Vincentians’ serve the working poor

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The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was born from a challenge. In 1830, Frédéric Ozanam, a Catholic law student at the University of Paris, joined a student discussion group - the Conference of History. The group met on Saturdays to exchange ideas on a variety of subjects, including religion.

One day during a particularly heated exchange, a member, Jean Broet, confronted Ozanam and his friends.

"We agree that at one time your church was a great church and was a source of good. But what is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor? Show us your works and we will believe you," Broet said.

It was during the Industrial Revolution, and many people who came to Paris to find work, found poverty instead.

In 1833, inspired by that confrontation, Ozanam founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, inspired by the "Apostle of Charity." The society was created as an international lay ministry of Catholic men and women who seek spiritual fulfillment by working one-on-one with people in need. They see their work as a means to holiness.

St. Vincent de Paul was born in Pouy, France, in 1581. He was ordained a priest in 1600, and dedicated his life to alleviating the suffering of the poor. St. Vincent founded three organizations: Daughters of Charity, Confraternities of Charity and Congregation of the Mission, all dedicated to serving the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. He died in 1660 in Paris and was canonized in 1737 by Pope Clement XII. His feast day is Sept. 27.

Ozanam is now Blessed Frédéric Ozanam. He was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1997.

Today, the society has more than 800,000 members, known as "Vincentians," worldwide. In the United States, 150,000 "Vincentians" work in more than 4,000 conferences, the basic unit of the organization.

The Arlington Council, one of 51 councils in the United States, supports more than 600 members in 10 parish conferences: Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna, St. John the Evangelist Church in in Warrenton, St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, St. Mary Church in Alexandria, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception and St. Jude Churches in Fredericksburg, St. Matthew Church in Spotsylvania, and St. Timothy Church in Chantilly.

Judy Helein, a parishioner of St. Timothy Church, is in the first year of a three-year term as president of the Arlington Council. She wants to increase the number of volunteers because there is a need.

"We serve the working poor," she said.

Helein joined the society in 2009 after returning from Cambodia where she was a lay Maryknoll missioner. She went to see what it was like to live life to the fullest.

"I found an abundance of life in Cambodia," she said, referring to the Gospel of John, and the words of Jesus, "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."

Helein said the society strives to see Christ in the individual. Through service to the poor they build an organization of fellowship and community.

The society provides food and pays rent, medical bills and utility bills. Many parishes in the council have food pantries, and the society operates a thrift store in Fredericksburg that sells affordable clothing.

No money is given directly to clients. The society has a working relationship with utility companies and landlords and arranges payment directly with them.

According to Helein, the group gets half of its clients from area social service agencies. The rest come through word-of-mouth.

In 2014, the 637 members donated 85,518 hours of service and helped 24,987 people in the area.

More than $970,000 was donated by council parishioners. Nearly $850,000 was given to the needy. The remainder paid for overhead of the thrift store.

There are three ways to help the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: become an active member, an associate member or a contributing member.

Kay Springer, a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Council Church in Vienna, is an active member who attends two meetings a month where she prays, reflects and reports on projects.

After working as a public relations professional, she said wanted to help in some way and give back. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul gave her the opportunity. She follows the philosophy of St. Vincent de Paul.

"We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ," said the saint.

Borowski can be reached at or on Twitter @DBorowskiACH.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015