With open arms and lots of enthusiasm, Saint Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Glen Allen recently welcomed the first conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Richmond’s central region.

The St. Michael the Archangel Conference became operational April 1 after almost a year of planning and formation.

Since its inception, interest in the new conference among parishioners has grown by leaps and bounds, buoyed by the fervent support of Father Dan Brady, the church’s pastor.

Conference president Dan Kearns is grateful for “the wonderful partner” the group has in St. Michael’s.

With its growing cadre of parish volunteers, known as Vincentians, the St. Michael’s conference provides services for the needy and suffering in Henrico County, particularly western Henrico.

Conferences like St. Michael’s are the basic unit – and backbone – of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They are usually found in parishes doing the Society’s elemental work in addressing the issues and needs of the poor. Technically, though, they are stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, and must develop funding and other resources to support themselves.

Founded in France in 1833 by a layman, Frédéric Ozanam, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is named after the 17th century saint known as the “Apostle of Charity” and “Father of the Poor.” Other conferences in the Diocese include the Western Vicariate’s new Saint Andrew’s Conference in Roanoke, which also includes parishioners from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, and the Eastern Vicariate’s Saint Matthew Conference, Virginia Beach, which includes members from several Tidewater parishes.

Saint Vincent de Paul is the patron saint of the Diocese.

All Vincentians are committed to relieving need, addressing its causes, and finding long-term solutions toward self-sufficiency, but conferences differ in who and how they help. They have their own “personalities,” says Kearns.

In all circumstances, though, the Society supports them with ongoing training in best practices, and with resources, informational and spiritual materials, and consultation/advice.

The St. Michael’s conference augments the Society’s support with training in home visitation and web-based case management software.

It also nurtures its members spiritually.

Deacon Andy Cirmo is the group’s spiritual advisor. As such, he leads members in prayer, meditation and reflections, and is available to assist those who encounter difficulties in providing services.

The raison d’etre for Vincentians is spiritual growth through face-to-face service to the poor – a personal connection. This is what makes the Society different. Large and smaller-scale efforts to address poverty are everywhere, but detachment from the poor themselves appears to be the rule rather than the exception.

The Vincentian way is sustained by Pope Francis in his commitment to the poor.

In recently establishing a World Day of the Poor (the first on November 19, 2017), the pope encouraged concrete action on their behalf and an increased appreciation of them, declaring, “The poor are not a problem: they are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practice in our lives the essence of the Gospel.”

When speaking of alleviating poverty, Kearns’ words and tone are about as far away as one can get from the statistics, politics and esoteric conversations often associated with the issue. In emulating Pope Francis’ personal encounter with the poor, and true to the Vincentian spirit, he breaks through it all, and arrives at the doorstep – literally – of a person in need.

The “home visit” is the heart and soul of Vincentian activity.

Vincentians meet with individuals and families in their homes to see how they can best be served – spiritually, emotionally and materially.

For the most part, the process begins with an incoming phone call. At intake, an assessment is made, a “caseworker” assigned, and Vincentians dispatched to the requester’s home. Those needing professional services are referred appropriately.

Caseworkers are not professionally trained human services workers. They are volunteers whose cases are the persons in need they encounter.

Vincentians are sent out to homes two-by-two to provide assistance and determine a course of action. “It’s biblically-based,” says Deacon Cirmo. “Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two.”

“Seeing the face of Christ in all,” Vincentians are careful not to judge people, putting aside the assumptions and expectations that are normally at the heart of judgment.

Kearns notes, “Through our work, we find ourselves dealing with many people in places not considered ‘high poverty’ areas. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize who needs help.”

The conference maintains strict confidentiality, and members explain this to those they serve.

Since April 1, requests for help have come from both inside and outside of the parish, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and from those of different backgrounds. Utility, shelter and food assistance are needed most. Main causes precipitating requests are lack of employment (specifically, in the trades); inability to navigate the complex system of services available; medical issues; and, lack of dependable transportation.

While Kearns is eager for his conference to reach as many people as possible, he is cautious about overextending beyond Henrico.

He hopes other conferences will be established in the Richmond area so that a Society council will form. With about five conferences, this can become a reality, bringing strength in numbers and a network of cooperative outreach to the challenges inherent in an urban setting.