September 4, 2020

St. Vincent de Paul seeks new conferences to ‘serve people with the love of God’

Youths volunteer for Holy Family Parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference in New Albany on Aug. 12. (Submitted photo)

Youths volunteer for Holy Family Parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference in New Albany on Aug. 12. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

When asked what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) means to his Bloomington community and to himself personally, Bob Zerr shares a story.

He and his wife were on an SVdP home visit to offer utility payment assistance to a homebound woman.

“The lady was disabled, in a wheelchair and had to have a personal care assistant live with her,” recalls the member of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington.

“At the end of the visit, we asked her if she’d like to pray. We said a prayer, and I could see she was crying. She said, ‘Nobody has said a prayer with me in years.’ It was so moving.”

To Zerr, the story exemplifies the heart of what the St. Vincent de Paul Society embodies: holiness through service.

“It gives parishes the ability to continue Christ’s work in the community, and at the same time it strengthens one’s faith and creates fellowship and camaraderie with fellow parishioners,” says the president of the archdiocese’s South Central Indiana SVdP district.

There are currently 58 SVdP conferences within the archdiocese, some made up of more than one parish. (Related: How to start a parish or multi-parish St. Vincent de Paul Society)

But with more than 120 parishes in the archdiocese, the SVdP Indianapolis Archdiocesan Council hopes to expand to more parishes throughout central and southern Indiana, bringing help to those in need and spiritual growth to parishes and SVdP members. (See related article.)

Past archdiocesan council president and 40-year SVdP member Pat Jerrell is leading the expansion effort.

“I think a St. Vincent de Paul parish conference provides a concrete way for pastors to care for and evangelize all souls in a parish’s boundaries,” he says. It does so “by employing the laity to fulfill the great command to love God and neighbor.”

‘Primary purpose is to grow in holiness’

The initiative to expand the number of SVdP conferences began earlier this year.

“We were challenged in an archdiocesan Catholic Charities board meeting as to our plan for providing assistance to struggling parishes in smaller communities of the archdiocese,” recalls Jerrell, a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis.

“That challenge became an opportunity to put a more permanent infrastructure in place in parishes that would like to have a St. Vincent de Paul conference.”

The benefits in doing so are numerous, says Jim Koerber, president of the archdiocese’s southern Indiana SVdP district.

A SVdP conference “helps all the people in a parish’s boundaries,” says the member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon. “It gives the ability to work with other organizations in the area to help those in need, and it really bring its members, the parish and the people it serves to fulfillment through prayerful union and personal service.”

The “prayerful union” comes from the society’s primary purpose.

“If you asked 100 people what [the Society of] St. Vincent de Paul is all about, 99% would say it’s about helping the poor or less fortunate,” says Deacon Thomas Horn, spiritual advisor for the archdiocesan council. “If you look at our manual and rules, the primary purpose is to help our members grow in holiness.”

Each conference’s twice-monthly meeting “allows as much time for spiritual development as it does for business,” he says.

Members of the society, known as Vincentians, are called “to live lives in imitation of Christ,” he explains. “As we do that, we know we have a call to serve the less fortunate.

“The essence of our spirituality is we want to be the hands and face of Christ to those we encounter. In our spirituality, we have to grow in that relationship with Christ, because we can’t give what we don’t have.”

That holiness is lived out not just through charity in action or prayer during meetings, but also through prayer with those in need, such as Zerr and his wife experienced when helping the homebound woman.

Living out that call to holiness is often rewarded.

“It’s interesting how the Holy Spirit seems to show up,” says Koerber. “When you think you’re at the end of your rope or desperate, good things just sort of happen.”

Homelessness, poverty ‘happen in rural areas, too’

As for charitable services, “It’s up to the actual members in each parish or multi-parish conference what works they want to do,” says Jerrell.

Conferences assess their local community to determine if a need-gap exists that they could fill, or if it would be more helpful to assist existing organizations such as food pantries or distribution centers.

All conferences assist with rent and utilities, says Koerber, using money raised by parish collections as allowed by the pastor. Some conferences also operate a thrift store with all proceeds going back to support the conference. Others run a food pantry or help in distributing household goods and furniture to those in need.

“I think there is more poverty and homelessness outside of cities than people realize,” he says. “It happens in rural areas, too.”

For instance, he shared how a residential facility in Corydon was suddenly closed by the state fire marshal in February. Between 25 to 30 people “were put out with no place to go,” he recalls.

The St. Joseph SVdP conference, comprised of seven parishes in the New Albany Deanery, worked with other organizations and churches to find temporary housing and alternative living arrangements for the former residents.

Meanwhile, Koerber adds, conference members “helped the fire marshal make improvements in the facility and helped furnish it” so it could be reopened.

‘Emphasizing our social justice side’

Conferences can also offer programs promoted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, such as its Changing Lives Forever program for those seeking “to become able to sustain themselves independently,” says coordinator Domoni Rouse.

It’s part of the national society’s renewed efforts to address poverty by effecting systemic change, says Jerrell.

“We’ve always been known for our charitable works,” he says. “But in the last 10 years, we’ve been emphasizing our social justice side through our systemic change initiatives.”

Rouse, a member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis, defines systemic change as “change achieved by considering the root cause of issues, usually an environment or condition that’s detrimental to the well-being of a person or an entire segment of a community.”

Jerrell cites other examples of systemic change that are driven by SVdP, including Vincentians attending city or town council meetings and contacting legislators to advocate for the needs of the poor in their communities.

“There’s our whole aspect of social responsibility that lines up very well with the seven tenets of Catholic social teaching,” he says.

‘Serving … with the love of God’

Whatever services a parish or multi-parish SVdP conference offers, the net effect is help for the community and spiritual growth for conference members and parishioners alike, says Deacon Horn.

“Frankly, our Church doesn’t always get the best publicity in the local news,” he admits.

“I think the St. Vincent de Paul Society is a way to show the best of the Church. We’re serving people—not just materially, but with the love of God.

“I really do think that where we go, God goes with us.” †

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