St. Vincent de Paul Society congratulates volunteers on 175 years of service
When Father John Timon, CM, saw the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Europe, he instantly became a fan. He created the first American conference in St. Louis in 1845. Two years later, as the first bishop of the newly-founded Diocese of Buffalo, he organized the second-ever conference in the U.S.
Like the diocese itself, Western New York’s St. Vincent de Paul Society celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. Festivities began July 20 when Bishop Michael W. Fisher celebrated Mass at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville for the dedicated volunteers and staff.
“It’s a group and organization that’s very close to my heart,” Bishop Fisher said. “I have much experience with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. I know the work and the wonderful people who are involved in this difficult work of the Church. You really put the corporal and spiritual works of mercy into practice.”
Founded in 1833, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a worldwide organization of lay Catholics, following Christ’s call to serve the poor, the suffering and the deprived. Vincentian members establish personal relationships with their neighbors in need, not only providing material assistance such as rent, utilities, food, or clothing, but also offering friendship, understanding and prayer. No work of charity is foreign to the society.
Following Mass a reception took place to thank the many volunteers. There, Bishop Fisher recalled being introduced to the St. Vincent de Paul Society while serving in a very affluent parish in Washington, D.C.
During his first week, a line of people came to the door wanting a hand out. They didn’t want food, they just wanted money. “I wanted to try and help them in some way. We all know, you give them a fish, but you got to teach them to fish too,” Bishop Fisher said. “I think that’s what the society does. It looks at the root of some of the issues and ongoing situations there. I was really wracking my brain to figure out what I could do.”
That Monday, he received call from a parishioner asking to form a St. Vincent de Paul conference at the parish. He said they could help with the social concerns of the parish.
“It wasn’t only the work that they were doing in the name of the Church and the parish and the people there, but the spirituality in its members. I know I see that in all of you,” the bishop said. “It is that Vincentian spirit and making the Word take root in us and really reflect in that ministry that we share with one another. We have been called to that preferential option for the poor in our church. The Lord’s ministry was filled with service to the poor.”
Mark Zirnheld, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Western New York, presented Bishop Fisher with an official membership card to the society, a pin and a Vincentian cross, representing the faith and true spirit of the Vincentian family. The cross comes from a South American group helping those in need find sustainable ways to make a living, using wood and resources to make religious artifacts to sell in Fair Trade agreements.
“Not only does this represent our faith, our Vincentian spirit, but it also symbolizes our mission,” Zirnheld said.
Zirnheld had been involved in the society for 33 years. When hired, he was the youngest executive director in the country. Now, he is the longest-tenured executive director.
“When we talk about this wonderful group, the wonderful event – 175 years – it is a true blessing, not only for the diocese, but to me as well, to have gotten to know so many wonderful people in service to our community and service to the poor. I have been privileged to have served under eight board presidents and their administrations. Each one of them has been a gift to our organization at a time when we needed them. They brought this organization through some difficult times and into what we do today, and effective charitable organization that people realize will take care of them, with, as the bishop said, no questions asked, and give true, compassionate, respectful service.”
Zirnheld and Board President Cheri Frank recognized volunteers who have served for 25 years or more.
“For all of you, whether it’s one day or 35 years, your service, if we don’t recognize it, that’s not a problem, the people you serve, and more importantly, our Lord, know what you have done for the least among us. Thank you again,” Zirnheld said.