U.S. conference of St. Vincent de Paul Society celebrates 175 years

COLUMBIA—Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the Diocese of Charleston will celebrate the society’s 175th anniversary on April 20.

The international organization has designated that day as Ozanam Sunday in honor of Frederic Ozanam, a French Catholic student who, along with six others, founded the society in 1833.

The group started their work in response to criticism from anti-Catholic elements at the Sorbonne in Paris, who claimed that the church exploited the poor.

Ozanam and other students were assisting nuns with the Daughters of Charity, an order founded by St. Vincent de Paul. Their work was unorganized and unknown outside the group, so they changed its name to the Conference of Charity.

Two years later, they placed their efforts under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul, a 16th-century French priest who devoted much of his ministry to aiding the poor.

Ozanam continued his work with the poor until 1853, when he died at the age of 40. He was given the title blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Today, the society has more than 700,000 members in 142 countries. The first conference in the United States formed in St. Louis in 1845. The society now has more than 115,000 members in 3,800 conferences nationwide.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, and Pope Benedict XVI recently issued a special blessing to commemorate the group’s anniversary.

Society members are volunteers. Their most common work is to provide direct assistance through home visits to needy clients. The membership also runs 412 thrift stores around the United States, and councils nationwide provide a variety of services including transitional housing, prison work, eldercare, counseling and soup kitchens.

The St. Vincent de Paul society is divided into councils that oversee individual conferences at area parishes.

There are two councils in South Carolina. One is the Council of the Diocese of Charleston, which includes district councils for the Midlands and the Piedmont. The Midlands district has six conferences; the Piedmont has five.

The other is the Coastal District Council, which includes 11 conferences in Charleston,  Berkeley County, Hilton Head, and  North Myrtle Beach.

Individual parish conferences will celebrate Ozanam Sunday in various ways. At St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville, members will attend Mass and a community breakfast together, said Pam Flynn, a member of the parish and secretary for the society’s Piedmont district.

Flynn said Ozanam Sunday offers society members a chance to reflect on their work and its purpose.

“This is a real time of reflection on where the St. Vincent de Paul Society started from and where we go now,” she said. “Part of our mission statement is to focus on the spiritual formation of members as well as help for the poor. This is a time for us to pray together and look to the future.”

Flynn said regular activities of the St. Mary Magdalene conference include running a food pantry and offering financial assistance with prescriptions and utility bills.

The society’s mission also is to offer spiritual wellbeing, said John Thom, a member of St. Mary Church in Charleston and Coastal District Council president.

“We’re supposed to draw people’s attention to the fact that there’s something out there besides the dollar, and something out there besides complaining or sitting on your hands when something bad happens,” Thom said. “We always ask people if they know about prayer. We try to draw attention to the fact that poverty is not just material. It also can have something to do with the spirit and what kind of outlook you have on life.”

Thom said they work closely with East Cooper Community Outreach. The St. Vincent de Paul Society relies on contributions from parishioners and the community.

To learn more visit www.svdpusa.org.