Twenty-one years after the Catholic Society of St Vincent de Paul was founded in Paris in 1833, the first Australian branch, or conference, met in Melbourne at St Francis' Church in Lonsdale Street on 5 March 1854. Its founder, Fr Gerald Ward, stated in a letter to the Victorian Government in February 1855 that its principal objects were 'to assist with the relief of the destitute, in a manner, as much as possible, permanently beneficial, and the visitation of poor families'. From the first, society members were involved in visiting people in need in their homes and in the setting up of 'special works', including an orphanage in South Melbourne, which opened in 1857. Fr Ward was the driving force behind its establishment, and he later suggested that the first conference was formed 'for the protection of male and female orphans'.
This conference lapsed in 1858 with the death of Fr Ward, but the society was reorganised in early August 1885, when 20 men met under the leadership of Francis Healey in the sacristy of St Patrick's Cathedral with the aim of forming a conference. Many other conferences were soon formed. By 1920 there was a network of 43 parish-based conferences established throughout Melbourne, and the first school and university conferences had been established. In 1926 the first centre of charity (or opportunity shop) was established at 214 King Street as a means both of providing clothing and furniture for people in need and of helping to fund the society's work.
The need was great throughout the depression of the 1930s, and the social advocacy role of the society was highlighted when, in October 1936, Victorian state president Charles Fox gave evidence before a select committee on widows' pensions and child endowment. He strongly supported the granting of a pension to widows with children. World War II brought with it many challenges. Membership dropped but the special works increased. After the war there were many new initiatives taken in response to emerging needs. Ozanam House, a night shelter for men in Flemington Road, opened in 1953. The number of centres of charity, conferences and special works continued to grow; in the light of developments in the wider Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, a number of significant initiatives from the 1970s responded to the needs of aged persons, women and children, homeless people, refugees, people with disabilities, those affected by accidents and disaster, and the thousands of others seeking support from conference members.
The 1990s saw a greater degree of professionalisation in the work of the society in order to respond to more complex needs. In July 2003 the more professionalised services were brought together as the St Vincent de Paul Aged Care and Community Services and established as a separate arm of the society. In the meantime the work of the volunteer arm of the society continues. In 2004 in Melbourne, there were 194 local conferences involving 2047 members, who were assisted by 766 auxiliary members. There were conferences in primary schools, secondary colleges and tertiary institutions as well as young adult conferences. The number of centres in Melbourne had grown to 48, involving some 2000 volunteers.