At annual meeting, St. Vincent de Paul Society told they ‘live the message’

COLUMBIA — The annual diocesan meeting for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had a theme of “Let Us Set the Course to Another Year of Improved Service to the Poor.” The theme was supported in the general sessions, workshops and conference reporting/planning.

In one of the Nov. 13 workshops, participants were able to preview a newly released video that is part of a formation series called “Serving in Hope,” published by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Council of the United States.

It was developed as a tool for spiritual formation of its members, but could also be used as a way to introduce the larger church community to the work of the society. The series discusses the Vincentian vocation, spirituality, heritage, and mission.

Another workshop was led by Greg Flach, annual meeting chairman, on how to run a parish conference. Flach gave examples of hypothetical parish organizations and asked participants to talk about what was working and what needed improvement.

The workshop generated much discussion about specific problems that many face in their own groups. Tom Serra, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul diocesan council, reminded the Vincentians of the importance of person-to-person involvement.

He urged the group to make sure that the skills of the members are being used.

“If you don’t use them, you’ll lose them,” stressed Serra. He then explained the three types of membership: active, associate, and contributor.

Serra was pleased with all the efforts from the 11 conferences in South Carolina and hopes to see the organization flourish in more parishes throughout the state.

During this fiscal year, the society had an increase in expenditures as well as the number of people served; 24,671 people were served during the reporting period with 28,172 hours of service. The total expenditures were $270,786.04 and in-kind services such as professional services and food or clothing totaled $158,286.75.

One of the most unique characteristics of the South Carolina Council is that less than 2.5 percent of the money that comes in goes to operating expenses. Many years it has been even less.

South Carolina Vincentians shared with one another how they first got involved with the international society founded by Blessed Frederic Ozanam and his companions in 1833.

“When I retired, I played golf and tennis most of the time, but I began thinking that I really needed to do something good for others,” recalled Mary Meyer from St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville.

Soon after she considered getting involved, she was approached by a Vincentian who told her that she needed to be one, too. From that day forward, she has been an active member.

During the meeting, the diocesan organization honored one of its recently deceased Vincentians, John Dispenza, known fondly as “Mr. D,” who passed away in September. He was known throughout Columbia and beyond for his tireless efforts in the St. Peter Church conference, helping the poor.

A plaque honoring Dispenza was given by Paulete Campbell, president of the St. Peter group, to his two adult children, Deborah Pittenger and David Dispenza, who have followed their father’s lead as active Vincentians.

In fact, their teenage children are also members of the society, making the family commitment span three generations.

“He was such a wonderful role model for us, and we just could not help but follow his example,” Pittenger said. “I would see his generosity and wanted to be a part of his work.”

David Dispenza was also inspired by his father’s compassion for others.

Eleanor Serra, treasurer of the diocesan board, remembered when she and “Mr. D” would go on house calls.

“Once he determined that the need was legitimate, there was no such thing as the word, ‘No,’ ” she said. “He would not stop until the issue was settled.”

She said he always seemed to come out right and succeed in his efforts to help others.

The meeting concluded with developing a unified list of priorities for the diocese.

“We can read about St. Vincent de Paul and be inspired about his work, but in church, every Sunday, we are told to follow Jesus,” Serra said. “The Society of St. Vincent de Paul gives you the opportunity to live the message.”