam. Jean-Antoine, who
had reached the rank of Captain in Napoleon's army, retired from the
services when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French.
He then studied medicine and qualified with honours as a doctor in only two years. When an epidemic of typhus swept through Milan the Emperor recognized him for his heroism in serving the sick at the Military Hospital. Only four of the Ozanam children survived infancy.
Frederic's older brother, Alphonse, became a priest and his younger brother Charles, a doctor. His sister Elizabeth, to whom Frederic was particularly devoted, died at the age of nineteen when he was seven years old.
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Milan reverted to Austrian control and the family returned to Lyons where the Ozanams had married in
1800. It was in this city, in central France that Frederic grew up in a loving family environment. His father divided his time between the city hospital and the slums of his parish where he tended to the medical needs of poor people. His mother was similarly tireless in assisting those in need, particularly as a member of the 'Workers', who provided company and comfort to sick, poor people.
From an early age Frederic's health was delicate and, when he was six, he almost succumbed to typhoid fever His recovery was attributed to the intervention of St. John Francis Regis, a great servant of poor people in 17th century France. The following year, his life was thrown into turmoil with his sister's untimely death. As well as being a second mother to him, Elizabeth had tutored him at home. He admits at this time to becoming headstrong, without control and disobedient. To correct such behaviour and to further his education, he was enrolled at the Royal College of Lyons where he demonstrated a brilliant academic mind and a wonderful capacity for study, excelling particularly in languages and literature.
At fifteen, however, Frederic suffered a debilitating period of doubt, when his faith was sorely tested. He later wrote: 'The muffled din of an unbelieving world reached me. I experienced all the horror of doubt which by day gnaws at the soul without ceasing, and at night hovers over our pillows.' He promised God that, should he be given the light to see the Truth, he would spend his life defending it.
Bl Frederic Ozanam | A Life in Outline 3 With the support of his religion and philosophy teacher, the Dominican Abbe Noirot, his doubts disappeared after twelve months and Ozanam began to fulfil his promise. His literary skills were soon evident to a wider public when he began contributing articles on philosophy and history to the review magazine 'The Bee.' A little later he submitted two articles to the journal ‘Precurseur’ attacking the utopian social theories of the Saint-Simonians – followers of the Count de Saint Simon - who considered Christianity to be outworn and defunct. These articles were developed and enlarged into a pamphlet entitled 'Reflections on the Doctrine of Saint-Simon' which attracted very favourable comment from such French literary giants as Lamartine and Chateaubriand, a remarkable achievement for such a young writer.
At the end of 1831, lonely in a boarding house, he wrote to his friend
Falconnet, 'Paris displeases me for there is no life, no faith, no love:
it is like a dead body to which I, full of youth and energy, am tied. Its coldness chills me and its corruption is killing me.' The only person he knew in Paris was Andre-Marie Ampere, the great scientist and devout Catholic, whom he had previously met in Lyons. On a visit to his home, Frederic greatly impressed Ampere who invited him to board with him. Their nightly chats over the dinner table reinforced Ozanam's Christian belief. Daily his belief was tested as he pursued his studies in an environment where the scorn and ridicule of Christianity was the fashion of the day.
4 St Vincent de Paul Society The first Conference of Charity Although shy and retiring, Ozanam’s cheerful personality and breadth of learning soon drew to him a wide circle of friends. He was affronted by the constant attacks on the Church and its teaching and he decided to establish a Catholic discussion group where fellow students could be encouraged to confront critics of the faith.
It was in this forum that the relevance of the Church to France in the 1830s was constantly raised. The young Catholics were articulate and passionate spokesmen for their faith but, they were asked, what were they doing for the poor? Roused by these taunts, Ozanam and his companions determined to establish what they called a ‘Conference of Charity’, again with Bailly as president. Immediately following this decision, Frederic and his friend Taillandier brought what was left of their own firewood to a destitute person in the neighbourhood.
At the first historic meeting of the Conference of Charity on April 23rd, 1833 - Ozanam celebrated his 20th birthday that day - Bailly presided over six students aged between nineteen and twenty-three.
The little group was mocked by some, in particular the Saint-Simonians:
‘What can you hope to accomplish? You are eight poor men, and it is with such resources that you undertake to succour the misery of a city like Paris! We, on the other hand, are busy in the development of ideas and systems which shall reform the world and obliterate misery for ever.
In one moment we shall accomplish for humanity all that you could possibly do in many generations.’
The reluctant lawyer Ozanam completed his Law degree in 1834 whilst continuing to read widely in his preferred fields of foreign literature and history. Further studies in law followed his graduation and he became one of a select group to take out the degree of Doctor of Laws which qualified him to lecture at the University. Having more than fulfilled his father’s ambition for him in the field of law, he returned to Lyons to begin his law practice at the Royal Court of Lyons and to be with his aging and ailing parents.
The daily grind of working as a barrister, which he disliked, was relieved by a short holiday in Paris, in May 1837.
It was during this time that he received news from Lyons that his father was gravely ill. He had fallen down a steep flight of steps while visiting a poor patient in one of the tenements of the city. By the time Frederic reached home, his father had died.
6 St Vincent de Paul Society The Ozanam family finances were surprisingly meagre. It was later discovered that the doctor had given his services free to almost a third of his practice. Frederic then assumed the responsibility of providing for his dying mother and his twelve year old brother Alphonse. This he did from tutoring a few young men in the Law.
Economic security was only to come Lyons at the time of Frederic Ozanam in 1839 with his appointment to the foundation Chair of Commercial Law in Lyons. Whilst tutoring Ozanam kept himself well occupied.
