Making a Difference: Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a lifeline for poor and marginalized
By Paul Dusseault
COLORADO SPRINGS. The territory for which the district council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is responsible? Much of Southern Colorado. The current count of volunteers? About 100.
“The poor and marginalized of our community will really benefit when more parishes get involved,” said Steve Sisa, president of the Diocese of Colorado Springs District Council of the Society.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVdP) is a global network of lay Catholics, called Vincentians, dedicated through a vocation to unconditionally serve the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized. Founded in 1833 by Blessed Frédéric Ozanam in Paris and inspired by the example and teachings of St. Vincent de Paul, the Society has grown to more than 800,000 members in 150 countries, making it one of the largest and oldest charitable organizations in the world.
Nationally, there are about 90,000 Vincentians in over 4,000 conferences (parish-level groups). Currently there only about 100 Vincentians serving the diocese in two Colorado counties.
The Diocese of Colorado Springs District Council of the SSVdP, spun off from the Denver Metro District Council in 2021, is comprised of eight legacy conferences: St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. Patrick, St. Benedict and Holy Apostles in El Paso County; Pax Christi, Ave Maria, St. Mark and St Francis of Assisi in Douglas County.
“We hope to extend the district with up to five new conferences over the next three years,” said Sisa. “The need for assistance to struggling households keeps rising and the opportunity for parishes to form conferences where the need is greatest is compelling.”
The St. Mary’s Cathedral Conference alone responds to requests from seven Colorado Springs zip codes. Other conferences have similarly large service areas.
The Society’s core mission is the home visit, which involves two or more Vincentians meeting a person or family at their residence, listening to their situation, assessing their needs, and offering help in a respectful and dignified manner. The home visit is designed to establish a personal relationship, recognizing everyone’s worth as children of God, and empowering them to overcome their difficulties.
“Home visits are the most spiritually and emotionally rich aspect of the Vincentian experience,” said Sisa, who also serves as president of St. Mary’s Cathedral Conference in Colorado Springs. “That’s where we deal with what we call ‘the tyranny of the moment.’ Many families, many of our neighbors, are just one medical bill, one utility payment, one flat tire from a crisis that could push them over the edge and even into homelessness. Our home visits involve a lot of listening, a little prayer, and often a few tears. This is the charism of the Society — to see the face of Christ in all people.”
According to Sisa, St. Mary’s Cathedral Conference has conducted over 180 home visits so far this year, up from 170 during all of last year. District-wide, the Society assisted almost 2,000 households last year with rent, utilities, food, and emergency shelter.
Conferences receive funding primarily from church collections, periodic tithing from participating parishes, and gifts from parish donors and Society benefactors. “There was some concern early on that weekend Mass second collections for the Society would diminish parish offertory collections,” said Sisa. “But that concern has been unfounded. Catholics understand the particular and distinct needs of our community and respond very generously.” Society conferences also routinely raise funds through events like parish breakfasts and spaghetti dinners, as well as donation boxes and the occasional corporate grant. Around the country, the Society operates various programs and services such as food pantries, thrift stores, soup kitchens, shelters, transitional housing, disaster relief, prison ministry, medical clinics, and youth camps. “We aspire to a much more robust profile in the Diocese of Colorado Springs in the next few years,” said Sisa. “The support of Bishop Golka toward this end has been gratifying. We feel we’re just getting started.”
The Society is not just a charitable organization. It’s also a spiritual movement that fosters the personal growth and holiness of its members. “Vincentians follows a Rule that outlines principles and practices based on the Gospel and Catholic social teaching,” said Sisa. “There are reflections, retreats, workshops, publications, and online platforms designed to deepen faith through prayer, sacraments, fellowship, and service.”
Those interested in how to participate as a Vincentian or becoming a volunteer, or in starting a Society St. Vincent de Paul conference in their parish, may contact Steve Sisa at email@example.com or visit https://www.svdpcos.org/.
How to Get Started
In the Diocese of Colorado Springs District Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, there are eight legacy conferences — the society’s term for parish-level groups. (The Archdiocese of Denver has more than 30.)
A typical conference has 15-20 active members and often many more associate members. Most of the society’s work is done by conference members who visit neighbors in need at their homes and help in a respectful and dignified manner.
Parish conference formation typically follows a simple formula:
1. Meet with the pastor. Volunteers often can cite statistics about how much service to struggling families already is being provided by the Society within the boundaries of a parish.
2. Consult the parish council. As service to the poor is a tenet of Catholic social teaching, many parish leaders welcome a new means to fulfil their pastoral mission.
3. Recruit volunteers. The society provides a template for an “Invitation to Serve Weekend” which includes a pulpit appeal and typically secures several volunteers.
4. Elect a president. Protocols are provided by the Society for fundraising and conference management. A lay spiritual advisor, familiar with the Rule of the Society of St. Vicent de Paul, fosters the spiritual formation of the conference members.
5. Conduct orientation. No one is sent on home visits without undergoing training that involves scenario discussion, videos, and a proven curriculum.
6. Establish a help line. Scripts and procedures are suggested by the Society. Confidential telephone contact works best to reach those in need.
7. Conduct home visits. The charism of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is to see the face of Christ in all people, and the motto of the Society is: “The strongest hand of true friendship is charity; the exercise of charity is the practice of good works.”
Those interested in starting a Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference may contact Steve Sisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.svdpcos.org/.