New biography by Providence College professor explores the life of a Catholic lay leader

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PROVIDENCE — Antoine Frédéric Ozanam, the Catholic teacher and writer best known as the principal founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, was born to a French family in 1813. He died at the relatively young age of 40, but his legacy continues to be felt around the world in the estimated 800,000 members of the Society who serve the poor in 135 countries today. His life offers many lessons for the contemporary reader, lessons that Dr. Ray Sickinger, chair of the Department of History and Classics at Providence College and a member of the Society, explores in a new biography.

“Antoine Frédéric Ozanam,” published last June, offers not only a detailed account of the Catholic layman’s life but also an examination of his thoughts and writings with relation to the issues of his time. Ozanam grew up in a France whose rapidly-changing politics, philosophies and economy deteriorated conditions for the poor and inflamed the passions of the educated middle class to which he belonged. At the age of 20, he and six friends — mostly university students — founded a group of laymen who would go out and perform service for the poor.

“When the society was formed in its day, it was unusual for men to do charity work. It was radical,” explained Sickinger during a recent interview at Providence College. “They wanted to grow in holiness by helping those in need.”

The organization, which eventually became known as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, called upon its members to grow in their Catholic faith and aimed to assist those in need by seeking out the root causes of poverty. Its combination of faith and social action and emphasis on the structural causes behind the condition of society’s most vulnerable foreshadowed Catholic social teaching of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“Ozanam was very interested in trying to change the way things worked,” said Sickinger. “For him, charity and justice were intimately linked.”

For Sickinger, a Cranston native who has taught at Providence College since 1974, the story of the Society’s founding is personal. As a young man, he often saw the name “Society of St. Vincent de Paul” written on slips of paper in his grandfather’s shoe shop — slips for shoes his grandfather, a member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Conference of the Society, fixed for free. When his grandfather died, a line of people stretched around the block to pay their respects, many of them with stories of the good works he accomplished as a member. Later, as a young professional, Sickinger attended an information session on the basis of his grandfather’s connection and discovered in Ozanam a model for his own life.

“I was intrigued, but what intrigued me was this young college student who then became a young college professor,” he said. “Here I was a young college professor myself and he really attracted me and became a model for me.”

Now a 33-year member of the Society, Sickinger and his wife, Patricia, have been involved with leadership in all levels of the organization, including serving as regional vice president and on the national board of directors. They continue to do home visits, a fundamental part of the Society’s mission that dates to the time of Ozanam, when members went out of their way to adapt to the needs of the people they served and ensure the poor were comfortable in their own homes.

“One of the fundamental things that Frederic would do is go out to visit people in their houses,” said Sickinger. “He was very concerned about that and that’s what we do to this day.”

While the book offers to those in the Church an account of a Catholic layman, beatified in 1997 by Pope John Paul II, whose faith was integral to his work, Sickinger believes the book also has much to offer non-Catholics who can find in Ozanam an early example of the dedication to systemic change – along with the need to balance career, service and family life – that has become an important consideration of advocacy work today.

“He comes across as a real person and I think people can relate to that,” said Sickinger. “There’s a lot of people today who are interested in and concerned about social justices issues. This is a man to read, whether you’re Catholic or not.”

With the book, a labor close to eight years in the making, complete, Sickinger hopes to turn his attention to other research of significance to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, including research on the Society in Rhode Island and on Ozanam’s wife, Amélie. While he is relieved the work has been received well by the academic and Vincentian community, the close of nearly a decade of research on a topic of great personal interest is in its own way bittersweet.

“In those seven to eight years of research, he really became a closer friend,” said Sickinger. “He’s a model that I aspire to. Not an easy model, but a model that I aspire to.”