Apart from writings relating to Law (‘Church Property’ and ‘The Beginnings of French Law’), he resumed his studies in earnest for a Doctorate in Literature, preparing theses on ‘Dante and Catholic Philosophy in the 13th Century’ in French and ‘On the Descent of Heroes into Hell Frequently met with in Ancient Poets’ in Latin. These were defended, most skilfully, at the Sorbonne, in 1839.
Later that year, Ozanam’s beloved mother died. Some time after he wrote: ‘When I have the happiness of receiving Holy Communion, when Our Saviour comes to visit me, it seems to me that she follows Him into my poor heart, even as she so often followed Him in the Holy Viaticum into the rooms of the poor.’
Two months later, he began lecturing in Commercial Law to overflowaudiences.
His lectures were witty and wide-ranging and wherever possible he allowed himself to digress into history, philosophy or literature. Law he had studied to please his father. To support his mother he had accepted the professorship at Lyons. Now, with both his parents dead, he confessed to feeling ‘a void which neither friendship nor intellectual work fulfils.’ Bl Frederic Ozanam | A Life in Outline 7 Professional fulfilment, marriage The void was soon to be filled. Ozanam was invited to compete for the Chair of Foreign Literature at the Sorbonne, a truly demanding examination in the literatures of three ancient and four modern languages. He was placed first, becoming acting Professor of Foreign Literature at the age of twenty-seven, in October 1840.
His personal life was also to undergo a dramatic change. Shortly after the death of his mother he briefly considered a vocation to the priesthood, but was steered towards married life by his confessor, Abbe Noirot.
He married Amélie Soulacroix, daughter of the rector of the Lyons Academy on June 23rd, 1841. It was an extraordinarily happy union. On the 23rd of each month until his death twelve years later, Amélie received a bouquet of flowers from Frederic, a continual demonstration of the great love and respect in which he held his wife. Their honeymoon in Italy was crowned by a visit to Rome and an audience with Pope Gregory XVI.
These gardens with their great trees, spectacular fountains and colourful flowerbeds, were a constant delight when on rare occasions they were able to stroll, as a family, away from the grime and noise of Paris. The natural environment had always been a source of enormous pleasure and wonder to Frederic. A lifelong friend, Leonce Curnier, vividly describes in his recollections ‘Ozanam’s Youth’ how the seventeen year old Ozanam was enraptured by the scenery around Lyons: ‘We often had delightful walks together on the charming banks of the Saone, the beauty of which threw him into poetical ecstasy. A picturesque site, a landscape with an infinite horizon, a river with a graceful sinuous course would ever entrance him. The fields and the woods, the verdure and the flowers held for him ineffable delight, which evoked expressions of thanks and homage to the Creator.’ 8 St Vincent de Paul Society Ozanam was a remarkable teacher.
This tribute was offered by Hersart de Villemarque: ‘God alone knows the immense good that Ozanam brought through his lectures, which cost him so much wear and tear. He knew how to inspire a youthful audience...
he was cheered passionately, he was loved even more. When he would leave the Faculty, everyone rushed to have a word with him, to hear him again; they escorted him along the paths in the Luxembourg Gardens which he crossed on his way home. He was exhausted but often brought home with him the joys he prized above the most enthusiastic applause.’ The Sorbonne where Frederic Ozanam The energy with which he worked studied and taught as an academic - involving the most scrupulous research - his ongoing work with the Society which included fund raising for the relief of the Irish Famine, and his writing in defence of the Church, all contributed to a steady deterioration in his precarious health. Seriously ill with pleurisy in 1846, he suffered a complete breakdown in 1847 which forced him to spend a period of prolonged rest in Italy.
His body may have slowed down but his mind was incurably restless.
While there he discovered documents which shed new light on the Middle Ages and he gathered material for another work, ‘The Franciscan Poets’, which continues to be read in France.
The events of 1848 His return home in August 1847 coincided with the build up of tensions which led to a revolution in the following February. The 1848 revolution saw the end of the reign of Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) and the establishment of the Second Republic. Under pressure from friends, Ozanam agreed to stand for the Rhone department in the election for the National Assembly, held under universal suffrage for the first time.
Several ideas which formed part of his policy platform were visionary.
He is considered one of the first to formulate the idea of a ‘natural Bl Frederic Ozanam | A Life in Outline 9 salary’, to claim compensation against unemployment and accidents, to suggest that pensions be guaranteed to workers. Forty-three years later, in 1891, many of his ideas were to be found in Leo XIII’s papal encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (Of New Things). The electors of 1848 considered them to be too generous and daring and his foray into politics was unsuccessful.
Ozanam’s political ideas were henceforth to find a voice in the many articles he contributed to the newspaper ‘L’Ere Nouvelle’ (The New Era), launched on April 15th, 1848. His idea of a Christian democracy, in harmony with the principles of justice and charity, was to be lived out in the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
In June 1848 a bloody insurrection led by Paris workers saw Ozanam in the uniform of the National Guard alongside an aging Bailly. Great misery and poverty resulted from the upheaval and the Government sought the assistance of the St. Vincent de Paul Society to distribute relief grants to the many people in need. Ozanam was never President-General of the Society but in the latter part of 1848 he acted in the position whilst the incumbent, M. Baudon, recovered from serious injuries incurred during the fighting. At a meeting of the Council-General presided over by Ozanam, it was reported that there were then 393 conferences and councils, with their numbers increasing almost daily. In early 1849 Ozanam, accompanied by one hundred and twelve Society members, cared for two thousand people struck down by the dreaded scourge of cholera which swept through Paris.
Subsequently, new elections resulted in the rise to power of Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Bonaparte.
10 St Vincent de Paul Society The events of 1848-1849 caused a further decline in Ozanam’s health.