From humble beginnings in the United States 175 years ago along the St. Louis riverfront, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul spread throughout the country. It’s as vital as ever in St. Louis, especially with job losses that followed the COVID-19 pandemic.
From March through October, the Archdiocesan Council of St. Louis received 2,961 requests for assistance. More than 1,100 of those were identified by Vincentians as COVID related.
“With the help of generous donors and faithful Vincentians, we were able to help many people pay high utility bills and avoid disconnection,” said Gena Bast, director of marketing and communications. “Currently, we are seeing a large demand for housing assistance and our neighbors worry about evictions. Although the CDC has issued a halt on disconnects, there are qualifiers, and many tenants and landlords are unaware of the facts.”
More than 3,400 volunteers at 140 conferences assisted more than 344,000 people and provided more than $8.4 million in direct aid in fiscal year 2018. At Immaculate Conception Parish in Maplewood on a recent Saturday, Sandra Marks and other volunteers helped distribute food from a Society of St Vincent de Paul pantry. Marks said the number of people seeking food has jumped since extended unemployment payments stopped in early October. The parish conference also helps people with rent, utilities and medicine.
The pantry is supported by its parishioners and a couple other parishes. Marks said that any time she has a need, she asks God for it. Once, she said, she was out of crackers at home that she eats with soup and she thought of people who come to the pantry and also could use crackers. When she went to get food from Operation Food Search, it included five kinds of crackers.
“I knew God was with us,” Marks said.
The pantry work “helps my faith a lot,” she said. “It’s a blessing in my life.”
A double dose of struggles have beset Anne Vigil, but she has a special group of people to support her — members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Gabriel Parish in south St. Louis.
Vigil, a parishioner at St. Gabriel, has been a volunteer with the conference, making home visits and phone calls helping people in need get the help they need to thrive. Despite other struggles, she was doing the phone work up until September when she was in a rollover accident in which she broke both of her arms. For about the last 10 years Vigil has been treated for a rare form of metastatic bone cancer.
Vigil is a nurse and her husband is self-employed. The health issues have interrupted their work lives. She was working sporadically checking up on patients from home until the accident. The St. Vincent de Paul Society helped at different times in their trials, including at the beginning when their two children were young.
“It’s weird to be on the receiving end,” she said. “It’s very humbling. But that’s what they’re there for, when people hit bumps in the road and things don’t go right.”
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul helps women and men grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to people in need.
“They’ve just been amazing,” Vigil said of the Society’s help. “It’s rather overwhelming and humbling to have their assistance. In times like this when things go really wrong, they’ve really come through and helped us. They’ve been there in prayer as well as financially.”
The conference helped put together a bed when she came home from the hospital recently. She needed it since she no longer could climb stairs due to her injured arms and weakened legs due to the cancer. The conference also donated a mattress.
“It’s what Christ would do. It’s what the apostles would do. I could see Peter, John and all those guys coming in and doing that, too. Can you imagine them putting together a bed, do you think they’d do that?” she asked with a chuckle.
At St. John Paul II Parish in south St. Louis County, COVID-19 has led to a temporary halt to home visits and to Society programs delivering donated food to food pantries. The conference, however, is still helping people with rental and utility bills, including many clients affected by job losses. This year, the conference has contributed more than $33,000 for those bills to people in need in the parish boundaries. It’s a similar scene at other parishes in the south district, said Ken Gebken, a member of the conference who also is president of the district.
“We give so much, but in giving we receive,” he said. Vincentians are called to service and to a closeness with God through that service, he added.
>>How it began
In 1845 at a little schoolhouse at the Basilica of St. Louis King of France (Old Cathedral) the Society of St. Vincent de Paul began in St. Louis, also the organization’s founding in the United States. A group of 19 Catholic laymen and one priest, Father Ambrose Heim, attended that very first meeting.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul formed just 12 years earlier in Paris, France. In the spring of 1833, Frédéric Ozanam, a 20-year-old law student at the Sorbonne, was challenged by another student about the Catholic Church’s service to the poor; Ozanam was inspired to found a “conference of charity” and the group adopted the name the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in honor of the saint revered for his work among the needy
Father John Timon grew up in St. Louis and learned of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul while in Paris on clerical duties. He returned to America intent on making the Society known. He did so when he preached at the consecration of the new St. Vincent de Paul Church in St. Louis on Nov. 16, 1845. Many at the church’s dedication attended the organizational meeting four days later.
Today, the Society’s nearly 100,000 trained volunteers in 1,223 conferences in the United States provided 12.5 million hours of volunteer service in 2018, helping more than 5.4 million people through visits to homes, prisons and hospitals at a value of more than $1.1 billion. For information on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis, visit svdpstlouis.org.