Midlands district Vincentians had a busy year

ROCK HILL – It’s not unusual for meetings of the St. Vincent de Paul Society to have dramatic moments. After all, the tales of the Vincentians are about poor people who have been helped by these volunteers and their benefactors. But some of the drama at the Jan. 24 Midlands meeting in the library of St. Anne was produced by society members themselves.

Eleanor Serra has been an active Vincentian for 16 years, the last six as diocesan president. She was stricken with cancer in 2003 and had to give up her post. When her fellow volunteers presented her with mementoes for her service at the district meeting, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

Additionally, the St. Vincent de Paul conferences (parish level) reported on their activities for the last quarter of 2003, and the diocesan council gave an overview of the past year’s accomplishments. Some parishes were handling as many as 40 cases per day, according to new diocesan president Tom Serra, Eleanor’s husband. That includes helping with utility bills, obtaining winter clothing, delivering food baskets, preparing meals, visiting prisoners and referring the needy to agencies set up to help them medically.

“We have been bombarded with calls,” said Donna Willis, president of the conference at St. Anne.

The St. Joseph’s conference in Columbia received a grant of $10,000 from the Sisters of Charity Foundation, according to president Mitch Michaelis. It was the largest single donation the conference has ever received, yet the money will not last out the winter.

“It will cover about two-thirds of the utility bills we pay for people every year,” Michaelis said.

St. Mary Help of Christians parish in Aiken spent $25,000 on utility bills and rent in the last quarter of 2003, and another $16,000 on food. Much of the volunteers’ time and energy goes toward raising this kind of money. Sometimes, however, a benefactor will shoulder a huge load. Angela Upchurch of St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill, said one family picked a card  from an Angel Tree and decided to make Christmas a truly special time for a group of three siblings.

“They wheeled in a TV to play the video game they bought,” she said. The family also brought a large bag full of toys and a barrel of food.

For all the extra effort put out during the Christmas season, Upchurch confirmed that the volunteer work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society has its rewards, too.

“We took a family Christmas shopping and had the best time,” she said.

Vincentians from St. Peter in Columbia took needy families to Wal-Mart, helped with the enormous Thanksgiving feast at the Coliseum, and put on the Christmas dinner and gift-giving event for homeless and poor people at the parish’s Murphy Hall. Paulette Campbell-Miller, president of the conference, said that chief fund-raiser Robert Keeder raised more than $10,000 during the holidays alone.

Sometimes, however, numbers seem less important than a single dire case of need that was met.

The Vincentians at Our Lady of the Hills found a 54-year-old woman about to be evicted and concentrated their efforts on getting her situated with a warm home and warm food. Sherry Marshall, conference president, said the effort was eventually successful.

The St. Anne Youth Conference, the only one in the state so far, had an active quarter also, conducting a blanket and coat drive, baking for Thanksgiving, parties for handicapped people and assisting other parish organizations that help the needy.

The Vincentians in the Diocese of Charleston, although few in number, produce some amazing figures when all their help is totaled up. For 2003, more than 24,000 needy people were assisted in the state of South Carolina. Every member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society is a volunteer, so agency expenses are practically zero for that same time period.

Greg Flach is president of the Midlands District Council and chaired the meeting at St. Anne.