Interview with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul
In 2023, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul revived an old branch of the society – also known as a conference – at Mary, Mother of God parish. Conference President Pamela Matambanadzo sat down to tell us about the Society, who they are, what they do, and how parishioners can get involved.
What is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul?
We are a network of friends inspired by Gospel values, growing in holiness, and seeking to build a more just world through personal relationships with and in service to people in need. (That is our mission statement). St Vincent de Paul himself said “go to the poor and there you will find God.” I feel those few words speak to what we do and why.
We are an international Catholic lay organization present in 155 countries. From the international perspective, it breaks down smaller and smaller as you get more local. Our conference is Mary, Mother of God Parish and we reactivated the Saint Ita conference which was first established in 1933.
Everyone is invited to join our circle of friends! In this country, we have roughly 47 million people living in poverty. Society in the US has approximately 85,000 members. As a small group we are aware that we cannot meet our goal to end poverty alone. We are constantly looking to increase our membership. God gives each of us so many different talents. It is your God-given skills and talents that we are asking our fellow parishioners to bring and join us. Even if it’s just volunteering an hour or two, there are ways that everybody can help. After all ‘many hands make light work’! - Nehemiah 3.
Tell us about the Society’s approach to service.
We model our approach on St Vincent de Paul, our patron saint. His said “Ten times a day you go to visit the Poor, ten times a day you will find God there.” He would go to people’s homes and find out what they needed. As Vincentians, our service is centered around encountering the poor where they are. Today, over 400 years later, we still follow in his footsteps, visiting people in their homes. It allows us to get to know people a little closer. Because when someone knocks on the church door and they ask for help, they are only telling you what their pain point or immediate need is. We believe if somebody asks for help, and if you go and sit down with them, you’re able to understand not only that immediate need, but also everything else that they would only share with a friend.
It’s like saying we want to treat beyond the symptom. We need to find the cause. Somebody says, “I need food” or “my electricity is about to be cut off.” That is a symptom, and anyone can help with the symptom. But as Vincentians, we feel it’s not enough. It’s applying a band aid. We need to find out what’s keeping our friend in-need in poverty. How can we truly help the whole person? Sometimes those needs are more chronic in nature so that’s where the Pope Francis Center comes in.
What is the Pope Francis Center?
In the Society we are volunteers – most of us still having to contend with life’s demands on our time (work-life balance). So, to meet the needs of those we serve while fully understanding the limitations faced by volunteers, we opted for what we call a “Special Works” within the Society. In January 2016, we created Pope Francis Center Chicago as a special works facility to help us serve our neighbors whose need for accompaniment went beyond emergency assistance. We currently have three employees eager to provide that much needed “consistent help.”
At the Pope Francis Center, we are open every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We are there to develop continuing relationships. For instance, yearly we call every single person who has come through our doors to find out where they are and how things are going. Most of the time, the people that we help are currently unhoused. Not having an address to receive their mail, so we provide maildrop service. Or sometimes they lose their IDs or other documents, so we provide an avenue for them to get what they need at the DMV. Until you hear what people go through to get food, you don’t realize how important an ID is. For example, most food pantries, if not all, require some form of identification. Even though its free food, an ID is required. For people who don’t have the ability to have a State ID, we created a Pope Francis ID. This allows people to receive food or start the process towards applying for benefits.
We have also developed relationships with other organizations so we can offer what we call wrap-around services. Awhile back, there was a gentleman who came in and needed a bank account. He had been cashing his checks, which is so expensive. We have a relationship with a bank that we referred him to. He said, “I don’t know how to do this by myself. There’s no way.” And I said, “No, no. I’ll walk you through it.” There are so many barriers that people experience, and we must find ways to help them navigate through these hurdles.
Who is invited to be part of the Society?
All are welcome!!! We have active members, who are practicing Catholics, and associate members. An associate member is somebody who does not necessarily have the level of commitment that is required of an active member. You also don’t have to be Catholic.
And for those we serve, they can be any ethnicity or religion. We don’t ask how people identify because what we are looking at is to serve their need. In the same way that Jesus didn’t ask before helping someone, we don’t ask.
How can individual parishioners get involved?
We now have a website: www.svdp-at-mmog.org. On our website, we try to explain the work that we do and some of what we think are the unmet needs in our communities. There are people in need everywhere, sometimes even in the pew next to you.
I know that sometimes people are a little bit hesitant to go into people’s homes, so I invite them to join us for Hospitality Hours at Canterbury House on Mondays 1-5 PM. It is an opportunity to get to know people in a more intimate and relaxed environment. People that we usually cross on the street and don’t stop to get to know. Or alternatively, spend time at the soup kitchen. Instead of serving, sit with people and get to know them. Pope Francis urges us to encounter one another.
People often feel that if they see somebody begging on the street corner and they give them a dollar they’ve helped. I say that until you know somebody’s name, know where they’re coming from, you really haven’t helped. You are almost paying someone to walk away from you.
How can our entire parish community get involved?
I think the most powerful thing we can do as a parish community is advocate for our needs to our elected officials. We don’t recognize the power we have as a constituency. We go to elections and vote but afterwards, we walk away. But those who we have elected, they work for us, and we should have a collaborative relationship. If it’s a government for the people by the people, then it goes without saying the people need to tell their elected official government this is how you should serve us. They’re not going to know what the unmet needs are.
I’ve gone to Washington and taken the stories of those we serve to Capitol Hill. Anybody can. Your representatives are waiting for you. It’s just like at the ice-cream social the Society put on at Saint Ita church. People were coming up to me and talking about the needs of their neighbors. I would like our parishioners to have the power to go to elected officials, whether it’s the Alderman or Senator. That is the kind of advocacy as a community we ought to be doing for our neighbors who are not empowered to speak for themselves.
Please join us! Also, I would like to say thank you so much for the overwhelming response to our underwear drive for the migrants. That was amazing. Thank you! We were able to match your generosity with clothing that came from our SVdP Chicago Council Office.