Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 16, 2004
St. Vincent de Paul spreads its wings
Catholic lay organization helps those in need
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
The anxious teacher looked around the empty rented house. She had travelled, along with several teenage children, young adults and grandchildren, to Alberta in search of work. Plans to stay with friends fell through. By the time she paid the deposit and rent, the money was gone.
"We brought out some groceries and got them set up until they get their feet on the ground," assured Bob Prestash of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Currently serving only isolated areas in Edmonton and Sherwood Park, this international Catholic lay organization aimed at assisting less fortunate members of a community should ultimately be based from every parish, said Archbishop Thomas Collins.
"I totally support the Society of St. Vincent de Paul," the archbishop said to the 35 people attending a meeting of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.
"I hope every single parish, or a grouping of parishes, in the archdiocese would start a conference of the society. It is exceptionally important. It is profoundly rooted in the Gospel. Interestingly, it is an example of adult ministry because it was begun by a group of university students in their late teens and early twenties."
The society was founded by Frederic Ozanam in 1833 in Paris as a student debating society to engage secular opponents of Christianity. In response to criticism that they only paid lip service to the Gospel's message, people began serving the poor with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
The society rapidly expanded across Europe with the first Canadian conference established in Quebec City in 1846, 21 years before Confederation.
Bob Prestash, director of St. Vincent de Paul in Edmonton, said the society actually has been serving the archdiocese for a number of years, but in a very narrow capacity.
"There has been a limited presence in Edmonton for many years at St. Joseph's Basilica but we have taken a more active role since 2000," Prestash said.
There is a western regional council which came to Edmonton and helped establish conferences (or parish groups) at the basilica, St. John/Holy Spirit, St. Agnes/St. Anthony/St. Thomas More to serve the southwest and at St. Theresa Parish. Recently, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sherwood Park, St. Dominic Savio, Assumption and St. Andrew parishes established conferences.
"The parish-based conference - usually 12 to 15 people in a parish - is really the building block of the society," Prestash said.
There are more than 1,000 conferences in Canada and world-wide, just short of a million people are working in the society.
"Just this past week, for example, we met a couple where the husband was laid off. They were running into a bit of a financial bind so first we brought over some groceries. Eventually there was an issue with the rent and eventually they were given an eviction notice. We talked to the landlord and hopefully something can be worked out there.
"We met a young fellow who's been fighting depression. He was living in an empty bachelor suite. And we met a wonderful, cheerful woman who has been struggling with HIV, but you would never know it.
"Obviously, we couldn't solve all of their problems, but now they have beds to sleep on, some furniture to sit on and some groceries to eat," Prestash said.
The society is geared to assist people coming out of shelters for victims of domestic abuse, the homeless, people from other parts of the country or the world. Someone might be suffering from mental or physical health problems which the society can assist. Many of the society's friends are introduced to them through referrals of other agencies.
Last year in Edmonton, the society was able to assist 1,222 adults who had 1,252 children.
"That is a real reward for me," Prestash said, "to assist children because regardless of what circumstances a person is in, you can't blame the kids."
Work of charity
Each conference is independent of but deeply deferential to the hierarchy of the Church. Its motto is that no work of charity is foreign to the society.
"We try and provide help on a person-to-person basis and a prototype of our activity is a visit in the home and meet people to discuss their problems," he said.
"We try and see what kind of assistance we can provide. Sometimes it is just a sympathetic ear. Sometimes people are just lonely and they would like someone to come and talk with them for awhile. Maybe a person might like someone to come to Mass with them."
On a larger scale, the society can provide assistance to victims of disasters through its national emergency program.
Most recently, the society assisted several hundred victims of the Badger, Nfld., floods.
The society has established a warehouse distribution centre in some classrooms at St. Basil School in Edmonton where donations of furniture, clothing, household items and food are stored.
"About 95 per cent of what we receive is passed directly on to people who need it," Prestash said.
"Some items are a little more collectable, more antique, which we can sell at an auction or a rummage sale to help fund our programs."
Prestash would also like to expand the scope of the assistance that is offered. Elsewhere, the society is involved in housing projects, shelters, dental clinics and job programs.
Recently, a national emergency coordinator was appointed to liaise with counterparts in other local agencies like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross and organizations to prepare response strategies.
"This way we can spread the resources a little wider," he said.
Anyone wishing to join the society, or to make a donation, is encouraged to call (780) 471-5577 or (780) 492-7968.
"A person with a pick-up truck is a valuable member of the society," Prestash added.