Vincentians and workers pose with trucks outside a warehouse at Southwest Third and Hall in Portland in the early 1940s. (Courtesy Portland Council of St. Vincent de Paul)
Vincentians and workers pose with trucks outside a warehouse at Southwest Third and Hall in Portland in the early 1940s. (Courtesy Portland Council of St. Vincent de Paul)

An astonishing movement began in 1833 at the University of Paris. A 20-year-old student named Frederic Ozanam formed an alliance in response to critics who called the Catholic Church a friend of the rich and an exploiter of the poor. Ozanam placed his anti-poverty society under the protection of the Virgin Mary and St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century French priest revered for his goodness and generosity.

Members, called Vincentians, would commune with the poor, providing for needs but also standing in solidarity. The movement spread quickly across Europe then over oceans. The first conference in the United States was established in St. Louis in 1845 as thousands of migrants were setting off on the Oregon Trail.

By 1869, the Catholic anti-poverty movement reached Portland. The first meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on the Pacific coast took place Oct. 12, 1869, at the cathedral, with 22 members registered.

The river town of 8,000 was booming and had few poor residents. So the newly founded society found a special project — establishing a hospital. By 1874, society members donated a block at Northwest 12th and Marshall and gave $1,000 to the Sisters of Providence to begin construction of a 75-bed structure on what would be known as St. Vincent Hospital.

By 1888, the Vincentians were doing more traditional work as Portland began to experience urban poverty. The men visited the poor, provided for neglected children and made sure the sick and destitute saw a doctor.

In 1926, Archbishop Edward Howard arrived and was a St. Vincent de Paul enthusiast. By 1928, 18 parish conferences had been established with 154 active members. That year, the Portland District Council was formed. In 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, the society began its salvage bureau, taking in used clothing and furniture to offer to the needy and sell to fund more ministries. The bureau also created jobs. The first St. Vincent de Paul food drive was launched in 1931 at St. Agatha Parish in Southeast Portland. 

Members started delivering Christmas food baskets. One Vincentian, Frank Stark, took his duties so seriously that upon hearing of one family’s dire need, purloined the Sunday roast his wife Hatti had in the oven.

In 1935, St. Vincent de Paul was given the reins of a reading room and chapel at SW Third and Ankeny. By 1937, the society had a special fund to help black residents of the city. In the 1940s, the society established a day nursery for children of parents working in Portland’s wartime shipyards. The society began a jail visitation program.

The feeding efforts always continued, with almost 100 families receiving Christmas food baskets in 1946. The conference at St. Philip Neri Parish established annual visits to the Multnomah County Poor Farm in Troutdale.

The sudden 1948 Vanport flood left more than 18,000 low-income residents homeless and empty-handed. St. Vincent de Paul responded with clothing, other supplies and cash.

A 1951 fire destroyed the salvage bureau on Southwest Third Avenue and one life was lost. Despite that tragedy, the society continued to expand, including the founding and construction of Camp Howard in the Cascade foothills. By 1959, there were 30 parish conferences and 200 active members.

Services continued to expand in the 1960s and 1970s, with a new focus on the causes of poverty. The society established a spinoff program to help disabled people regain job skills by repairing donated goods. In 1975, the society opened an alcohol and drug treatment center in downtown Portland. Both programs are still running.

In 1979, there were 44 conferences who assisted almost 11,000 households, including with aid for rent. In 1985, the society opened a 30-unit housing complex in North Portland. That same year, there were 1,000 members of the society in the Portland area. They collected 400,000 pounds of food by going door to door that year for Christmas.

In 1986, Beth Haglund was elected president of the Portland Council, the first woman to hold the post. Soon, St. Vincent de Paul began running St. Francis Dining Hall to feed homeless people in Portland and started a mission program to help in Tijuana, Mexico.

In 1988, the council took over a program to pick up leftover food from restaurants. By 1989, there were 57 conferences.

In 1992, President George HW Bush gave one of his “points of light” awards to the council, which had nine thrift stores. In recent decades, competition from resale juggernauts put the thrift stores out of business, but the feeding efforts and other aid have remained. As housing costs in Oregon have soared, the work done by parish conferences and the Portland council has multiplied.

Now located close to a homeless service center off Southeast 82nd Avenue, the council offices offer direct services, including food, jackets and emergency help with utilities, rent and other needs.

In addition, staff upstairs are the “powerhouse” that sets up food delivery for parish conferences all over the region, says Brian Ferschweiler, executive director of the Portland council. Through the conferences, St. Vincent de Paul just helped provide Christmas food boxes to 4,000 families.

The council stocks and sends out a bus converted into a mobile kitchen and dining room. It stops at places where there is poverty, but not many services, including Beaverton, Hillsboro, Estacada and Canby. Catholic parishes are its home base.

Veronica Kennedy, the Portland council’s liaison to parish conferences, reminds people that a priority of all the work is the spiritual welfare of members, who encounter the Lord in the people they serve. “It’s about spirituality first,” says Kennedy.

Editor’s note: The Sentinel will publish stories about the history of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society through 2019.

Two major events are set to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Portland.

• Oct. 12 — Gala at the Doubletree Hotel in Northeast Portland

• Nov. 16 — Mass at St. Anthony Church in Tigard