Fr. J.F. Fierens
Fr. J.F. Fierens
During its 150-year arc of history in Portland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul consistently has done two things: follow the Gospel and read the signs of the times.

Jesus set compassionate examples. He healed the sick. He fed the 5,000. He visited people in their homes. He told his followers that if they had an extra tunic they should give one to someone in need. The Lord’s very infancy story created a mandate among Christians to help people find and sustain shelter.

All these things have happened in northwestern Oregon since 1869 because of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Along the way, members of the grassroots organization have had an uncanny knack for discerning need.

What the booming city of Portland needed most in the 1870s was a hospital. Vincentians donated a prime piece of land in Northwest Portland and gave a stipend to the Sisters of Providence. St. Vincent Hospital was born.

“The St. Vincent de Paul Society knows no egotism,” Father J.F. Fierens said on the hot July day in 1875 when the hospital was dedicated. Father Fierens, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Oregon City, went on to say that for Vincentians, “their object and aim is true Christian charity: all for others — for their needy fellow beings.”

The evening of the dedication, a wagon brought a Chinese worker whose arm had been caught in the machinery at a barrel factory in St. Johns.

Amusingly, the Boston Pilot, a Catholic paper, reported that the St. Vincent de Paul Society had opened a hospital in Portland, California. The Sentinel editor sardonically suggested, “Somebody should send the Pilot an atlas.”

Economic hard times in the nation caught up with Portland by the 1880s and so the men of St. Vincent de Paul set up help for orphans and neglected children, a ministry that went on for decades.

“The followers of St. Vincent de Paul go to the homes of the poor,” said a Sentinel front page story in 1887. “In the tenement houses, in courts and alleys, in haunts of crime and vice, where little children’s bodies perish in poisoned air, the members of the conferences of St. Vincent de Paul go that they may save souls and bodies.”

The society got creative to fund its work. In 1909, the conference at St. Lawrence Parish in Portland held benefit whist parties and concerts.

When the Great Depression hit, St. Vincent de Paul responded with its famous salvage bureau, which took used goods and offered them at low cost so struggling families could maintain their dignity. St. Agatha Parish in Southeast Portland has the honor of having the region’s first St. Vincent de Paul food drive. Those collections of cans and boxes kept families off the bread lines and would become a mainstay of the parish conferences.

As Dust Bowl refugees sought a home in Portland, rummage shops increased and the society took charge of a chapel and reading room so people down on their luck could research jobs, have some peace and pray to the Almighty for comfort.

When black citizens of the Jim Crow South got fed up and sought a better life in places like Portland, St. Vincent de Paul was there to help. The society established an aid fund in 1937 and a day nursery in 1940 so black mothers could work and help their families.

“The society contributes and works unselfishly for the benefit of those who are in need of spiritual or material assistance,” said a 1943 booklet prepared for the 50th anniversary of Sacred Heart Parish in Southeast Portland. “God’s blessing is most assuredly upon any parish that can boast of an active Society of St. Vincent de Paul as we have at Sacred Heart.”

When World War II hit, the Blessed Martin Day Nursery became a vital ministry for parents of many races who worked in the shipyards for the war effort.

“Our playmates include all races — White, Japanese, Indian, Filipino, Chinese and Negro — racial animosity is rare and never lasts very long,” said a letter to newspapers ostensibly from the children of Blessed Martin. “Even our parents find theirs soften and die in this happy atmosphere.”

The 1948 Vanport flood left many low-income families without possessions. St. Vincent de Paul reserved an entire floor of its warehouse for flood victims, giving clothing, furniture and other household goods and even cash aid.

To get children interested in charity, the society ran a 1951 essay contest in western Oregon Catholic schools. The topic was “Charity, the St. Vincent de Paul Salvage Bureau and I.”

When it became clear in the early 1950s that children in the big city needed to explore the Oregon wild now and then, St. Vincent de Paul stepped up as a lead agency in building Camp Howard, still in existence.

In 1958, more than 300 Vincentians gathered at Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland for an annual dinner. “Oregon has always needed men like you, and it will need them even more in the future,” Father Willis Whalen told the group, which that year aided 590 families made up of almost 4,000 people.

Father Frank Bach, director of St. Vincent de Paul in the Spokane Diocese, said in a 1966 meeting that the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Portland had been a pace-setter for the society’s activities in the Northwest. The priest said the Portland group had “widespread influence.”

The value of people with disabilities came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. St. Vincent de Paul of Portland led the way with the founding of St. Vincent de Paul Rehabilitation, later De Paul Industries.

Leaders of the society paid heed to the plight of addiction and opened DePaul Treatment Center in 1975, hoping to get at one of the root causes of poverty.

“Over these many years the society has stayed modern,” national St. Vincent de Paul president Howard Halaska said during the organization’s 1977 convention, hosted in Portland. “We felt the needs of the Great Depression of the ’30s, wartime of the ’40s, reconstruction of the ’50s, restlessness of the ’60s. Now in the ‘70s we are eager to meet the challenges of the new sophisticated society, and here is where the youthfulness of the society makes itself so evident.”

In 1985, in the very inklings of the Portland housing crisis, St. Vincent de Paul opened an apartment building in North Portland.

A pioneer in gleaning, the society began working with local restaurants in 1988.

The recessions of the 2000s sparked quick action and creativity among conference workers and council leaders. The parishes increased their food distribution.

“Even if both parents are working minimum wage jobs they still need assistance,” executive director Sharon Hills told the Sentinel in 2007. “People face tremendous pressures just to stay in their homes.”

And aware that people outside population centers get hungry, too, the council outfitted a school bus, creating a mobile kitchen to bring hot meals to rural zones.

Alongside meeting new needs, the basics have remained. Chief among the main ministries is home visitation. Vincentians can bring food, but also check in on residents to assess other kinds of need.

One regular food box recipient believes the St. Vincent de Paul volunteers “have Christ them.” Fran Johnson, 73, lives in Sacred Heart Villa in Southeast Portland. She’s a former nurse who suffered a brain injury in an accident and is disabled.

“Getting a food box takes some of the strain off of the economic worries,” Johnson told the Sentinel in 2018. “But it is not just food delivery. It is the Christian spirit in which it is delivered. These people emanate the workings of Christ. I can sense the Lord walking around and taking care of the poor.”