The life of St. Vincent de Paul in 17th century France likely shared much in common with 21st century America. A country of great wealth and power, France nevertheless had a large underclass, often spread through the countryside, with many farmers, workers and citizens living in poverty. St. Vincent dedicated his life to advocating for the welfare of the poor. He was joined by the Daughters of Charity – at that time, a group of wealthy lay women – a group which would eventually become the religious order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
Today, thousands of parish-affiliated groups known as St. Vincent de Paul Societies work throughout the world with the needy in their local communities.
In the late 1990s, Daughter of Charity Sr. Elizabeth Racko founded a St. Vincent de Paul Society at the parish in Tuba City, Arizona. Sr. Racko now works to organize ministry to prisons in the Gallup, NM area, but the society she founded is still going strong in Tuba City.
Sr. Catherine France, also a Daughter of Charity, is currently carrying on the work Sr. Racko began in Tuba City.
“We do home visiting, which is the hallmark of the Society.” Sr. France said. “[The Society] started off with a bunch of retired people so they could be available more frequently.”
Currently, the Tuba City society has about 10 volunteers of all ages who coordinate outreach efforts.
Many parish societies throughout the United States run food banks, thrift shops, or offer financial aid for emergency services, but all of them begin with outreach to people in their homes.
“That is the rule of Vincent de Paul. That was also a thing that the Daughters of Charity did in history,” Sr. France said. “The point is, when you’re in somebody’s home, and they welcome you to their home, you’re on their territory and they’re much more comfortable to talk and open their hearts. And also you get [a] much better view of what’s really happening and you can be more sympathetic. And we pray with them always.”
The visits are not solely for Catholics, but for anyone in the local community who may need a friendly ear or help with basic needs.
“You meet the family, you talk with people, you hear their story, and you can give them consolation. We also give them referrals for other bills and things like that. There’s a whole conversation level that goes with this,” Sr. France said. “After you finish praying, you often get tears and thank-yous.”
The volunteers at the St. Jude society will visit any home that requests it. Sometimes that means a dozen visits per week – other weeks, only three or four.
The volunteers recently started another effort: providing firewood in the winter. Leonard Begay, the president of the Tuba City society, recalls this as a request that came up often.
“We…talk with them and see what they need. Once we determine that, we go ahead and help them out – it could be firewood, it could be [the] electric bill, it could be any kind of – anything that they need. Car payment, anything that they need at that time.”
Once people from the community began coming to the Society to request firewood, the volunteers realized it was a need they could not ignore.
“Leonard takes care of the wood men,” Sr. France said. “He has a little system set up where the woodmen go to the home and drop [it] off – it’s the equivalent of the back of a truck of wood.”
For many in America, who live in homes with electricity and heating systems, a truckload of wood would be enough for the winter. But as Sr. France notes, in the Tuba City Area – and in many rural communities throughout the Diocese of Gallup – it doesn’t last long.
“That amount of wood – think of the back of a pickup truck – that amount of wood only lasts a month.”
The volunteers are fighting an uphill battle in trying to address the needs of their community, and it’s this same dedication that attracted the attention of David Barringer, CEO of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
As an independent charitable organization, the Society does not fall under the hierarchy of any one diocese or bishop – Barringer compares the national group and its local societies to other Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus. Nationwide, he says there are about 100,000 volunteers working at 4500 parishes. Only about 500 of those parishes have a food pantry or store, so the primary function of the Society always comes back to the home visits.
“For most people, their first experience with us is meeting in their home with two of our volunteers. We always come in pairs. And we listen, we try to find out both short-term and long-term solutions to their problems and create a relationship,” Barringer said. “Anyone can join us. We have associate members that don’t even need to be Catholic.”
In order to prepare the volunteers for the demands of the work, the Society also promotes the spiritual development of each member, encouraging group prayer and retreats. The volunteers then take that friendship and spirituality to the homes they visit.
In Tuba City, many of the visits happen to homes with an elderly resident, which reflects the outreach that happens on a nationwide level.
“The two main groups that we see are elderly, living alone, or [single moms with kids],” Barringer said. He notes that nationwide, the group has seen an uptick in families with a member, usually the father, who is in prison, leaving the financial burden on the other parent.
“That’s something that we’ve just recently learned. It’s not a requirement, certainly, but there is a huge correlation between mass incarceration, re-entry, and poverty. So we’re engaged in that. We’ve developed nationally some re-entry programs specifically to help people getting out of prison – to help them not go back, because we can help them to get housing, a job, other resources that they need to be successful once they’re out.”
With so many local groups around the country, Barringer isn’t able to visit each one in person. But when he received an invitation to visit the Tuba City society for their 20th anniversary celebration, he couldn’t turn it down.
“It was less about the celebration but more about a learning experience for me, to be able to tell people around the country ‘here’s what we do in this very special part of the country’”, he said. “This one felt special because our national council had given a grant to Tuba City…and they had done amazing work using the money to help people buy firewood to heat their homes.”
The generous spirit of the local volunteers impressed him. A regular Sunday collection at St. Jude Parish is, on average, very small, but it represents the parishioners giving what they have, even if they have very little. And even if they cannot give much financially, they nevertheless offer their time and talents.
“There’s not a lot of money available from parishioners to do the kind of work that St. Vincent de Paul does. And so they’re very appreciative of outside funds – and they’ve learned how to stretch a dollar because they don’t have a lot of dollars,” Barringer said.
This means that when a volunteer fosters a relationship with a member of the community, that relationship is built on trust and friendship.
“I knew that that was going on there in Tuba City, and thought, wow, we can all learn more about how this works,” Barringer recalls.
At the 20th anniversary Mass and celebration on October 20th, the volunteers wore matching blue shirts. Several of them had been with the Society from its first day.
“You could just see the pride in what they do, and that they were very much an integrated part of the community,” Barringer said. “Which is what we love for every conference, to be well known and respected and known as friends to people in poverty.”
The Mass was celebrated by Fr. Jay Jung, pastor at Tuba City – himself a Vincentian. The local Knights of Columbus formed an honor guard and the three oldest members of the society led the procession.
A communal meal in the parish hall followed, during which Barringer addressed those in attendance. And, to the surprise of everyone, he presented a check for $5000 from the national society to the St. Jude chapter. $5000, as it happens, will buy a lot of firewood for the winter.
“We know the money will be used for great things because they’ve had an experience with us already of using grant money do what they’re supposed to do for the poor,” Barringer later said. “So we’re very happy to do that.”
As the next chapter for the Tuba City Society begins, Begay hopes that more volunteers will join. He wants to introduce more outreach programs to the community, including home maintenance and remodeling – all of which also help with warmth in the winter.
“I think this 20th anniversary marks a great event as far as St. Vincent de Paul and our community,” Begay said. “I think it has told us, you know, we’ve gone 20 years, and we can go longer, and we’re still very strong in Tuba City.”
To learn more about the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, or to get involved, visit svdpusa.org