St. Vincent de Paul
St. Vincent de Paul
John Moore, a longtime goods transport manager in Oregon, once thought homeless and low-income people just needed to go get jobs. After retiring in 2006 and joining the St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Anthony Parish in Forest Grove, he reversed course.

“I did a 180,” Moore said. “They need us and we need them. You don’t mess around with God’s special people.”

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is not only about good works. The whole enterprise is founded on the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

“I used to look down on people who didn’t have a job or who were homeless or poor,” Moore said. “I used to say, ‘Go get a job.’ Joining the St. Vincent de Paul Society has been the most influential thing in my life. I need those people for my spirituality, to take care of my soul. It’s a win-win situation.”

Moore, president of the conference in Forest Grove, also serves on the Portland Council board as representative for conferences in Washington, Columbia and Clatsop counties. Soon after joining the society, he read books on St. Vincent and Frederic Ozanam, the Paris college student who founded the society in 1833 after being challenged by critics of the Catholic Church. They asked what he was doing for the poor.

To learn how to serve, Ozanam observed the Daughters of Charity, whom the French priest St. Vincent de Paul had helped found in 1633. One of the nuns suggested that members of the new society go out in pairs to visit the houses of those in need, offering comfort and assessing what else should be done to help. That has been the foundational ministry of St. Vincent de Paul from the start.

When he became a conference president, Moore met regularly with peers from around western Oregon. He heard stories about what works and doesn’t work but also about the deep spiritual meaning of encountering and accompanying people who are poor.

Moore observes volunteers who balk when carrying free food for someone who owns a late model or expensive car. He knows better. Shortly after the 2008 recession began, he lugged a box to a Cadillac sport utility vehicle worth tens of thousands of dollars. The flustered food recipient explained that she and her husband had both been laid off from Intel. It was a lesson about withholding judgment and it made Moore a better man.

“A lot of people think we are mostly in the help-people business. Not true. We are here for the spiritual growth of our volunteers,” said Stan Miller, president of the Archdiocesan Council of St. Vincent de Paul, which oversees all the councils in western Oregon.

Miller, active in his home conference at St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro, said a result of that growth is bringing the life of Christ to the people and allowing them to bring the light of Christ to you.

In the 17th century, St. Vincent closely studied the life of Christ. On solid theological ground, he wrote that Jesus is spiritually present in people who experience need. “He believed that if you or I headed out to help those folks, we would be in direct touch with Jesus,” Miller said. Vincentians embrace that idea firmly.

“Vincent believed that if you want to grow in your faith, the best thing you can do is put yourself in a situation where you see people who know how to act out their faith,” Miller said. For Miller, that situation inevitably is a St. Vincent de Paul conference.

Ozanam brought an organizational genius to the ideas. He developed the idea of conferences and was firmly resolved on lay leadership for the society. He wanted local people in charge, since they would be the best to know the real needs.

The work spread fast. Within eight months, there were 700 conferences in Europe.

“It was the right idea at the right time,” Miller said.

The Sisters of Providence and the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Portland teamed up on the region’s first hospital — they also shared a spiritual tradition. When the sisters were established in French Canada in 1843, their founders used constitutions that had been developed two centuries earlier by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac for the Daughters of Charity. The document focused on living among the poor and serving their needs.

“We sisters have been Vincentian from the beginning,” said Providence Sister Margaret Bischoff, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Southeast Portland.

Sister Margaret said the spirituality of St. Vincent is characterized by incarnational vision. “He sees Jesus at the heart of everything and everyone,” she explained.

St. Vincent criticized the rich of Paris for sending servants to give alms to the poor. For him, that was insufficient and missed a chance to encounter the Lord. He also told the Daughters of Charity that the people they serve will not always be appealing — but they are Jesus.