Liz Quirin of the Belleville Messenger present the work of the Vincent dePaul Society.

People in need all across the diocese make a call that begins a process within conferences of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that operate through diocesan parishes. Brief conversations with members from many of the conferences and the council overseeing the conferences paint a picture of care with heavy brush strokes of hope for the needy, the homeless, the hopeless and the careworn of this world.

St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville convened the first St. Vincent de Paul conference in 1917, and today 21 conferences answer calls and offer hope to someone in need. In addition, nine groups of young Vincentians volunteer through diocesan elementary and two of the Catholic high schools.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul began in 1833 in France through the efforts of Frédéric Ozanam, a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, who, along with several friends, was challenged about his faith. Deciding on a course of action, the small group of friends began reaching out to the poor in the city, at first calling themselves the Conference of Charity but then changing their name to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in honor of the group’s patron saint.

Shortly, the U.S. conferences will celebrate the organization’s 165th anniversary in this country. The first meeting of the Society in the U.S. was held Nov. 20, 1845 in St. Louis where the national headquarters remain today.

Local conferences send representatives to a Society council covering a particular region to keep members informed about the work going on, new programs and services available and changes that might be made.

Looking at a group’s history can be enlightening, but it does not tell the story of the countless thousands of people who have been assisted over the years and those who are calling and asking for help in these troubled economic times.

Canvassing the diocese’s conferences about their services, representativessaid more people have and continue to call each day. The economy has sent some who would ordinarily be donors to telephones to seek help.
Conferences vary in size from the very small to large.

At St. Mary’s Conference in Belleville, Richard Blaes joined the Vincentians in 1962, was elected treasurer of the organization, and has held that position since then.

In those days, Blaes said, the Conference’s budget was $1,000 per year; now it is 10 times that.
The Conference assists with utilities, food vouchers and possibly clothing vouchers to St. Francis Thrift Store in Belleville.

“I stayed in because the organization does a lot of good; it helps people,” Blaes said.

At Queen of Peace Conference in Belleville, organized in March of this year, new president, Ramona Rodriguez, said their hotline began accepting calls in July and has received from one to five calls a day.

The Conference participated in a “Walk for the Poor” in September to raise funds for the needy. One of the walks was held at Althoff Catholic High School, and the Queen of Peace Conference raised more than $10,000, Rodriguez said.
“As we grow our bank account from generous parish donations and also grow our knowledge base on appropriate ways to provide assistance for the needy, we will increase our assistance level,” Rodriguez said.

Den Furdek, president of the O’Fallon Conference, which includes St. Nicholas, St. Clare and Corpus Christi Parish in Shiloh, said the needs have increased over the last few years.

The people who take calls in this Conference receive 1,100-1,200 calls in a year. St. Nicholas pastor, Msgr. Bill Hitpas, reminds the Vincentians to guard against cynicism when they find some of the poor have taken advantage of the system of outreach.

A former member of the Conference, Florian Beuckman, always reminded members to care for the children. “If you just listen to the adults, you may not remember the children, he said,” Furdek said.

At Christmas the O’Fallon Conference, like others in the diocese, has a Giving Tree with items needed for families. Everyone is amazed at the number of gifts under the tree when they are returned, wrapped and ready to be delivered.

Often the Conferences sponsor or assist with local food banks.

In Germantown, the food is stored at the city hall where St. Boniface Vincentians go to fill bags for the needy on Mondays, Frances Wuebbels said.

Wuebbels said their Conference is very active, and members conduct food drives as well as fill bags for the needy.
“We’re filling more bags of food now than ever before,” Wuebbels said. “We’re preparing 28 bags a week.”
One of the older Vincentians, Mary Catherine Russell, 88, in the Holy Trinity, Fairview Heights and St. Stephen, Caseyville Conference, said these days, many people are seeing “hard times,” and it’s important to help.
Bob Cerulli at St. Henry’s in Belleville said the needs are greater now, and he wonders if their Conference is doing enough.

St. Teresa’s in Belleville has an active Young St. Vincent de Paul group at the school, Vincentian Bernie Lengerman said. Lengerman said he is in charge at St. Teresa’s and has been active for more than 40 years. At 87, he said he still enjoys the activity and the service that he can offer as a Vincentian.

The St. Teresa’s Conference participates with others in the area at a local food pantry where about 500 families are served each month, Lengerman said.

The conferences often begin small and build up over time. This was true of the Conference at St. Bruno’s in Pinckneyville, Connie Ruppert said.

It began with a raffle for a pineapple upside down cake which brought in $35.00. Now, 11 years later, the Conference continues to help the poor.

