Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

As a parishioner at St. Louis Catholic Church, Alexandria, Lorenzo Abella had been a member of his parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVDP) conference since 2011. When he moved to Richmond last year and joined Sacred Heart Catholic Church, he suggested to the pastor, Jesuit Father Shay Auerbach, that the parish form a St. Vincent de Paul conference. The priest agreed and suggested Abella contact Marie Giblin.

He did, and this past fall Sacred Heart became the fourth conference in the Diocese of Richmond, with Giblin as president, Abella as vice president and 10 other members.

“We’re the 12 apostles,” Giblin told The Catholic Virginian with a laugh.

The other parishes with conferences are St. Andrew, Roanoke; St. Matthew, Virginia Beach; and St. Michael, Glen Allen.

As planning began last winter, the “shoestring conference,” as Giblin termed it, got off to “a typical rocky start.” The group was aided by Vincentians — what members of SVDP are called — from St. Michael who provided support with computer software and by sharing in the proceeds of its annual Walk for the Poor.

Father Auerbach said what was attractive about SVDP is how it does outreach.

“They actually go and visit the person in their home and find out what that person’s reality is,” he said, noting the organization emphasizes its faith base.

“We’re Church. We do this because people are in need and that’s what followers of Christ are called to do.”

Giblin said the home visits, which are at the core of SVDP outreach, are important — and confidential.

“We get to hear the whole story in their place where they’re comfortable. We give them time. That makes a huge difference,” she said of the visits that are done by a pair of Vincentians. “We tell them we want to hear it all, but we tell them we can’t make any promises.”

Abella, who is bilingual, called the home visits “a happy experience.”

“We see happy faces when they see people coming,” he said. “They welcome us into their homes and are happy to have someone to talk to, and hopefully get some help.”

Each visit includes an offer to pray.

“I end by asking, ‘Would you mind if we say a prayer?’” Abella said, noting most people always welcome it.

Giblin said that “very few groups” do what SVDP does: provide financial assistance.

“It became clear this is a need,” she said, noting that there are other entities that provide other services. “We deal with emergency, sudden, critical needs.”

Father Auerbach hopes that through SVDP the parish can develop the infrastructure needed to consistently provide that service rather than on an ad hoc basis as it has been doing.

He said outreach to the poor “needs to be consummate with the development of our parish,” which includes approximately 1,000 families.

“The conference serves those in need among parishioners in the surrounding area,” he said.  “There are a lot of needy people in our zip code (23224). This is a way for us to commit to our neighborhood.”

While Vincentians are often referred to as being “the face of Christ” to those they serve, Giblin said those they serve are the face of Christ to the Vincentians. 

“Matthew 25 seems so alive when we’re with our ‘friends,’” she said, using the term SVDP uses to describe those they serve.

As the conference continues to grow and to raise funds for its work, Giblin is excited about the outreach SVDP provides. 

“This is a really good thing for our parish,” she said. “This is going to help the community and help grow the faith in our community. Understanding the Gospel is about being neighbors to one another.”

Editor’s note: Those needing help can call (804) 362-0580. Those wishing to support the conference can send contributions to SVDP at Sacred Heart Church, 1400 Perry St. Richmond 23224.