INDIANAPOLIS — When asked what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul means to his community and him personally, Bob Zerr, a member of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, shares a story.
He and his wife were on a home visit with the faith-based charity group to offer utility payment assistance to a homebound woman.
“The lady was disabled, in a wheelchair and had to have a personal care assistant live with her,” he said.
“At the end of the visit, we asked her if she’d like to pray. We said a prayer and I could see she was crying. She said, ‘Nobody has said a prayer with me in years.’ It was so moving.”
To Zerr, the story exemplifies the heart of what the St. Vincent de Paul Society embodies: holiness through service.
“It gives parishes the ability to continue Christ’s work in the community and at the same time, it strengthens one’s faith and creates fellowship and camaraderie with fellow parishioners,” said the president of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ South Central Indiana St. Vincent de Paul district.
Past archdiocesan council president, Pat Jerrell, is leading an effort to expand the organization into more parishes in the archdiocese’s boundaries.
“I think a St. Vincent de Paul parish conference provides a concrete way for pastors to care for and evangelize all souls in a parish’s boundaries,” he said. It does so “by employing the laity to fulfill the great command to love God and neighbor.”
The benefits of a parish or combined-parish St. Vincent de Paul conference are numerous, said Jim Koerber, president of the archdiocese’s Southern Indiana St. Vincent de Paul district.
A conference “helps all the people in a parish’s boundaries,” he added, saying it “gives the ability to work with other organizations in the area to help those in need and it really bring its members, the parish and the people it serves to fulfillment through prayerful union and personal service.”
The “prayerful union” comes from the society’s primary purpose.
“If you asked 100 people what St. Vincent de Paul is all about, 99% would say it’s about helping the poor or less fortunate,” said Deacon Thomas Horn, spiritual adviser for the Indianapolis archdiocesan council. “If you look at our manual and rules, the primary purpose is to help our members grow in holiness.”
Each conference’s twice-monthly meeting “allows as much time for spiritual development as it does for business,” he said.
Members of the society, known as Vincentians, are called “to live lives in imitation of Christ,” he explained. “As we do that, we know we have a call to serve the less fortunate.”
That holiness is lived out not just through charity in action or prayer during meetings, but also through prayer with those in need.
And members say that living out that call to holiness is often rewarded.
“It’s interesting how the Holy Spirit seems to show up,” said Koerber. “When you think you’re at the end of your rope or desperate, good things just sort of happen.”
As for charitable services, “It’s up to the actual members in each parish or multi-parish conference what works they want to do,” said Jerrell, a member of St Jude Parish in Indianapolis.
Conferences assess their local community to determine if a need-gap exists that they could fill, or if it would be more helpful to assist existing organizations such as food pantries or distribution centers.
All conferences assist with rent and utilities, said Koerber, using money raised by parish collections as allowed by the pastor. Some conferences also operate a thrift store with all proceeds going back to support the conference. Others run a food pantry or help in distributing household goods and furniture to those in need.
“I think there is more poverty and homelessness outside of cities than people realize,” he says. “It happens in rural areas, too.”
Whatever services a parish or multi-parish St. Vincent de Paul conference offers, the net effect is help for the community and spiritual growth for conference members and parishioners alike, said Deacon Horn.
“Frankly, our church doesn’t always get the best publicity in the local news,” he said.
“I think the St. Vincent de Paul Society is a way to show the best of the church. We’re serving people — not just materially, but with the love of God.
“I really do think that where we go, God goes with us,” he said.