Pope’s U.S. visit well-timed for Society of St. Vincent de Paul

By: By Tom Dermody

When Pope Francis visits the United States later this month, he will surely issue several calls to serve the poor and the needy.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is one way to answer that call. And in the Diocese of Peoria, the pope’s trip comes at a time when the Society is especially active with new projects and opportunities for Catholics to grow spiritually and develop Christian friendships while serving those in need.

In fact, the pope’s trip-closing Mass in Philadelphia will be celebrated on Sept. 27, the feast of St. Vincent de Paul.

“Pope Francis has been a very articulate spokesman reconnecting us all to how central to our faith is this idea of serving the least in our communities,” said Tom Pelger, president of the Society’s Peoria Council that unites 800 Vincentians across the diocese. With a new conference forming in St. Patrick Parish, Washington, and St. Monica, East Peoria, the diocese is now home to 18 Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences in 25 parishes.

Pelger hopes that Pope Francis’ visit spurs greater interest.

“We’d love if other pastors or parishioners feel inspired by Pope Francis’ message,” he told The Catholic Post. “We’re a phone call away to help them turn that into action.”

Action is a key word for the Society. In the past 12 months, Vincentians in the Diocese of Peoria contributed 51,000 hours of direct service to those in need through thousands of home visits , food pantry outreaches, and disaster recovery aid — most recently this summer in the tornado-hit communities of Delavan and Cameron. The November 2013 tornadoes that hit Tazewell County and elsewhere mobilized the Society to major short- and long-term relief efforts, with case managers providing families in the Washington area with $700,000 in assistance toward their recovery.

Eight Vincentian-sponsored food pantries throughout the diocese served 95,000 people last year.

Members of the Society will recommit to service when they gather with Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, on Sunday, Oct. 4, for the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.

In addition, the Society is sponsoring fundraising “Friends of the Poor” walks in Peoria and Urbana on Saturday, Sept. 26. (See related story.)

But while the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has long been known for helping to meet immediate, basic needs on a person-to-person basis, the organization both nationally and locally has launched a new effort to combat generational poverty. Called “Coming Together to Get Ahead,” the program invites those in long-term poverty to make systemic changes in their lives through a 16-week workshop and the help of trained mentors.

“God doesn’t will people to be in poverty,” said Pelger, who has been among the national planners of the program. “We can make a difference if we better understand the root causes of poverty, change our own attitudes and thinking, and work with people more side-by-side to make a lasting difference in lives.”

About 100 people from more than two dozen churches and social service organizations were trained in the program in recent months, with 36 continuing training as mentors. The first 16-week session began Aug. 24 at the East Bluff Community Center, located in the former St. Bernard School in Peoria. A second class will start in January, with hopes that “Coming Together to Get Ahead” will soon spread to other regions.

Those interested in learning more about the program, or in becoming involved with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, are invited to call Pelger at (309) 339-9022.

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