All-volunteer group honored at Mass marking their centennial in South Florida
By Jim Davis, Florida Catholic Media correspondent
MIAMI | Members of the archdiocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society got something they never sought – recognition – during their 100th anniversary Mass.
“The St. Vincent de Paul Society has been around longer than the Archdiocese of Miami,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski during the Sept. 24, 2022, event at Gesu Church, where the local branch of the society held its first conference. “Thank you for being on the side of the poor for these last 100 years.”
His listeners smiled, knowing that in 1922, when the group formed, South Florida was part of the Diocese of St. Augustine. But part of their pride, as one leader put it, is their relative obscurity.
“We do everything behind the scenes,” said Frank Voehl, president emeritus of the society’s archdiocesan conference. “No p.r. or posturing or self-promotion. And we tell people, don’t pay us back – pay it forward.”
About 150 members – a sizable percentage of the 1,100 in the archdiocese – attended the Mass at Gesu, where the archdiocesan council was organized in 1922. Archbishop Wenski lavished praise on the all-volunteer group.
“Your work is to help the poor get to heaven,” he said in his homily. “But you do so by helping the poor get through the difficulties of life in this vale of tears. After all, if this earth is our only highway to heaven, then we must seek to maintain it.”
True to form, though, current archdiocesan president Claudia Leudeking awarded him – with a medal from the Vatican. The medal commemorated the beatification of Frederic Ozanam, founder of the society, by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Leudeking said the local council was given the item by Renato Lima, international president general of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. “We decided to give Archbishop Wenski the medal because he’s a big supporter,” Leudeking said, adding that the idea pleased Lima as well.
After the Mass, the members attended a reception in the church basement. As they left, they were offered small gifts of St. Vincent de Paul keychains and hand-size notebooks. They also got a bookmark with a portrait of Ozanam, along with a quote from him: “I would like to embrace the whole world in a network of charity.”
Still another item was a tiny, dime-size copy of the Miraculous Medal. The medal, suitable for pendants or wallets, was based on a design that a Vincentian nun, St. Catherine LaBoure, received during a Marian apparition in 1830.
The Vincentians may be low-key, but their work spreads broad ripples. It’s not just the food banks, in southwest Miami and smaller versions at St. Katharine Drexel and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes. It’s also the everyday acts at the 62 local conferences in Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties that keep people fed, housed and hopeful.
Countless times, Vincentians have brought food baskets and furniture to individual homes. They’ve paid back bills for rent, utilities and medicines. They’ve given aid for school supplies and guidance for finding jobs. And they’ve continued to work with people until the clients become self-sufficient.
“We’re the right-hand man of the priests,” said Jim Werle, treasurer of the archdiocesan council and a member of St. Andrew Church in Coral Springs. “They can take almost anything to us, and we’ll get it done.”
Nor do the members merely sit in stores and parish halls; they visit homes of the needy. The visits not only help them assess needs accurately but provide an opportunity to talk and pray with people.
They see the visits as an essential part of their work. It helps them spread the Gospel and “evangelize in the home,” in the words of Maria Perez Gonzalez.
“If you lose power and I pay your bill, I give you electricity,” said Gonzalez, who has trained hundreds of Vincentians over 25 years. “But if I pray with you and give you hope, I leave with you the light of Christ.”
And they don’t necessarily wait to visit. Diane Hebisen, the North Broward district president, said she likes to pray with people during the initial phone call for help.
“The Lord calls me when I feel the need,” Hebisen said. “When people call, I say, ‘Can I pray with you?’ That gives me goosebumps.”
Blanca Abad likewise said she draws joy from working as president of the council at St. Stephen Church in Miramar. She first learned of the society’s work two years ago at St. Katharine Drexel. The caring nature of the group touched her.
“I loved it,” exclaimed Abad. “It’s just simple material help and listening. People don’t need something to read. They need someone to listen.”
Members acknowledged some challenges. They said that inflation, immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic have driven up requests for help. And they expected requests for aid to southwest and central Florida, slammed by Hurricane Ian a few days after the centennial Mass.
That’s one reason the society partners with other organizations, such as Catholic Charities and Feeding South Florida. In fact, Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities, was at the Sept. 24 Mass.
“No one can do it all,” Routsis-Arroyo said. “But as parts of the Church, we can all do it together.”