The Vincentian Family: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul

February 15, 2022 |

The history of St. Vincent’s in Santa Barbara is closely intertwined with a history of global Vincentian ministry. In this segment exploring the archives and history of St. Vincent’s, I want to leaf through documents and photos from my personal collection. These documents shed light on the nearly 180 years of charitable work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the United States and Santa Barbara.

Today, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP) is an international organization of lay men and women who share a calling to serve people suffering from poverty in their communities through “hands-on” charity and direct assistance. Each chapter of the Society is organized into a conference, which generally form within a parish. The SSVP conferences are present in over 150 countries, with 800,000 members and nearly 1,500,000 volunteers. The International Confederation of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul enjoys a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is an associate member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The first Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded in 1833 as a “Conference of Charity” in Paris, France by Blessed Frédéric Ozanam and several of his trusted friends. A lawyer by training, Ozanam had a broad range of interests that included journalism, literature, and theology. He was a leader in the movement for greater participation of the laity (ordinary people) in the apostolates of the Catholic Church. However, it was his organizational skills and commitment to alleviating the suffering of people living in abject poverty that survive as his legacy. Ozanam did not act alone. The Conference of Charity benefited immensely from the guidance of a Daughter of Charity, Blessed Sister Rosalie Rendu, who dedicated more than fifty years of her life serving the poorest of the poor in Paris. Sister Rosalie guided charitable work of the Conference and instructed Ozanam and his friends about the teachings of Saint Vincent de Paul. As a consequence, in 1834 the “Conference of Charity” embraced Saint Vincent de Paul as its patron saint and changed its name to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The first SSVP parish conference appeared in the United States in 1845 in St. Louis, Missouri. During the first year of its founding, the Conference helped Irish immigrants who settled in the city after escaping the Great Famine that had gripped Ireland with devastating consequences between 1845-1852. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Society spread throughout the continental United States attracting more and more people who shared the same Vincentian values.

In the early twentieth century, much of the Society’s work focused on assistance to recently arrived immigrant communities. Over time, however, each conference focused on issues of social justice and economic inequality that affected their local communities. Of great significance was the Society’s role in helping the destitute families and communities who suffered from chronic cycles of unemployment caused by the Great Depression (1929 – 1939).

As the images below demonstrate, the Society’s conferences engaged in a variety of charitable initiatives that provided much-needed material relief and spiritual companionship to people suffering from poverty in different American cities. For example, in 1935 the Clothes Bureau of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cleveland, Ohio encouraged local young men and women to collect unwanted but still usable clothing under the slogan “’Every Child a Bundle’ (expressing a bundle of Love for Christ’s Poor).” The flyer declared that “clothing and shoes – new, old, and worn” will make many “poor and destitute children happy, proud, and satisfied.” Happening in the midst of the Great Depression, this clothing drive helped to provide essential clothing items for children and young adults whose families did not have the means to purchase new clothes for their children.

The following 1938 photo, which was taken in Portland, Oregon, is a frozen moment of time that depicts an American city during the difficult years of the Great Depression. The photo shows a reading room and chapel of the St. Vincent de Paul Society located at Southwest 3rd and Ankeny. According to local newspaper reports, the Society’s reading room first opened its doors in 1935. Some men in the photo are seen deep asleep with their heads resting on tables. Underscoring the ambiance of the reading room as a place of rest is a sign affixed to the wall, which is visible in the upper left corner of the photo, advising everyone present to refrain from “loud talking.”  Other men in the photo are seen reading newspapers and magazines appearing completely unperturbed by the presence of the camera and a photographer in the building. The newspaper article accompanying this photo stated that “more than 340,000 men have enjoyed the reading room and chapel” within the three years of its opening. In addition, the article reported that “the Society also found both part-time and full-time jobs for many transients” in the city.

Finally, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1851, played a critical role in helping the city to cope with a devastating outbreak of influenza in 1918. The Society offered its fleet of trucks, which it usually used for collection of salvageable waste, “to bring the bodies of the deceased people to cemeteries and convey the sick to hospitals of the city.” After the influenza pandemic receded, the Society continued its waste collection operation. As demonstrated by the post card below from around 1920, the Vincentians in Philadelphia encouraged people to donate any unwanted items of everyday use that could be salvaged and reused for charitable purposes. The proceeds from the donation benefitted “parish families, undernourished children, and offered assistance with burial of the poor who die in the Philadelphia Hospital.”

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul continues to touch the lives of many people through compassion and direct assistance both globally and right here in our own community in Santa Barbara. The Society’s San Roque Conference, for instance, helps people by giving food to the hungry, clothing to the needy, and offers utility bill relief to ensure uninterrupted electricity, gas, and water service. Equally important, the Society gives a listening ear and sound advice for those who are marginalized or in crisis to become self-sufficient. In the most recent act of kindness and charity, the Society’s San Roque Catholic Church Conference donated gift cards to purchase groceries for the Father Virgil Cordano Center, a collaborative ministry of the Franciscan Friars at Old Mission of Santa Barbara and the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent’s, which provides a place of welcome and support for the human and spiritual well-being for our homeless sisters and brothers in need.

St. Vincent once said: “Charity is infinitely inventive.” Nearly two centuries of charitable work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a testament to these wise words, which continue to inspire ordinary people to join the call to serve the most vulnerable among us through philanthropy and compassion.

References & Further Reading:

  1. “History of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 47, no. 3 (1936): 198–207.
  2. International Confederation of St. Vincent de Paul
  3. Daniel T. McColgan, A Century of Charity: The First One Hundred Years of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the United States, Vols. I-II (The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1951).
  4. Sickinger, Raymond L., Antoine Frédéric Ozanam (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).
  5. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul San Roque Conference