The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, believed to be one of the oldest charities in the world, is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Last weekend, local Vincentians, as members of the Catholic lay ministry are called, marked the event with a variety of programs.
At Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park, society members held a "Walk for the Poor" and raised $800 for charitable work. But at Sacred Heart and other churches with Society of St. Vincent de Paul groups, members are seeing an increasing demand for help. It's the same at the Food Center in St. Petersburg, which has almost run out of food to meet the growing demand. In addition, requests for assistance with rent and utility bills have skyrocketed.
"This year, it's a lot more difficult than in the past,'' said Larry Peterson, president of the Sacred Heart group.
"A lot of people are in trouble with their electric bills.''
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For most people, the name St. Vincent de Paul is associated with facilities like those in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, where the hungry are fed and food baskets distributed. The 46 St. Vincent de Paul groups or conferences, most of them at Catholic parishes throughout the Tampa Bay area, also serve their neighbors in need. For Sacred Heart, that service area runs from 58th Avenue N in St. Petersburg to Ulmerton Road, and Belcher Road east to 28th Street N.
Many people are unaware of how much the society's parish groups accomplish, said Marvin Ropert, executive director of the charity's diocesanwide council.
"We have spent over $2-million helping people. That's cash,'' said Ropert, store manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Clearwater.
"The members spent over 125,000 hours helping people. Our thrift stores give away half-a-million dollars of clothing and furniture a year.''
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul got its start in 1833, when it was founded in France by 20-year-old student Frederic Ozanam. The charity was introduced to the United States in 1845 and began in St. Petersburg at St. Paul's Catholic Church in 1931. Members endeavor to live their faith by helping those in need and doing so through voluntary and confidential person-to-person contact and home visits.
At Sacred Heart Church last weekend, the turnout for the Walk for the Poor was small, but Peterson said it was the first such event.
"We really had a good time and it was a really good learning experience,'' he said, adding that the parish's Vincentians are making plans to hold another charity walk in the spring.
He said all money raised by members goes to help the poor, providing assistance that includes Thanksgiving baskets for more than 200 families and new toys at Christmas for about 500 children.
"We have no administrative costs or anything,'' he said, adding that his group works with other agencies and gives referrals to other organizations. There's a 24-hour telephone line people call for help, he said.
More than 90 percent of those who receive assistance are not members of Sacred Heart, Peterson said.
"The idea is that we try to see the face of Christ in everybody,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.