Vincentians at Immaculate Conception Conference in Columbia stay busy with a number of activities, Jim Held said.
Besides home visits to those requesting assistance, the Conference sponsors several other projects, including an annual cold weather clothing drive for coats, hats, gloves, and other clothing items which are then distributed through the SVDP store, Holy Angels Shelter and to the truly homeless by their Conference.

“About four or five times each year (for the last six or seven years) we have been hosting a meal for the truly homeless in E. St. Louis,” Held said. “We feed about 50 men, women and children on a Saturday afternoon and always have new socks for the men, and during the winter months, hats and gloves.”

Other activities include praying the rosary on Mondays at a local nursing home and monthly Bingo with residents.

The St. James Conference in Millstadt was started by Pat Hogrebe and Ruth Morton. Hogrebe is now the executive director of the Belleville Council of St. Vincent de Paul serving the people of southern Illinois. Morton leads the Millstadt Conference.

Conference members “do whatever we can” to help those who call, Morton said. It could be a need for help with utility bills or rent or money to put gasoline in a car to get to work.

The Sacred Heart Special Works Conference in Dupo stays very busy, Mary Ann Klosterman, president, said.
Members visit a nursing home two to three Saturdays per month, work at St. Francis Thrift Store in Belleville, the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store and office in East St. Louis; and work with young college students who volunteer time at the thrift store.

All of the members do fund raising which includes the Dupo Chili Cook-off, a dinner auction and selling cookbooks, Klosterman said.

Some other activities include repairing the soup bus, helping families at Christmas and organizing Cosgrove’s Kitchen volunteers for Easter Sunday meal preparation. Another Conference just becoming active again is one at Holy Rosary Parish in Fairmont City where Gerry Hasenstab is a member. Hasenstab is also the Vincentian Midwest Regional representative and serves on the national board of directors. He has been active in the Society for 34 years, he said. Because the Conferences offer person-to-person service, they are very important, Hasenstab said.

A number of diocesan Catholic elementary schools and two of the three high schools have conferences of young Vincentians. These young people are assisted in their outreach by teachers and staff members who guide them and teach them about the Society.

At Mater Dei Catholic High School in Breese, Judy Kampwerth teaches religion and moderates the young Vincentians.
The Conference participated in a “Walk for the Poor” in Breese.

The students raised $731.00 through the walk which was distributed to Germantown’s food pantry ($500) and to the House of Manna ($231) in Breese.

Other good works are carried out throughout the year. Seven of the Conferences prepare and serve meals on the St. Vincent de Paul Mobile Kitchen, usually referred to as the “soup bus” or just “the bus.”

The bus was inaugurated in 1988, Hasenstab said, and he “clearly remembers” when the idea for a bus emerged.
Flooding in East St. Louis occurred in 1986 at the south end of the town when flood gates wouldn’t close, Hasenstab said.

Disaster relief agencies offered residents assistance, giving them food to help out because their homes were flooded.
Hasenstab and 50-year Vincentian, Joe Hubbard, who is coordinator of the diocesan outreach agency, Catholic Urban Programs, drove through the city to see the damage and what people needed.

“Here they were, people standing on the streets in the rain trying to balance a sandwich, a bowl of chili and their umbrellas,” he said.

The idea emerged to provide a place to come in out of the rain/sleet/snow/extreme heat to sit down and have a meal. Instead of someone handing out a sandwich, people would be invited in to be cared for with dignity, without judgment about their situation.

It took two years to put the bus on the streets. They bought a bus for $200.00 at a junk yard, and the rest of the materials needed were donated, he added.

Now, the council has two buses that are rotated every three months so that they last longer without repairs. The conferences take the bus out to various locations to feed the hungry.

The St. Luke Conference in Belleville used to travel to Centreville with the bus once a month but has begun taking it to the Franklin Neighborhood in Belleville.

Three crews rotate taking the bus out from St. Luke’s. Each crew plans and cooks the food that will be served on the bus. Jackie Smith fixed spaghetti and meat balls and salad for the evening meal recently, adding rolls, fruit and a drink to her menu.

“We get so much from doing this,” Jackie Smith said. “At meetings we talk about how to see the face of God in everyone you serve.”

Jackie’s husband, Parke, drives the bus for the group. As with other conferences, St. Luke’s also responds to individuals and families who need assistance with rent and utilities among other requests.

Althoff Catholic High School students have a young Vincentian conference at the school and take the bus out three times a month to try to accommodate all the students who want to go.

Last summer, Althoff added dates during the summer because they had more students than dates. One senior, Jennifer Hipkiss, said she learned about the work of the conference in eighth grade and the young Vincentians at Blessed Sacrament in Belleville.

An Althoff staff member or a teacher always accompanies the students on the bus, John Bouc, campus minister, said.

Bouc said a group of about a dozen teachers has volunteered to go with the students. “There’s never a problem getting someone to go with them,” Bouc said.

