By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA Before Saturday the 35 St. Vincent de Paul Society conferences in South Carolina operated as separate units with no central organization. On Oct. 4, members of the society gathered at St. Peter’s Church in this capital city to found the Diocesan Council of St. Vincent de Paul.
The occasion was a big step forward in the development of the charity in the Diocese of Charleston.
“Nationally, the St. Vincent de Paul Society has had a disaster component that we have not been able to reproduce as a state,” said Sister Susan Schorsten, HM, director of Social Services for the diocese. “The diocesan council will help coordinate that kind of effort.”
It will also facilitate administration and recruitment for the charitable organization, according to Eleanor M. Serra, a veteran social activist who has been a major player in the society for decades and who was elected president of the diocesan council. She was welcomed to her new post by the bishop of Charleston during a special liturgy to celebrate the founding of the diocesan council. Bishop David B. Thompson said that the St. Vincent de Paul Society has a special place in his heart because of the work its members do for the poor, in the environments of the poor.
“That’s real existentialism,” Bishop Thompson said. “It’s the Vincentian spirit, the spirit of reaching out to the least, those who really need salvation.”
He then quoted from a September 1995 article in St. Anthony Messenger (“Society of St. Vincent de Paul: 150 years of service,” by James L. Alt) before presenting the magazine to Serra as a founding gift: “‘The mission of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is personal service to the poor by performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.’ That’s simple but profound. I ask you to rivet that purpose in your hearts and in your minds.”
Serra said that the job of the diocesan council will be to coordinate charitable efforts of the three district councils and the parish conferences and to ensure the continued growth of the society.
“I want to bring us together as one big family. We had become isolated from each other and should be together. As a big group, we’ll have a better chance of doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s important that we all adhere to the rules of the society, especially now that we’re growing,” Serra said.
The featured speaker at the luncheon following the founding Mass also had family on his mind. Father John Lawlor is a Vincentian priest who is supposed to be retired. Instead, he is working with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in the economically depressed Horse Creek Valley.
“The textile mills left and the people were left with nothing. That’s what attracted me there, that and the fact that the Sisters are Vincentians. We are all one family,” Father Lawlor said.
The priest listed his Vincentian order of priests (the Congregation of the Missions), the Daughters of Charity, the Ladies of Charity, the Confraternities of Charity and the St. Vincent de Paul Societies as the members of that Vincentian family. He said that their common mission was serving the poor.
The Alt article in St. Anthony Messenger quoted Gerry Felsecker, director of the society in Milwaukee, as he formally stated the scope of the family’s work: “Vincentians are perhaps best known for their direct assistance to people in need of life’s essentials.”
Bishop Thompson had underlined that passage and others in the magazine piece in the red pen he is famous for yielding before presenting the article to Serra. He urged the new diocesan council to include young people, both in its mission and as beneficiaries of its charitable work; he asked the assembled Vincentians to remember their own spirituality and personal prayer as they went about the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He recalled that the Feast of the Archangels was celebrated in the same week as the establishment of the diocesan council.
“This is another large step in the history of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the Diocese of Charleston. There is nothing small potatoes about the work you’re doing, even though you deal with the small people. You’re going to travel with the angels and when you do your work you are being archangels, doing the work of God,” the bishop said.
Donald Hyde is the vice-president of the new council. He agreed that the establishment of the Diocesan Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society was a major step for the movement.
“Finally, the diocese has its own society. Before we were individual pieces; this will bring the conferences together,” Hyde said.
He, Serra and Michael Dum, president of the Coastal Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, will form the board of directors of the new diocese-wide council, along with the three district vice-presidents and three members to be elected at-large. There is no district yet in the Pee Dee Deanery; the formation of one is a primary initial goal of the newly established Diocesan Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.