By SEAN KITTRELL
One hot summer evening, Maria, a young Hispanic woman, was in trouble.
She was from another country and in a new land. She was pregnant, friendless, and alone. Her boyfriend did not want her to keep the child. She needed food, required shelter, and merited love. She believed she had nowhere to turn for assistance and assumed that no one would help in her dark hour.
She was wrong.
She stumbled onto a help line provided by a Catholic church and operated by the parish St. Vincent de Paul conference. She called and received the love and assistance she so desperately needed.
There are many Marias in South Carolina, and they are not alone. There are a number of St. Vincent de Paul groups like the one Maria called, and new ones are being created.
After a six-month effort, four parishes in North Charleston, Hanahan, and Goose Creek have organized a conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Their first operating meeting was held on July 10, consisting of the parishes of Divine Redeemer in Hanahan, Immaculate Conception in Goose Creek, St. Thomas the Apostle and St. John’s in North Charleston.
Portions of North Charleston and surrounding area suffer from poverty, neglect, environmental deterioration, economic degradation, declining neighborhoods, and derelict housing. There are deep pockets of crime and drug trafficking activity. Within this area are high numbers of reported child abuse cases. There exists a history of low test scores for students, a problem exacerbated by substandard schools.
The local public housing authority operates three limited rent public housing complexes. One of them, North Park Village, is the largest in the state. Charleston County also has the highest food stamp participation in the state, and the north area drives this statistic. In addition, unemployment is at a high level. In 1999, it was at 4.7 percent in North Charleston, compared to 3.5 percent for Charleston County as a whole.
There are many who are in need in this locale.
The new North Area Conference is already offering assistance at their help line number: (843) 727-1820. Officers for the conference are Ben Daniel from Divine Redeemer, president; Lois Masouris from Immaculate Conception, vice-president; Shaaron Lenox from Divine Redeemer, secretary; and Vincente Sanger from St. Thomas, treasurer.
More conferences are currently being contemplated for parishes in Bluffton, Monck’s Corner, Pawley’s Island, and John’s Island.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic lay organization that helps those who are, in one form or another, destitute: the poor, the suffering, the neglected and the spiritually deprived. It was founded in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam and his companions and placed under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul.
In a spirit of justice and charity, and by the person-to-person involvement of its members, it seeks to help those who are struggling or in despair, regardless of creed, color, or class. “No work of charity is foreign to the society” is the core belief that motivates the Vincentian community.
The society is a grassroots organization comprised of a small group of lay members in a parish who volunteer their spare time to help those in need.
In the Lowcountry, there are seven other such conferences in addition to the new north area group. They are Blessed Sacrament in West Ashley; Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and St. Mary of the Annunciation Conference in downtown Charleston; Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant; Holy Family on Hilton Head Island; Stella Maris on Sullivan’s Island; St. John the Beloved in Summerville; and St. Joseph’s in West Ashley.
Together, these eight conferences operate under the umbrella of the Coastal Deanery Council. There are two other district councils in the diocese, with one in the Midlands and one in the Piedmont.
Work is done by those parishioners in the individual parish conferences who volunteer their time. There, assistance is provided directly to the individual poor. Rent or electrical bills may be paid to avoid the termination of service, or eviction, or bags of food or essential supplies may be delivered. Often, people in distress come or get referred to a parish conference as a last resort, because they have fallen through the social service net of the state or local government.
A conference will provide short-term assistance, and in the event of greater need, will refer the person to the appropriate agency.
Sometimes, the person asking for help just needs to have someone listen to them. In certain areas, conference members visit shut-ins, the elderly in nursing homes, or patients in hospitals. Members may teach the illiterate or educate others in speaking practical English. Some run food or clothing pantries.
In addition to direct aid, many conferences have been innovative in efforts to create solutions for systemic problems.
Members of the Hilton Head conference conduct a “Second Helpings” project, collecting leftover food from restaurants and stores and giving it to the poor.
Parishioners in the Christ Our King Conference form crews that go out to do home repairs for the elderly, in addition to collecting appliances for redistribution.
Each of the conferences serve the particular needs of their area through the gifts of those who give their time, their money, their talents, and their hearts to others.
The feast day for St. Vincent de Paul is Sept. 27. Father James LeBlanc, pastor of Divine Redeemer Parish, will celebrate a special Mass that day at 6 p.m. at the church, 1106 Fort Drive, in Hanahan. All are invited.
For more information on the St. Vincent de Paul Coastal District Council, contact Sean Kittrell, president, at (843) 727-4865; Vera Smyth, vice-president, at (843) 766-2029; or Hayes Patterson, treasurer at (843) 571-2294.