Love Thy Neighbor: St. Vincent de Paul Society offers financial, material, and emotional support

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

June 19, 2020

Pat McMann, diocesan council president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (far left), and Bill White, president of the SVdP conference at St. Peter the Apostle (center), are seen with other Vincentians from St. Peter the Apostle church. (NTC/Juan Guajardo) 


FORT WORTH — Pat McMann listens with compassion as people tearfully explain why they can’t pay the rent or fear having their electricity shut off. When the coronavirus pandemic reached North Texas last spring, those anxious calls increased.

“We hear about their needs as a friend in the comfort of their home,” said the diocesan council president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, describing the organization’s customary personal approach. “You learn so much more about a person than when you’re sitting across from them at a desk.”

During the pandemic, all conferences in the diocese suspended home visits and now rely on telephone interviews and technology to meet people and listen to requests for help.

Founded in 1833 by French law student Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the society has grown from a local charity reaching out to slum tenants in 19th century Paris to a multifaceted organization with a presence around the world. Remaining true to the society’s motto, serviens in spe — to serve in hope — volunteers perform acts of good will that not only help struggling neighbors with bills, food, and housing, but also contribute toward making communities a better place to live. Providing financial, material, and emotional support is always done with the intention of deepening everyone’s faith.

“We see the face of Christ in the people we visit and hope they see the face of Christ in us,” McMann explained.

The St. Vincent de Paul parishioner, who oversees 11 SVdP conferences in the Diocese of Fort Worth, has encountered various domestic scenarios since joining the society in 2005, but one experience stands out from the rest.

“We walked into the house and the first thing the husband told us was, ‘I don’t believe in God!’” she said, remembering the hostility that greeted her and a fellow Vincentian.

Unfazed by the cold reception, the visitors continued to ask questions about the couple’s financial troubles and provided helpful information. They promised to pay their rent.

Every home visit ends with a short prayer and participation is voluntary.

“By that time the husband calmed down, looked at us, and murmured, ‘maybe there is a God,’” McMann recounted.

The moment still gives her goosebumps.

“That’s the importance of the person-to-person relationship instead of client to benefactor,” she added. “The impact of sharing the love of Christ is far greater than any financial assistance we give.”
 

Helping people through struggles

When the economic effects of the coronavirus reached Arlington in March, many of the people calling Barbara Christoff were already on a financial ledge.

“We have a lot of neighbors who live paycheck to paycheck,” said the SVdP conference president at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. “When the pandemic hit, a lot of them were already behind. So, they became more behind.”

Service industry workers like Uber drivers, restaurant employees, and store clerks were especially affected.

Barbara and Pete Christoff are devoted Vincentians at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Arlington. (NTC/Ben Torres)Barbara and Pete Christoff are devoted Vincentians at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Arlington. (NTC/Ben Torres)
Barbara and Pete Christoff are devoted Vincentians at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Arlington. (NTC/Ben Torres)


“Some people had difficulty getting their unemployment benefits and were frustrated,” Christoff pointed out. “They had no money to pay rent or utilities.”

Conference guidelines allow Vincentians to provide assistance once a year.

“But if someone has extenuating circumstances, they may be helped again,” she added. “We want to help as many people as possible. That’s why we stick to a once-a-year policy.”

Tragedy introduced Christoff and her husband, Pete, to the parish’s SVdP ministry. A next-door neighbor, suffering from mental illness, set his house on fire then committed suicide, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

Although the widow was not Catholic, the Christoffs turned to their parish for guidance.

“We had no idea what the St. Vincent de Paul Society was, but my husband went to a meeting and they gave him $500 for the family,” the conference president recalled.

When the organization put a notice in the church bulletin looking for volunteers, the couple signed up.

“We stayed with it because there’s a lot of people struggling out there who need help,” Christoff said. “It was a sad situation, but we learned from that experience with our neighbor.”

One event can change a person’s life.

“The St. Vincent de Paul Society helps people get through those struggles.”
 

Donated stimulus fund outreach

When members of the St. Bartholomew finance committee decided the parish needed their government stimulus checks more than they did, the St. Vincent de Paul Society reaped the benefits. Coined the “Pass It On” program, the idea boosted the society’s coffer at a critical time.

Ron Thompson, president of the SVdP conference at St. Bartholomew Parish, is seen at St. Bartholomew's food pantry June 15. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)Ron Thompson, president of the SVdP conference at St. Bartholomew Parish, is seen at St. Bartholomew's food pantry June 15. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)
Ron Thompson, president of the SVdP conference at St. Bartholomew Parish, is seen at St. Bartholomew's food pantry June 15. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)

“There’s a 20 percent increase in the people coming through our [food] pantry,” cited Ron Thompson, St. Bartholomew conference president. “The food pantry got the St. Vincent de Paul Society started here in 1980, and now it’s grown so large, it has its own building.”

