FLORENCE — Dorothy Vayda felt called by God back in 1988 to serve others. She answered that call by starting a St. Vincent de Paul conference, which serves people of all faiths throughout Florence County, at Immaculate Conception Church.
A member of the charismatic movement at the time, Vayda said she set aside time each day at 3 p.m. to pray. “Somewhere along the line, I had heard that 3 o’clock was prayer time, because that’s when Jesus died, so I did that every day,” she said. “One day during prayer time, I fell asleep and I heard my name being called. I woke up and there was nobody in the house but me and the dog. I said, ‘Lord, I know this is you. You have something for me.’”
It took six months for that “something” to materialize.
Her pastor at the time, Fr. Leo Lessard, was contacted by a neighboring St. Vincent de Paul conference. “He was asked if we would be interested in starting a St. Vincent de Paul in Florence because so many (seeking assistance) were from Florence County,” said Vayda. “I got a call from Fr. Leo and the light bulb went on.” She knew this was her calling.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded by Blessed Frédéric Ozanam in France in 1833 and named after “the apostle of charity,” St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). Twelve years later, the first meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was held in the United States. On the local level, the society is composed of parish-based groups called conferences. The role of conference members is to make home visits to discover the material and spiritual needs of each family.
Vayda, who is single, was born and raised in Detroit, then moved to Florence in 1982 to “live a simpler life,” she said. Doing works of charity was not new to her, she explained, since she and a friend, Laurel St. Louis, had started a project for children at Christmas.
To get the conference off the ground, Vayda and St. Louis began holding rummage sales to raise funds that would allow them to help others. “Then it just took off from there,” she said.
One day, after her friend’s husband helped replace a family’s roof, Vayda saw a sign that affirmed her decision to form the SVDP conference. “As we were coming home, there was this beautiful rainbow in the sky and I said, OK, Lord, if this isn’t your work, nothing is.”
The conference formed a food pantry that started in a member’s home. It then moved to the church attic, which required volunteers after Sunday Mass to form a line and transfer food from a truck to the attic.
In 1997, Bethlehem Lutheran Church sold a building on its property to the conference for $1. “That became our St. Vincent de Paul store,” said Vayda. “That served the community until 2012. Then our local hardware store went out of business, and we purchased that.”
With its new location and expanded size, the store’s success grew. “Our income increased, and that enabled us to help more people,” said Vayda.
Today, the conference has about 12 members and numerous volunteers, including members from the local Lutheran and Presbyterian church communities, she said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, conference members no longer make home visits. “Now we are doing everything over the phone,” said Vayda. “Florence had an upsurge (in reported cases) and we decided it’s not a wise thing yet. When we are able to do home visits, we pray with the families at the end and one of our main objectives is to listen to their concerns … and try to incorporate that in the prayer as we end our visit with them.”
Now in her 33rd year as a Vincentian, Vayda said this is where she is meant to be.
“She has a true and caring heart for the poor and less fortunate,” said Fr. Timothy Brandt, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish. “She is always under the radar, so to speak, but does so much incredible work for the community.”
“During COVID, there were new people who came to our food pantry who were never in that situation before, having gotten laid off or waiting for their unemployment to come,” Vayda said. “They were so thankful to get food and to feed their family. You see people with tears in their eyes.”
Helping these families makes all the time and effort worthwhile, she added.
“God has been so good to me, that I need to pass that on to others who are struggling or hurting,” Vayda said. Being a Vincentian “hasn’t changed my life. It is my life. It’s just part of me.”