Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 26, 2005
Outreach to poor grows
St. Vincent de Paul Society expands locally
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is growing by leaps and bounds in the Edmonton area.
From a standing start five years ago, the society that meets the needs of the local poor now has groups operating in 15 parishes in the archdiocese with about 300 volunteers - known as Vincentians.
Lynn L'Heureux of Calgary, the Western Canadian regional president, says, "The growth in Edmonton has surpassed all expectations."
It took Calgary nearly 20 years to achieve the same level of involvement, L'Heureux said.
"I believe it is due to two things," she said. "Bob Prestash, because he accepted the challenge and has never dropped the ball. The other is Archbishop Thomas Collins. He believes so highly in the society. His dream is that everyone be a member of every parish and every person be a member of the society."
Prestash is president of the society's local Edmonton council.
He estimates that so far this year, the society has helped about 4,000 people in the Edmonton area. Back in 2003, it assisted 1,222 adults and 1,252 children.
"It isn't that the need has increased so much as it is we are able to serve the poor more effectively with the new van," said Prestash.
With a $26,000 donation from the Knights of Columbus, the local council recently purchased a $34,500 one-ton Mitsubishi van. A number of loads can now be delivered to an area in one trip rather than making several trips using smaller trucks.
"The van was something we had been saving for for several years," Prestash said. "Bob McKenzie, president of the tri-parish (St. Agnes-St. Anthony-St. Thomas More) conference, talked to a knight who took on the project to discuss the van concept with several councils of the Knights. It was put to use the morning after we picked it up."
The van is one symbol of the society's expansion. Another is its new distribution centre in a former chapel next to St. Joseph High School.
The distribution centre is filled with stacks of donated mattresses and other furniture as well as household goods, clothes, toys, books and shoes.
In March, the society moved to the former chapel from much smaller premises at St. Basil School.
Prestash lauds Edmonton Catholic Schools for providing space to warehouse the society's donations at what he described as "a pretty nominal rate."
"If we had to rent the space, we could never afford it," he said. "They have treated us royally."
L'Heureux said the local St. Vincent de Paul Society's ability to establish partnerships with organizations like the Knights and the school district is another reason why the group is succeeding. "What the Knights did blew me away."
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international Catholic lay organization with parish-based conferences in 130 countries.
Founded in 1833 in Paris by Frederic Ozanam, who was beatified in 1997, the society came to Canada in 1846.
The society established its first Alberta conference in Calgary in 1982. It spread across the Calgary Diocese into 24 parish groups before moving north to Morinville and finally to the Edmonton Archdiocese.
Within the last five years, 15 conferences have formed in the archdiocese including Leduc, Sherwood Park, St. Albert and Lloydminster. Recently, a conference was launched in Yellowknife (Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese).
At the heart of the society are the face-to-face contacts between lay volunteers and those in need.
Theresa Muench knows it. With many others, Muench spends two days every week at the distribution centre, opening dozens of green plastic bags to sort the donated clothing and household items inside.
"There is a lot of poverty in Edmonton that people don't always see," Muench said. "People we help are always thankful.
"There is a lot we have that we can give away."
Anthea McKeen knows it. She came west to Edmonton from Thunder Bay last January with her male partner, four cats and little else.
"I had heard about St. Vincent de Paul back home but it was different. It was a thrift store," McKeen said. "We really needed some help."
A month ago, McKeen arrived at her new apartment a block from St. Joe's to pick up her keys but the manager was not home.
She went for a walk and she saw boxes and furniture being loaded onto a truck.
She thought it was another thrift store until she approached the men and found out differently.
Shortly afterward, a group from St. Joseph's Basilica arrived with chairs, a kitchen table, pots, pans and a dresser.
They brought bathroom and kitchen towels and assorted items.
They also arranged for a gift certificate so McKeen could buy food.
"Things have been rocky," she told the WCR. "Their help has meant a great deal: They love and they care."
One way in which St. Vincent de Paul differs from other social agencies is that a person in need may not have to wait for help until the office opens the following week. In emergencies, Vincentians have made weekend visits at midnight.
"We are like the first line of defence," Prestash said. If a family is new to the city and contacts the society, it will bring out food until they are able to get in touch with the food bank.
"We will get food in their bellies tonight."
With money raised through poor boxes in churches or collections taken during Mass on behalf of St. Vincent de Paul, the society is unable to pay a person's rent or pay his tuition fees. But it might be able to scrape a few dollars together to stave off an eviction notice.
"What do you do if he is getting evicted tonight and his social worker isn't available until Tuesday?" Prestash asked. Perhaps a landlord has heard the hard-luck story so many times that he has become skeptical. A Vincentian can try to persuade the landlord the person is being truthful.
"In that situation, we might be able to step in and advocate for him and make a partial payment. We have found the rental community in Edmonton to be accommodating."
The society partners with other social agencies to maximize benefits for the poor because the society is about helping others, Prestash said.
"Our work has spread by word of mouth. Other agencies have learned about us. We are receiving more calls for assistance," Prestash said.
But many more volunteers are still needed. If someone thinks he is of no benefit to the society because he would have trouble lifting the end of a couch, he can always coordinate the phone calls coming to his parish conference.
The head of each parish conference can be contacted about becoming a Vincentian. The society's main Edmonton telephone number for those wishing to make donations or seeking help is 471-5577.