Don Wolkerstorfer logs a contribution of food at the tidy St. Vincent de Paul pantry at Holy Family Parish. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Don Wolkerstorfer logs a contribution of food at the tidy St. Vincent de Paul pantry at Holy Family Parish. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
As lower-income families flee inner Portland for cheaper rents farther out, the ministry of St. Vincent de Paul conferences is shifting.

In inner Southeast Portland, for example, the Holy Family Parish conference has seen a surge in requests for rent and utility aid as the middle class hangs on to home for dear life. At the same time, food requests have dipped from 40 families per week to 25 or 30 now.

Still, Holy Family’s Vincentians have kept up the core ministry of visiting homes with food. On any Tuesday, a crew is happy to push their lower backs to the limit loading donated supplies into the parish storerooms. On Fridays, volunteers drive out two-by-two, delivering sustenance to apartments and houses and establishing relationships. Volunteers also simply observe in case further services might be needed. One pair of Holy Family Vincentians noticed a family in need of a safe crib for an infant.

“We enjoy the deliveries a lot,” said Roberta Gamache, one of the conference’s co-presidents. She recalls the family that gave her several pots filled with cacti as a return gift.

“People like to give back,” said Gamache.

“That’s important,” said Don Wolkerstorfer, another co-president, explaining that people feel more dignity when they contribute.

Volunteers note that families receiving food often share it with neighbors who are even worse off.

“They do a good job,” said food recipient Doree D’Angelo, an active parishioner who has needed help after medical problems.

Dan Hoffa, the third co-president, said the home delivery model offers many advantages. Importantly, people feel more comfortable talking on familiar ground.

“A lot of times, we are the only ones they are seeing,” Hoffa says of clients. “They want to talk to us. They may tell us what their problems are.”

All conference activities start with prayer and a reminder that volunteers encounter Jesus in the poor.

In 1968, a half dozen members of Holy Family established their St. Vincent de Paul conference. Since then, a small but energetic team has kept the ministry humming.

Now, the conference is made up of about 30 active members and more who have had to slow down but pitch in here and there.

Holy Family is unique in that it is led by the three co-presidents. They divide up constituents like the pastor, church staff, the pastoral council and the administrative council, maintaining relationships and keeping their meeting schedules within reason. The conference communicates with the whole parish.

“We want this to be a parish-centric ministry,” said Hoffa, a 75-year-old retired business owner and management consultant. One of his assignments is fielding media requests.

The conference got two big batches of donated food this fall, one from the annual Thanksgiving Day Mass and the other from a Girl Scout food drive. The conference once went door to door in the neighborhood collecting food. Now they have a new system: giving parishioners a box and a shopping list. “It really resonated,” said Hoffa.

The fall donation surge is helpful for the annual Christmas food box distribution. That outreach has increased, despite demographics, from 100 families to about 125.

“It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun,” Hoffa said.

One delivery crew on the big day is made up of members of the Central Catholic High School varsity basketball team. Coach David Blue wants his players to know not everyone is as blessed as they are.

Students from Holy Family School help with the Christmas box project. The filled containers are stored in their cafeteria.

At Christmas and on Fridays all year, delivery volunteers call ahead to make sure someone will be home so the boxes will be taken in safely. That also ensures that the relationships can be sustained.

If recipients are working on Fridays, volunteers agree to make a weekend delivery. No one should get docked for having a job, Hoffa said.

On the delivery list are residents of two Catholic Charities transitional homes for women. One is the former pastor’s house, since Father Rodel de Mesa moved into a smaller, humbler abode. The second is the former residence of longtime Holy Family parishioners Bob and Evelyn Dieringer, whose children wanted the house to be used for good. St. Vincent de Paul keeps the homes’ kitchens full and humming.

“We feel we are doing what Jesus asks us to do: Very simply, serve the poor,” Hoffa said. “That is Catholic doctrine 101.”