Father Karl Schilken, pastor of St. Bartholomew parish, decided 90 percent of the Pass It On money would go to the SVdP with the remaining 10 percent slated for the Gabriel Project — a ministry helping women in a crisis pregnancy. Parishioner donations from stimulus checks netted more than $30,000.

“Because of the stimulus checks, we have more money than ever before for home visits,” said Thompson, who has a team of four people who customarily meet with people asking for assistance. “The bulk of the money we give out is for water, rent, and electricity.”

After experiencing an initial uptick in calls for assistance, requests declined in April and May when households received the stimulus payment. The government also provided temporary mortgage relief with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and a moratorium on unpaid utility bills prevented shutoffs.

“We think there will be a sharp increase when the grace period ends,” Thompson explained. “But we’ll be ready. We want to help the best way we can with whatever resources we have.”
 

“So much need out there”

Many of the Mansfield residents turning to the St. Vincent de Paul Society for support in the early weeks of the pandemic weren’t eligible for a stimulus check. Senior citizens and people already living near the poverty line are most affected by the health crisis.

“We’re getting more new clients. People who never needed aid before,” said Ginnie Bucek, SVdP conference president at St. Jude Parish. “In some cases, both spouses were laid off and they don’t have any income. Or their hours were extremely cut back.”

Ginnie Bucek, SVdP conference president at St. Jude Parish in Mansfield, helps out at a recent drive-thru food pantry at the church. (NTC/Ben Torres)Ginnie Bucek, SVdP conference president at St. Jude Parish in Mansfield, helps out at a recent drive-thru food pantry at the church. (NTC/Ben Torres)
Ginnie Bucek, SVdP conference president at St. Jude Parish in Mansfield, helps out at a recent drive-thru food pantry at the church. (NTC/Ben Torres)


The SVdP is an organization that undocumented families can go to for food and rent money because there are fewer qualifying criteria than government programs. A monthly special collection at Mass and private donations fund the charitable work.

“Some people we’ve helped in the past became self-sufficient when the economy was good,” she added. “Now they’ve come back. With the COVID crisis many more agencies have come up with extra financing, so if we can’t help them, we refer them to other resources.”

The pandemic also had an impact on St. Jude’s Wednesday and Saturday food pantry. Organizers purchase inventory at a reduced rate from the Tarrant Area Food Bank. When COVID made some products unavailable, two local Walmarts stepped up to supply the pantry with their extras.

“Besides giving financial help and food, we provide friendship and spirituality so it’s an all-encompassing approach,” Bucek explained.

Occasionally, the society receives a note thanking it for helping a family through a difficult time.

“That’s what keeps us going. It’s difficult to ask for help, especially the first time, but we’re here to serve,” she assured. “And there’s so much need out there right now.”
 

They’re neighbors, not clients

The St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth is relatively new but is already making a difference in the community. Members helped one woman receive emergency surgery and supported another who left an abusive relationship.

But the situation that continues to tug at Bill White’s heartstrings involves the wife of a serviceman who lost his life. She had five children and lived in a duplex with no furniture.

“We actually set her whole house up in a matter of weeks,” he said, recalling how Vincentians pulled together to find furniture, linens, kitchen utensils, and a television. “After helping someone like that, it really hits the tender spot of your heart.”

White, St. Peter conference president, checks the organization’s hotline five times a day for messages from people in need.

“At the end of March and the beginning of April, our calls probably doubled,” he said, explaining how requests leveled off once stimulus money arrived. “And when other community agencies offering assistance began to advertise, our neighbors started calling them.”

The conference expects another surge of appeals when the school year starts and families need supplies. Ninety percent of SVdP’s funding comes from parishioners.

White and other volunteers refer to the people they assist as neighbors rather than clients because “that’s who they are. Most of our society is zip-code related. Client sounds business-like. Neighbor makes it personal.”

Along with friendship, Vincentians offer prayer. An Adoration chapel is found on parish grounds and the conference president invites neighbors helped by the society to visit it. Evangelization, carried out with sensitivity, is part of the ministry.

“I remind people that we’re fast about asking God for help but slow about thanking Him,” White pointed out.
 

It’s something we live

During its last fiscal year, diocesan SVdP conferences made 1,600 home visits and spent $645,000 helping 15,000 people in need. McMann credits dedicated volunteers and the support of Bishop Michael Olson for the nonprofit’s successful outreach.

New members are always welcome but becoming part of the St. Vincent de Paul Society requires careful thought, according to the council president.

“It’s not for everyone and involves a great deal of compassion and personal investment,” McMann cautioned.

The society views the work as a vocation.

“It’s not just a volunteer job or something you do in your spare time,” she continued. “It’s something we live.”

FORT WORTH — Pat McMann listens with compassion as people tearfully explain why they can’t pay the rent or fear having their electricity shut off. When the coronavirus pandemic reached North Texas last spring, those anxious calls increased.

Published (until 12/5/2041)
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