By Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian

When a small group of parishioners stood up for a blessing during Mass at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke on May 21, they joined a long tradition of service to the poor and needy that began in France more than 180 years ago. The new St. Andrew’s Conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is the first official group of its kind in southwest Virginia.

Named after the “Great Apostle of Charity,” St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), the society was originally created in 1833 to help the poor living in the slums of Paris. Since then, it has grown to more than 160,000 volunteer Vincentians in local “conferences” worldwide, who often visit people in their homes to help them.

Anne Harmon Hogan, the St. Andrew’s Vincentians’ president, explained that the Roanoke conference has identified three areas of focus: visits to the poor and needy; visits to the sick, homebound and elderly; and disaster and emergency relief. Often, she said, those in need do not know where to turn for help, or they may be too embarrassed to do so. “But most of us are just one disaster or illness or accident away from poverty,” Hogan said. “People understand.”

The volunteers assist both in the short term, such as providing groceries or helping to pay a utility bill, and also in the long term, to lead people to services that will improve their lives for good. The visits are conducted in the spirit of love and compassion. “We don’t judge anybody, because we see the face of Jesus in the needy,” said member Steven Tomaziefski.

“Sometimes people feel stuck, but Jesus can open the door to any situation,” added Jan Dilling, vice president. “He makes everything possible.”

Chuck Frost, pastoral associate at St. Andrew’s and Vincentian spiritual advisor, inquired early last year about forming a local conference after Dilling suggested it. He explained that in the past all assistance went through his office when people asked for help. “But I did think we should involve parishioners,” he said. “And now they can visit the poor, go to their homes, and assess how we can help them. That’s what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul does.”

Many people need help now, he noted, and those needs will increase with upcoming cuts to programs that assist the poor. “We hope we can pick up some of that slack,” he said. “We reach out to people as Jesus commanded us to do.”

In July, Frost shared the idea with the congregation, and invited the society’s eastern representative, Dom Visco, to conduct a day-long orientation. Afterward, Frost began to lead monthly training sessions.

The 20 new Vincentians include 18 from St. Andrew’s and two from Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Salem. Frost hopes the group eventually will include all of the Catholic parishes in the area.

The conference will be funded by donations from individuals, churches, grants and other sources. Reports detailing the use of resources will be provided to donors and the national council.

Referrals may come from parishioners or those outside the church, including social service agencies that are aware of specific needs. But sometimes what a person needs most is simply company, or someone to pray with.

Vincentians Tomaziefski and Rob DeMattia learned this when they conducted the first home visit in May. A disabled Roanoke woman who had suffered a brain aneurysm had been referred to Frost by a social service agency. DeMattia and Tomaziefski made an introductory phone call to learn about her needs, and although her disability had left her financially challenged, with poor housing and no family to help, the woman said that she simply wanted someone to pray with her.

The visitors spent two hours at her home, praying and learning about her life challenges. She had been raised in a devout Catholic family but had been away from the Church for many years, especially since her aneurysm nine years ago. DeMattia brought her some baked goods; Tomaziefski gave her a rosary and a booklet on how to pray with it.

On the second visit, the woman told her new friends more about her life, such as her work in decorating furniture and her desire to someday live where she could have a garden. She also said she wanted to return to the church. The men invited her to Mass at St. Andrew’s – and on the following Sunday, she was there. DeMattia spotted her in a back pew and sat with her. “The human interaction is so important, and sharing our faith,” he said. “We pray that we can be the vehicle to talk to others about it.”

“I think God heard our prayer,” said Tomaziefski.

The Vincentians’ work is also designed to deepen their own faith as well as others’, by drawing them closer to each other and closer to God. “It’s strengthening our awareness of what God does for us,” DeMattia said. “Pope Francis appeals to us to live our Christian faith, and this is a good way to do it.”

For more information, contact Chuck Frost at 540-344-9814 or cfrost@standrewsroanoke.org.