“When most Catholics think of their nearest St. Vincent dePaul Society, most see it as a sectarian social welfare agency that helps feed, clothe and shelter the poor. That it does. ” writes the Catholic Herald.However, it continues… “But there is so much more, say members of the Superior conference of the society. Popularly called Vincentians — whether lay or religious — they’re quick to emphasize that their meetings every other Tuesday are as much about personal spiritual growth as they are about the logistics of helping the poor.”

The rest of the story unpacks “there is so much more”.There is a rhythm and pattern to these biweekly gatherings that are formed by equal parts prayer meeting, mini-retreat, business meeting and support group meeting.

Prayer and stories

At their May 28 meeting, the Superior St. Vincent de Paul Society members started as they always do — with prayer and a Scripture reading. This time it was about Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. Precious Blood Fr. Leon Flaherty, the conference’s spiritual director, prayed a litany that invoked St. Vincent de Paul, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Blesseds Frederic Ozanam, who founded the society in 1833, and Sr. Rosalie Rend, a Daughter of Charity who directed Ozanam and other Vincentians on how  to serve the poor.

Spirituality infuses the rest of the meeting as Liz Gaynor, the conference president, said: “Our discussion question this evening is, ‘How have you experienced God’s love?’”

Vice president Lynn Tracy and another member, Jan O’Malley, told of three Native Americans passing through, heading home to the Dakotas after a funeral. One had left a message on the St. Vincent de Paul line.

Tracy said, “They were stranded travelers. Since there were 45 other families waiting for a call, I was kind of like, ‘OK. Is this a priority?’”
She and O’Malley discussed it. Tracy said, “We ended up meeting with the two gentlemen and a woman here on Saturday and decided to help with the gas that would get them to their destination.” Cost? About $60.

“I went in the gas station and paid the bill,” Tracy said, “and when I came back out, O’Malley had waited for me in the vehicle. She said, ‘They gave you this.’ It was a diamond willow walking stick.”

O’Malley added, “It was beautiful. I saw the spirit in this guy. He said, ‘We never take without giving. We never do that.’ It just took my heart.” She said they exchanged hugs and that, “It was just beautiful.”

Members around the table murmured and nodded in agreement.

O’Malley continued: “I had said, ‘This is a really gracious gift.’ I got where he was coming from. I wanted him not to leave without thinking that he’s a very special person in my heart.”

Tracy emphasized that people who receive aid often want to somehow give back, even if it’s just a token gesture.

“When we talked about God’s generosity in our Ozanam training we were kind of encouraged that if somebody offers you something to drink, accept it, even if you don’t like it. Try to at least have some of it. Or if they offer you coffee, and you don’t like coffee, just say, ‘No, but I’ll have some water,’ because you accept that generosity,” she said. “Just like we learned from this gentleman, that’s their way of giving back. The humility that they have in asking to be able to give something back, whether it’s used clothing or a couple of file folders, it’s just a way of seeing God’s generosity in the people.”

Helping friends

Notably absent in these Vincentians’ talk about those they help are clinical words like “client” or “applicant.” Gaynor simply called them “our friends that we go visit.”

Home visits are at the core of Vincentian outreach. Requests for aid, typically left as messages on a dedicated telephone line, are followed up with return calls that seek further information. That call usually comes from Tracy, who gets more information and schedules a home visit.

Then, in a procedure that dates to the earliest days of the society, two Vincentians visit each applicant in his or her home. Home visits allow the Vincentians to immerse themselves in the reality of the person’s life and need so they can better determine the scope of the person’s need.

“Our friends that we go visit don’t even realize how much of God’s love they’re showing just by welcoming us in their home,” Gaynor said. By showing the respect and dignity that they deserve, she added, “I’ve experienced God’s love.”

The Vincentians want people to understand that their work is not just about supplying physical aid. It’s also about Vincentians expanding their own spiritual horizons. By helping the poor physically, Vincentians grow spiritually, and they’re open to accepting new members.

Gaynor said she will go into some homes and there will be “this astronomical situation that these poor people are trying to deal with and just try to make some kind of sense out of it. There’ll be just this huge dilemma … and by the grace of God, we work together, and we figure it out. We at least to try to help them and point them in the right direction and relieve some of their anxiety. That’s quite amazing.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the Superior conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society email ccbrecep@ccbsuperior.orgor call 715-394-6617.


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