Raymond L. SICKINGER.  Antoine Frédéric Ozanam. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017, 385 pp., ISBN: 978-0-268-10142-8, $60, hardcover.  Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Philadelphia, PA.


            Ozanam (1813-1853), one of the founders and definite inspiration for the worldwide Society of St. Vincent de Paul, left an indelible mark on his native France at a time when the Church’s social teachings were coming into greater clarity and practice.  At the time of his death of Bright’s disease, the conferences of the Society had grown from the half dozen initial members in Lyon to well over a thousand spread out around France and Italy.  They were dispensing over a million francs in direct aid.  Local conferences met not only to engage the poor but to seek ways to eliminate poverty and the systems that create it.  Members found that the incorporation of Christian values in charitable work was a political response to the abstractions and weaknesses of socialism.  With every encounter of solidarity with the poor, members were becoming instructed in how to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, to be better Christians. 

            Ozanam’s life is given in detail by Sickinger, but what makes the biography more fulsome is an analysis of his impact, particularly upon the developing social teachings of the Church. It was not easy.  Sickinger explains that from an early age, Ozanam was plagued by trials.  Several siblings died and although he was relatively well-off from his father’s medical practice, this too was imperiled when Doctor Ozanam died, in 1837, while visiting a patient.  At the time, Frédéric was a student in Paris and returned home to Lyon to face “a sort of terror” in burying his father.  Fourteen months later, he buried his mother.

            To compensate for this loss, Ozanam poured himself into his studies.  After graduating from the Collège Royale, he apprenticed in a law firm and entered law school in Paris, becoming a barrister in 1834.  It was in Paris that he found his intellectual footing, often frequenting Montalembert’s salon and attending the sermons of Lacordaire in Notre Dame Cathedral.  He also married Amélie Soulacroix.  Surrounded by thoughtful Christians, Ozanam’s circle gathered in April 1833 to form the first Society of St. Vincent de Paul.  A burgeoning legal career was supplemented by a doctorate in comparative literature, and on the strength of his thesis, won him a prestigious chair at the Sorbonne.
            Among the great merits of this biography is Sickinger’s careful and patient review of Ozanam’s academic output.  He was an important figure in the French Catholic Church, but also in European literary circles and in the field of education.  He coupled his academic work with a larger mission of legitimating the Church’s pastoral activities.  And he did it in such a way as to deflect any form of self-aggrandizement and sought something more genuine:  what Sickinger identifies as servant-leadership.  This modern theory of how individuals determine their success in making change, is fitted on to the life of Ozanam.  One can find plenty of objections in foisting present-day understanding on people of prior generations.  But in one who devotes so much time and effort on work for the betterment of others, it is natural to try and figure out the motivations and style and manner of his leadership.  The friendships maintained by Ozanam are beautifully explained, but it is the sanctification of his cohort—by letter and direct contact—that raised Ozanam above most of his peers.

            The re-introduction of Ozanam to an English-speaking audience through this biographical study is both welcome and timely.  Lay people are looking for models and while the Vincentian family boasts of a million members worldwide, there is not always an awareness of one of their founders for lack of an accessible and forthright biography.  Raymond Sickinger’s book now supplies it.