Twenty-year-old student Frederic Ozanam and a few friends (The Founders) started the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris on April 23, 1833. It was a time when the Catholic Church in France was the object of bitter hostility following the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1830.
It is a tribute to youth and a remarkable example which can be followed by young people today that, well aware of the very difficult political, social and economic problems of their times, those young men, students starting out on their future lives, all in their teens or early 20s, did not waste time or energy, but preferred to commit themselves to an active, moral and material service to the Church and to the most deprived.
Favouring a practical, direct approach to dealing with poverty, by their own efforts and raising what finance they could, they worked to alleviate the sufferings and poverty of others less favoured in their social situation. Frederic Ozanam and his friends believed that Christian help and friendship were the best means of achieving social justice.
This is the same path followed today by the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as they work for social justice.
St. Vincent de Paul was chosen as patron for the new Society as the Founders had strong contacts with Sister Rosalie Rendu, a sister of the daughters of Charity, an order founded by St. Vincent de Paul’s friend, Louise de Marillac.
The first conference in New Zealand was founded in Christchurch in July 1867 by Father Jean Baptiste Chataigner, a priest of the Society of Mary and parish priest of Christchurch at that time.
It continued until April 1880 under the guidance of Father Chataigner and other early Marist priests including Fathers Boibeaux, Chervier, Ecuyer and Ginaty.
Father Chataigner moved to Timaru in 1869 to become the first Parish Priest of that town, and founded a second conference there.
While the Society in its early years was an organisation for men only, many of the situations faced required the work of women, so following a ruling from Pope Pius IX in 1859 women working in association with the Society could form groups of a Ladies Society of St Vincent de Paul. One such group was formed in Christchurch.
While the Christchurch conference was never formally affiliated to the international organisation it operated in accord with the philosophy of the Society and can be regarded as the first in the country, with the Timaru one very likely being the second, although also not affiliated.
In Wellington in May 1875 Father Jean-Baptiste Petitjean established a conference in Thorndon. This was the first conference to achieve affiliation. The following year engineer and Member of Parliament Charles Gordon O’Neill moved to Wellington from the South Island and became president of St Mary’s Conference.
He was responsible for extending the Society elsewhere in New Zealand as he travelled about in connection with his engineering work. He eventually moved to Australia where he was responsible for re-establishing the Society there.