Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

St. Vincent de Paul Society re-examines core mission, continues commitment to helping the needy

by Jami LeBrun, Inland Register staff

(From the Feb. 24, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

The St. Vincent de Paul Society has been a part of Spokane since 1941, and most people recognize the name associated with thrift stores all over the world. However, many people are unaware of the tremendous measures the organization takes to serve the poor and needy of local communities, and the vast and complicated organizational structure of the society that makes it possible to locate and serve individuals and families in the most need.

In the last six months, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Spokane has made the decision to step back to the roots of the organization and remodel itself once again after both St. Vincent and the Society’s founder, Blessed Frederic Antoine Ozanam, recommitting itself to service to the poor as part of a Christian calling to charity and justice.

As part of the process of renewal, the Society has invited Paul Kelley, the Extension and Formation Coordinator for the Western Region of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, to present an Ozanam School of Charity. The free school will be Saturday, March 12, at Mary Queen Parish in Spokane, and includes lunch. The purpose of the Ozanam School of Charity is “to ignite a fire in the soul of each participant by immersing the entire school in an atmosphere of spirituality and covering, in a complete and concise manner, all of the topics needed to give them a feel for what and why the Society is and how each person is expected to approach the ministry of the Society,” said Kelley in an interview from his home in Phoenix.

Kelley explained the purpose of the Ozanam School of Charity is to insure that all Vincentians – as those dedicated to the mission of the Society are called – are adequately trained in important aspects of their Vincentian vocation and “are able to act appropriately and speak intelligently about who we are, what we do, and how and why we do it.”

“Many problems flow from a lack of understanding of our mission,” he said. “We sometimes suffer from a mistaken focus on a single activity, often food or thrift store related.”

Though most people are aware of the thrift stores and food banks located throughout the diocese and operated by the Society, very few are aware of how much more depth there is to the ministry of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

While the thrift stores provide the funding for the ministry, they are actually only a small piece of the puzzle of what the Society actually does. Through a network of Parish Conferences and a few managers and administrators, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is committed to doing whatever it takes to respond to every call they get for help, no matter how big or small the need.

And calls they get. They help families and individuals – regardless of race or creed – with everything imaginable, from providing food, clothing and shelter, to paying overdue and sometimes very expensive water, utility and rent bills, to helping with yard work and providing companionship for homebound individuals.

Mike Fitzsimmons, President of the local St. Vincent de Paul Conference and the Board of Directors in Spokane, said that what sets the ministry of the Society apart from other charities is the sense of apostolate associated with Vincentians.

“You must surrender to the reality that this is God’s work you’re doing,” he said. “That’s what Vincentian spirituality is all about – every act is an extension of a spiritual commitment.”

And every Vincentian agrees that their commitment to build a relationship with those whom they serve – getting to know them as people, workers, mothers, students, addicts – makes the Society unique.

“The home visit is the quintessential characteristic of the Society for it makes us go into their neighborhood, enter their home, sit in their chairs and see, feel and smell how they live,” said Kelley. “We humble ourselves to do this rather than take the easier path of having them come down to our office. We have the more reliable transportation, not them. They have kids they have to bundle up and take with them; in their own homes they don’t have to worry about that.”

Both Kelley and Fitzsimmons explained that part of the apostolate of St. Vincent de Paul is a call to serve – no matter the situation. “Our philosophy is that we are their servants, they are our masters,” said Kelley, “and servants always go to their masters, not vice versa. A corollary is that we are available day or night, weekdays and weekends, not just during the office hours of nine to five.”

“Christ thought of himself as a servant,” said Fitzsimmons. “Servants don’t judge the master, they serve the master.”

Fitzsimmons said that Vincentians always try to emphasize, never to judge, no matter how poor the choices people have made that may have caused the desperation of their situation, or what they may be addicted to.

Fitzsimmons said the hand of God can clearly and consistently be seen in the Society. “The solutions to some of the problems we have encountered here are often beyond our human ability to fix,” he said. He said that even when their monetary situation seems hopeless, something – usually in the form of a donation – always comes through at the very last second – often to the exact dollar amount that they need to pay an unexpected bill or make an absolutely necessary repair to one of the ancient fleet of trucks that keep the organization running.

“There’s no such thing as ‘out of money’ for us,” said Fitzsimmons. “We don’t turn down any kind of request. Nothing is beyond our willingness to try to find an answer for.”

Fitzsimmons explained that the St. Vincent de Paul Society is committed to finding comprehensive solutions to the problems they encounter, “not just putting a finger in the dike.” As a result, they often find themselves in the legal realm, lobbying for the needs of Spokane’s most overlooked and forgotten.

Fitzsimmons recognizes a great need in Spokane that is beyond the Society’s current ability to meet, so he and the Board of Directors are committing to expanding the Society in the Spokane Diocese. There are currently only 13 Parish Conferences in the Spokane Diocese; Fitzsimmons’ goal is to reach 30 by the end of 2005.

The Conferences play a vital role in recognizing need and coordinating efforts to provide help and relief in their own communities and parish boundaries. They also provide vital advice and influence for the Board when it comes to making decisions about the Society’s future direction.

(The St. Vincent de Paul Society is always in need of volunteers, donations and above all, prayers. To find out how you can become involved, contact your parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Conference or call Mike Fitzsimmons at (509) 535-2491. For more information about the free Ozanam School of Charity or to register, call Kathleen Green at (509) 484-2023 or Irene Bailey at (509) 928-9322.)

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