ONE May evening in Paris in the year 1833, six young students of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, met in the rooms of a Professor Bailly, an elderly -Professor of Philosophy, to found the first "Conference of Charity of St Vincent de Paul".
The meeting was presided over by Professor Bailly but the driving spirit behind the venture and the acknowledged founder
of the SVP was one of the students, 20-year-old Frederic Ozanam.
"Without doubt, Christianity in the past inspired marvellous deeds. but what are you doing today? Where are the works that show your faith?"
It was this challenge that motivated those first members to visit the poor of Paris in their homes and bring them material aid, food and clothing, but above all their personal concern as friends.
It is this challenge which has motivated countless SVP members since 1833 and today inspired 800,000 men and women, young and old, in 113 different countries, to make about half a million visits daily to those in need throughout the world.
The first conference had no Rule. Its members were, however, guided by three principles agreed between themselves:
1. To bear witness to Christ and his Church by showing that the Christian Faith inspires men to work for the good of mankind; 2. To bring together those of goodwill and to assist them by mutual example to draw nearer. to Christ; 3. To establish personal contact
• between members and those
who suffer need and to bring to the latter the most effective and brotherly aid possible.
By 1835 the society numbered more than 200 members and had spread beyond Paris, and the new conferences were asking for specific guidelines. Ozanam responded with a rule based on the principles of witness, mutual assistance and personal contact.
This rule is open. It guides
and inspires but does not restrict. This rule, framed in 1833 and revised in 1973, encouraged the society to be the first Catholic organisation to accept, in the early 1970's, nonCatholic Christians into full membership.
They sought to see, in their friends the poor, Christ himself. Today the International Society of St Vincent de Paul inspires its members to live the Gospel message: "When I was sick — homeless — naked — in prison — you visited me."
In England and Wales there are 13,000 members in more than 1,500 conferences. Over 2,000 of these members are all under the age of 25 so that the rule of the society, written by the young ()Imam in 1835, attracts the young of today.
The members make more than 3,000 visits every day to those who suffer any form of poverty, and indeed there is much still in Britain today, for poverty has many faces.
A member of the SVP is expected to make at least one visit each week to a person who suffers poverty, in his home, hospital, institution or prison, and attend the weekly conference meeting which lasts about one hour, and organises aid and visitation for the coin
The society in England and Wales has set up and runs homes and hostels for the aged, the deaf, for addicts and those down on their luck, for former prisoners and those on probation. The society has a programme for overseas aid in which SVP parish conferences in the under-developed countries are helped by the conferences in this country financially, and especially by encouragement and prayer. When the first conference had been in action only a few weeks, a critic asked Ozanam how seven men could hope to have any effect on the poverty of the world.
Ozanam replied "To begin to weave. all that is necessary is a single thread." More than 140 years later the tapestry of the Society of St Vincent ,de Paul is a reflection of Christian action The tapestry still grows larger.