Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 1, 2007
Vincent de Paul leader walks with society's poorest
Raised in poverty, Pat Bennetto now heads ministry to poor in the West
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"I've always had a love for the poor. I grew up poor myself."
- Pat Bennetto
"Of course we didn't have the Distribution Centre we now have so what we didn't have we would pray for and then we would put it in the bulletin and the next week we would deliver it all because we got it all. We worked on faith a lot in those times."
Bennetto, a mother of two adult sons, would later help establish a St. Vincent de Paul conference at Good Shepherd Parish, her former parish. Today there is a conference in most parishes in the Edmonton area.
In 2004 she became secretary of the society's western regional council and last May she was elected president of the council, which has 48 parish conferences with more than 1,000 members across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Bennetto's responsibilities as the society's top western leader for the next four years include visiting and guiding parish-based conferences in the region, expanding the society's reach and attending meetings across Canada.
"As the president first and foremost the most important thing that I do is to pray for all the Vincentians," she explained. "I think prayer is everything because this is God's work. This is a spiritual exercise in loving Christ and obeying him and I have to make sure every Vincentian remembers that."
This year Bennetto is looking at increasing the membership in cities such as Fort McMurray, Regina and Winnipeg. The society just opened a 10-member conference in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., and sometime this fall it will open another in Tjoa Haven, north of Baker Lake.
"We discovered that the Northwest Territories in Nunavut is Canada's Third World," she said in a recent interview. "Way beyond 60 per cent of the people in the North live below the poverty line.
"We are trying very hard to raise some funds so we can open a resale store up in Tuktoyaktuk so that clothing is cheap and available and free when needed."
Two society leaders from Alberta are expected to drive a transport truck full of materials to Tuktoyaktuk to start the store, which Bennetto said will be built largely by the people of Tuktoyaktuk and will sell items at a low price.
"We find that if we sell items for, say, 25 cents it gives them more dignity than if it's free."
Bennetto said her work for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Edmonton prepared her well for her position as regional president. It taught her how to deal with the poor.
"If it was something that I chose to do on my own, the times when it's frustrating and hard I would probably quit."
- Pat Bennetto
Once she was called to see a handicapped lady on AISH who needed a bed.
"We went to her apartment and when we went in there we saw just a mattress on the floor in the living room," she recalled.
"This woman, who was quite handicapped, had a new baby and was raising her two (teenage) nephews. The mattress was all she had in her apartment and she just made it a bed for the boys. It broke my heart to see them this way."
Bennetto asked the 30-something woman if she could look around her apartment. As she opened cupboards and closets she realized the woman had nothing - no food, no dishes, no clothing. "So I said to her, 'It looks like you need quite a bit of stuff; how about we get it for you?'"
Shortly after, the society did. "We furnished her house for her and we got a bed for everybody and stuff for the new baby and food. I got her set up with a (nurse) friend of mine so she could check the baby because it was hard for this woman to get out of the house."
Bennetto became good friends with the woman, visiting her often, checking on her and trying to find her a community of people to support her. When the woman got evicted from her apartment Bennetto helped her find a new apartment. She eventually lost touch with the woman.
"All this happened probably five years ago but she is fixed in my mind," Bennetto said. "It's difficult to ask for help and she showed me the grace to be able to accept help when you need it.
"She helped me change the way I go about my Vincentian visits. We always go in to serve Christ through the poor and to see Christ in them and with her I really got to see Christ."
Difficult and heartbreaking as the work of a Vincentian is, Bennetto loves it. "I see it as a calling from God," she said. "If it was something that I chose to do on my own, the times when it's frustrating and hard I would probably quit."
There is also the fact that Bennetto knows what being poor and hungry is all about. "When I was a little girl I had an alcoholic father and my mom had to make the money to pay the rent and look after us," she recalled.
"She is Polish and good for that because there were many times that we would eat perogies without the filling - just flour and water and boil and eat that with a little bit of margarine. So I know what hungry means."
But as a child Bennetto didn't know she was poor because she and her sister always had something to eat. "Mom was very good that way," she recalled. "We never missed a meal but I think she did."
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