St. Vincent de Paul Society marks 175 years of service

Volunteers help those in need with the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken. (Provided)

In November, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul celebrates its 175th anniversary in the United States, 12 years after it was founded in Paris, France, in 1833.

Even with its current, unprecedented challenges, Thomas Berg said the U.S. Society’s mission remains as vital today as it was in 1845.

That mission: to serve as “a network of friends inspired by Gospel values, growing in holiness and building a more just world through personal relationships with, and service to, people in need.” 

“We have more than 4,500 conferences in the United States, and in our state, we currently have 23 active conferences, with 458 members,” said Berg, president of the S.C. council.

The first conference in the diocese was established at Sacred Heart in Charleston in 1934.

Fast forward to 2019 and the impact the diocesan council made that year, providing more than $1.4 million in assistance to those in need, in the form of food, utilities, rent, medical, furniture, clothing, and disaster relief, Berg said. While the tally for 2020 is still a couple of months away, he said the conferences have adapted this year to the changes brought on by the pandemic. 

In late April and early May, they developed ways to address immediate needs, including setting up drive-thru’s for those that operate food banks.

“We had boxes ready so that people didn’t have to leave their cars,” Berg said. Members loaded the boxes into the vehicles, eliminating direct contact with the recipients.

“Everybody who participated in the distribution wore masks, and things were sanitized,” Berg said.

Vincentians organize food at St. Michael in Murrells Inlet.

The advanced age of some of the Vincentians impacted the society’s efforts to serve during the pandemic. He said several members were asked to avoid participating in the relief programs “because of their age and pre-existing conditions.”

“We’re doing the job, but with less of our Vincentians working at this time,” Berg said.

The conferences also have suspended home visits. Instead, members contact recipients by phone, then travel to homes and deliver food to their front porch in boxes. The residents then carry the food into their homes.

Even with the pandemic, St. Vincent de Paul has found new ways to serve the needy. For example, the conference at St. Mary Magdalene was contacted by Greenville County Emergency Management to assist in its effort to house the area’s homeless who had contracted COVID-19.

Working with a local motel, the county agency set aside rooms in one section of the motel. The conference’s role was to provide food for the new tenants.

“We delivered food to the motel on a weekly basis,” Berg said.

Looking ahead, he said the conference at St. Mary Magdalene plans to install partitions in its location at the church to facilitate the resumption of in-person assistance to new applicants. All safety protocols will be utilized throughout the in-person interviews, Berg said.

“We’re going through some pretty rigid standards to make sure we keep it as safe a process as we can,” he said.

The in-person assistance will resume after the New Year, he said.

Though no large celebrations are planned to mark the anniversary, Berg said St. Vincent de Paul hopes to resume in-person conventions, starting next March with a mid-year convention and celebration in St. Louis, where the first U.S. conference was established at the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, also known as The Old Cathedral.

In a letter commemorating the 175th anniversary, Berg offered praise and thanksgiving to his fellow Vincentians and contributors for continuing to serve “those in need with simplicity, humility, gentleness, selflessness and zeal.”

Members at St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville hold a welcome banner.

SVDP societies in the state include: 

  • Blessed Sacrament, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and St. Joseph in Charleston
  • Christ Our King and St. Benedict in Mount Pleasant
  • St. Clare of Assisi on Daniel Island
  • Stella Maris on Sullivan’s Island
  • Holy Family on Hilton Head Island
  • St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton
  • St. John the Beloved and St. Theresa the Little Flower in Summerville
  • St. Michael the Archangel in Murrells Inlet
  • Our Lady of the Hills, St. Joseph and the Basilica of St. Peter in Columbia
  • St. Anne in Rock Hill
  • St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill
  • St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken
  • St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville
  • Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville
  • Prince of Peace in Taylors
  • Jesus Our Risen Savior in Spartanburg