The Society of St. Vincent de Paul – named for a 17th century French priest – was founded in 1833 by Antoine Frederic Ozanam, a French student challenged by another student to prove his Catholic church still cared for the needy.
The society has a strong presence in Spokane and North Idaho through its thrift stores, emergency shelters and helping people with utility bills, rent, clothing and food, as well as providing emotional and spiritual support.
Sheila Gilbert is president of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul. She will be in Coeur d’Alene on Nov. 2 as a keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by Catholic Charities USA.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent telephone interview with Gilbert, who lives in Indianapolis.
Q. What are some of the misconceptions about the society?
A. That who we are is a thrift store. Another is that it’s for Catholics only. We serve people regardless of their religion, and we welcome help from all people. Our primary work is doing home visits. We have an opportunity to build relationships and talk about the deeper needs they may have, beyond just getting an electric bill paid.
Q. Your thrift stores seem alive and well. What value do they serve?
A. The thrift stores provide employment for people who might otherwise not be employed. They allow people to recycle things they really don’t need anymore. If you are a person who can afford to pay just a little, then you can get what you need for just a little.
Q. What of St. Vincent’s spirit is still obvious in the society today?
A. St. Vincent said people suffer, not from a lack of charity, but from a lack of organization. He had an experience as a young priest with a family where he had announced before the Mass that the family was all sick. All the parishioners took food, but there was no refrigeration, and the food spoiled. He began to understand that to be effective, charity has to be organized.
Q. You are the first woman to hold the office of president for the national society. What took them so long?
A. It was originally founded as an all-male organization. (Women were allowed to become members in the 1960s.) I decided I would allow my name to be submitted and part of that process was that I had to create a platform statement.
In praying about what should be in that platform statement, I was very clearly hearing that the society needed to be about ending poverty.
Poverty is not God’s will for anyone. We are really embarking on ending poverty. We are retooling and re-educating ourselves and working toward systemic change.
Q. You have been involved with the society since 1981. Can you think of a family you’ve walked with who was in poverty?
A. There is a family I’ve (known) for about eight years. She was a woman living in her car with three children. She had addiction problems. She had dropped out of school and had children early.
She made a decision that she never again would have her children in a car that way. She worked at small jobs, built up a good work record, and she has gotten better jobs.
Her children are now doing better than they would have done. When you have a family that’s been in generational poverty, it can take three generations to (get) out. The first generation makes the commitment. The second generation has a foot in both worlds. And the third generation makes the transition.
Nobody in that kind of poverty can come out without someone supporting them, emotionally, psychologically and motivationally. She calls me her mother, and the kids call me Grandma. I am 73. This is the time in my life I thought I would be sitting in my garden. I am not.