The Society of St Vincent de Paul 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. It is possible he had been associated with the Christchurch conference as there is a C. O'Neill on the roll there, although at the time he lived in Otago.

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.