Mosaic blessed honoring founder of St. Vincent de Paul Society
Feb 14, 2020
US & World
One of the first mosaics some pilgrims might see as they enter the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was blessed and dedicated on Jan. 28. Along with the noon Mass congregation, members of the international non-profit Society of St. Vincent de Paul gathered at the basilica for the dedication of the new mosaic of their founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, in the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded by Blessed Frederic Ozanam and six of his contemporaries in Paris in 1833, celebrates its 175th anniversary in the United States this year. While studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris, Frederic was challenged by an atheist in his debate group about what the Catholic Church was doing for the poor in Paris. In answer to this, Frederic when he was 20 years old founded the society, an organization that works to serve and build relationships with the poor and grow the spirituality of its members. The society spread to the United States in 1845, where the first meeting was held in St. Louis. Today, there are nearly 100,000 Vincentians, all lay men and women, in 4,500 communities in the U.S., with more than 800,000 members serving in 155 countries worldwide.
The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Wisconsin, the national episcopal advisor of the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s National Council of the United States, Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the basilica, and visiting Vincentian priests from around the country.
At the beginning of his homily, Bishop Hying noted how, with the addition of the mosaic, the basilica has been a work in progress for more than 100 years.
“It reminds us of medieval cathedrals,” he said. “It also reminds us of the progress of our own spirituality, that it’s never quite finished, that God always wants to add something new.”
Tying in the Mass readings - from the prophet Isaiah and the beginning of Christ’s preaching and healings in Matthew 4 - the bishop spoke of mercy and the coming of Christ as the ultimate act of vulnerability.
“I love to think of the advent of Christ as the ultimate home visit,” he said. “Vincentians make home visits. We don’t wait for people to come to us, we go to them, and enter into the context of their lives…is that not what Jesus does for us?”
The Gospel shaped the founding of the society and its spread throughout the world, the bishop said.
“It was Frederic’s vision that the Gospel had something profound to say to the social issues that were tearing France apart in the middle of the 19th century,” he said.
A Vincentian himself, Bishop Hying spoke of the transformation in his own spiritual life through membership in the society.
“Ultimately, Frederic reminds us of the urgency of charity,” he said.
Blessed Frederic, the bishop continued, “points us to the possibility and practicality of living the Gospel in the here and now. We don’t need to be somewhere else, we don’t need to be somebody else in order to become saints.”
Through his devotion to the truth, his model of Christian charity, his love for Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and his fidelity to living out his vocation as a husband, father, and scholar, Frederic’s life is a paradigm of a life lived with and for Christ.
“One of my favorite places in our nation’s beloved capital is the top of the Washington Monument,” the bishop said. “When you’re up there, you can see how L’Enfant made out the city in a way that you can’t when you’re on the ground…I think of that when I think of standing with Christ, because what you see all depends on where you stand. When you stand with Christ, you see things through his eyes and his vision. That’s what Frederic dared to do.”
After the final blessing, the celebrants and those gathered processed to the Vincentian chapel, where Bishop Hying blessed the mosaic with holy water and incense.
Pamela Hudson Johnson, national director of governance and membership services of the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s National Council of the United States, became involved with the society in 2006, after her mother passed away.
“I wanted to do something to serve others,” she said.
Through the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Hudson Johnson joined the national office, becoming the first African American staff member to work on the national platform. She was also part of the liturgy committee for the Mass and celebration of the day.
“In 2011, I went on a pilgrimage to Paris with a group of Vincentians, and that was just life changing for me,” she said. “I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Dave Barringer, chief executive officer of the national council, first became aware of the society through the thrift stores around the country. When the national council was looking for a CEO, his wife encouraged him to apply because of the “great intersection of your business skills and your faith.”
“I actually came to this chapel many times and prayed with St. Vincent and said, ‘Father, take me where I’m supposed to be,’” said Barringer, a native of Washington, D.C.
Later, when touring the basilica with the society’s international president, the president asked if they could place an image of Blessed Frederic in the Vincentian chapel.
Though he first thought the idea was improbable, the project of placing the mosaic in the basilica was “actually easier than I ever would have imagined,” Barringer said. “It must have been Providence. There was a space that was perfect for it on a blank wall. Now it kind of adds to the symmetry of the entire chapel.”
The project took about a year of fundraising and consultation with the basilica. The society also needed approval from the Congregation of the Mission priests and the Daughters of Charity, who were the original founders and sponsors of the basilica’s Vincentian chapel.
“They said, ‘Blessed Frederic, of course,’” Barringer said.
The image of the mosaic is based on a portrait painted by Blessed Frederic’s brother-in-law, Barringer said, “so we know that it was during the time of his life, as a young man.” It was created by Travisanutto Mosaics, the same company that created the basilica’s Trinity Dome mosaic. It is composed of 4,000 pieces of smalti - a special tempered glass - and gold leaf.
For Tommye Grant, the Archdiocese of Washington’s council president who joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society through her parish, Our Lady of Victory in Washington, D.C., the mosaic helps tell the story of the society and the blessed in a more profound sense.
“It’s just little acts of kindness constantly, without thinking, that actually goes in the fabric,” Grant said. “It’s a mosaic, a mosaic of love and caring.”
From the poorest to the more affluent neighborhoods of the city, “we just have neighbors in need everywhere,” Grant said. “What happens if a person is just poor in spirit?”
“This is the first time I’ve seen the mosaic live,” Barringer said. “They sent me a picture of it, but I wanted to wait until the day of.”
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.