While most people think of the bus going out in the evening to invite people aboard to share a meal, it also goes out during the heat of the summer to offer a cold drink and a little air conditioning for the homeless or those whose utilities have been turned off, Hasenstab said.

It is literally a vehicle to serve the poor. Each group that takes out the bus provides whatever food or other items will be distributed. In winter, many of the conferences not only provide a warm place to eat a meal, they often hand out socks, hats and gloves to their dinner guests as they leave the bus.

Hot meals are prepared and served six days a week at Cosgrove’s Kitchen in East St. Louis and a weekly breakfast is served every Saturday by the conference at St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville.

The Saturday breakfasts were started more than 10 years ago by Del Tucker, a long-time Vincentian who also ran the cathedral’s food pantry, Chris York said. York was one of the breakfast “crew chiefs” last Saturday.
“We have an enormous number of volunteers who help with the breakfast,” she said.

In fact, volunteer servers that morning were students at McKendree College. They were working on service hours for a class, but Kelsey Rittenhouse of Corpus Christi Parish in Shiloh, said she has known about the breakfast for some time, and she “just likes helping people.”

York said the breakfast serves between 75-100 people every Saturday, but she and other Conference members are noticing more and more children coming for a meal.

Cosgrove’s Kitchen, opened in the 1980s, receives assistance from some of the conferences with donations of casseroles that have been prepared and frozen until they are needed. About eight years ago, the Immaculate Conception Conference began distributing casserole recipes that could be made ahead and frozen. The casseroles were then taken to Cosgrove’s Kitchen in East St. Louis. The Kitchen is also a Vincentian ministry. “Since we started this project, about 8 other conferences have taken on the project also,” Held said.

At Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter special meals are prepared and served. Hundreds of carryouts are delivered to those in need in the area by volunteers.

The meals are generally prepared at the Kitchen and distributed from the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store adjacent to the Kitchen.

Revenue from the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, in the same building, supports the Kitchen and pays some of its bills, but other donations are needed to cover all of the costs, especially utilities that soar in the summer heat or the winter’s frigid temperatures. The store also provides low cost or sometimes free clothing and other household items to the needy who have no means of paying.

Other services and ministries offered by the Council and supported by volunteers and Conference members include Gear Up. Gear Up is a partnership between the Vincentians and Poverty Services, a diocesan outreach ministry directed by Mike Schuette, that provides clothing for men who may not have appropriate clothing for a job interview.
Recently, a young man who had been in jail was picking up clothes for work. He had just secured a job and was extremely grateful to the Society volunteers who were helping him select his wardrobe.

Those needing clothes make appointments to “shop” at Gear Up, and volunteers meet them to choose clothes that can be used for a job interview and then, when they secure a job, they can return to pick out clothes to wear to work until they can purchase their own.

In addition to Gear Up, the Council, working through a committee, instituted low interest loans for the poor in part to keep people from getting caught up in “payday loans” that look like the only option for the poor when a crisis occurs and they need money quickly.

With a low-interest loan through the Society’s committee, interest rates are held at 4 percent, and a payback schedule is devised that allows the person time to repay the loan without going further into debt. Other programs and services include: a prescription outreach program, free budgeting classes, job skills seminars, and more.

A special group of volunteers has formed at the Council office in East St. Louis, Hogrebe said, the Conference of St. Louise de Marillac.

“These are people who are volunteers,” Hogrebe said, “who come to the office to help in any way they can. They wanted to have a formal relationship with the Society, so they formed this conference.”

All of the Conferences are important, but those located in parishes are “extremely important,” Hasenstab said. “The ideal is to have one in every parish.”

Hasenstab said sometimes people just need someone to visit at home or often at a nursing home.
“A lot of people are just dropped off at nursing homes” with no one to come to visit them. Others may just need a ride to church.

Whatever their needs, the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s members try to meet those needs.
Many of the people, Hasenstab included, said the spiritual aspect of the Society is essential to taking care of the poor without losing hope or being burned out.

“Those who take their connection to the spiritual aspect of the Society do the best work,” Hasenstab said.

The Society provides “a tremendous vehicle for spiritual growth,” Hasenstab added. “From that growth and love of God” people are forced out into the world to care for the poor, to do all that is possible to meet their needs and the needs of those who are alone in the world.

One Vincentian who personifies the Society’s mission is Joe Hubbard, a member for 50 years. He began his association with the Society when he was a young man, and his family needed assistance.

Giving back to the Society became a way of life for him. In October the diocesan Conferences paid tribute to all that Hubbard has done for the poor and the needy for the last 50 years.

The Society’s members’ goal remains: “serving God by serving others, one person at a time.”

For more information about St. Vincent de Paul in the diocese, go to


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