In Your Midst


Nov 2002

“I’ve finally moved from a shelter to a low–income apartment, but after paying the deposit, I have no money to get beds for my kids. Can you help?”

In This Issue:

“I’m just out of detox. Can you help with groceries and rent until my first paycheck comes?”

“We’ve had so many medical bills lately that we’ve had to let the electricity bill go. Now they’re threatening to turn off the heat. Can you help us?”

Here at St. James Cathedral, we receive many calls like this on a daily basis. Our response to such calls is always the same: we refer them to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Once a month we take up a collection for the needs of the poor in our area. Month in and month out, St. James parishioners respond very generously to this appeal. The task of the St. James Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society is to make the connection between the generosity of the parish and the specific needs of our neighbors.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is a world–wide independent Catholic organization. Locally, the work of the Society is organized into a series of conferences associated with Catholic parishes. The St. James conference receives about 90 calls per month from people in need, and disburses approximately $7,000 per month in vouchers, which makes our conference consistently one of the most well–funded and active conferences in the Seattle area. For each call, volunteers, or “Vincentians” as they are called, make contact with the caller to arrange for a home visit. At least three or four times a week, a team of two Vincentians will make home visits. It is very important to our Vincentians that these meetings take place in the person’s home. As long-time Vincentian Michelle Ferguson notes, “The absolute most important consideration with SVDP work is to maintain the dignity of the people we’re trying to serve. We’re not like a social service agency. We’re a ministry, and we want to meet people in the place which is most comfortable to them.”

The St. James conference focuses on basic needs—providing vouchers for groceries, rent, utility bills, clothes, furniture, and household goods. In addition to vouchers for these kinds of items, our Vincentians are also very knowledgeable about other resources in the community, and can often suggest ways to address other kinds of needs. Vincentians are also there simply to offer a loving presence and a listening ear. “For many of these people,” says Michelle Ferguson, “there is really no one else for them to talk to, and just getting a chance to tell their story and have someone listen may be more valuable than the voucher itself.”

At present, there are 14 active members of the St. James Conference, some doing home visits and some devoting their time to the unglamorous but essential accounting and administrative work needed to keep the conference working smoothly.

What draws a person to this ministry? For some, it’s a family connection. Matt Zemek, who has been involved in the conference for two years, says “my mom became a Vincentian thirteen years ago in Phoenix, and she awakened me to both the need and the beauty of being constantly present for others.” Another St. James Vincentian with a family tie is Jeanne Murray, whose father was a long time Vincentian. “As a child, I remember every Tuesday, he’d excuse himself from the dinner table, even if we had company and even before dessert, to go make home visits. After he died, I decided what I’d like to do in his memory is to continue his St. Vincent de Paul work, and I’m still doing it 17 years later!”

For others, the call to this ministry has been a natural part of a larger conversion process. Philip Engle joined the Church through the St. James RCIA program a few years ago, and quickly found his way to St. Vincent de Paul work. “The reason I do St. Vincent de Paul,” Engle says, “is because I see that it helps people in our community. I believe it draws people to the church and to Christ. For myself, I believe this work helps to develop our Christian mission, which is to serve one another in love. I like seeing how we’ve been able to make a difference in the lives of the people we’ve helped. It’s great to see people’s response, that this has really been an answer to their prayers.”

If you are interested in becoming a part of the St. James Conference of St. Vincent de Paul, call Patty Bowman at 206-382-4515.

Patty Bowman is the Pastoral Assistant for Social Outreach at St. James Cathedral.

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