Last week we were getting our house painted. We had our regular painter but this time he had an east European man, Michael (not his real name), painting with him who has been working with him full time for the past three years. We chatted with Michael a lot throughout the week and he spoke with great pride about his 5 children. He also told us about the struggle it is to pay rent and the cost of rearing and educating children even when working in a full-time job in Ireland. One afternoon he spoke about the instability in his own country and the high levels of poverty prevailing there. For the remainder of the day my thoughts turned to all that I see in the media in relation to the poverty trap for people who are working.
As the week progressed, I thought about people in need and I also thought about the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and my own involvement in it. The society was founded in Paris in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam. The society came to Ireland in 1844..
At its foundation the founder, said ‘The question which is agitating the world today is a social one. It is a struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much. It is a violent clash of opulence and poverty which is shaking the ground under our feet. Our duty as Christians is to throw ourselves between these two camps in order to accomplish by love what justice alone cannot do.’ This statement could be written for any country in the world today.
My involvement with the SVDP started by listening to my father who was a member involved mainly in visiting an old folk’s home in Killarney in the 1960’s. I loved the stories he shared with us when he came home each week.
When I reached 15 years of age, I joined the society in Tralee and visited the hospital every Saturday night distributing papers and some sweets. It still amazes me how many people were in there whom no one came to visit and who looked forward to our weekly visit. We also had a weekly rota of visiting old people, who lived alone, in their homes and when they died, we got time off school to attend their funeral. This was a rare enough event for us but it is something I remember to this day.
Having arrived in Dublin in 1965, I joined the Vincent de Paul society conference in College. This was a totally different mission. We were given defined deprived areas to visit including a men’s hostel which we visited on Sunday mornings. This was my first real realisation that there were people who lived in abusive situations .I also saw people who were homeless and who lived on social welfare benefit and charities. It was a real eye-opener for me.
I got my first job in Arklow in 1967 and soon joined the local conference of SVDP. They had a constant problem with lack of funds for helping people in need. We set up a team to organise one huge annual fundraising week culminating in a bazaar and auction in the local hall and to make it a definite social event in the Arklow calendar. This lasted for many years raising thousands of pounds for the SVDP charity. With the help of funds from the National Council we purchased a shop and overhead we had meeting rooms. This shop was converted from Grocery to a Vincentian clothes shop and also as a contact place for people who were in need of help.
In 1988 I joined the National Council of the SVDP in Dublin and became part of a team to restructure the Society. Later I became a National vice president.This involved travelling all over the country. During this time, I met some great volunteers doing tremendous work. I also heard a lot of heart-rendering stories of life’s hardships. We introduced many new programmes with home management courses, homework clubs, developing the Trinity access programme and some scholarships for second level students.
Our prison visits and annual Christmas concert for prisoners were great learning curves for all involved and gave me personally a new awareness of how we needed to work harder to eliminate illiteracy and improve the lives of people living in deprived areas of the country.
We were also heavily involved with a new poor whose family business had failed, and they were left stranded. The society set up an expert advisory group staffed by retired accountants. They had the expertise and with funding from the society were able to restructure many small businesses.
The SVDP provided great training for us in communications, preparing for interviews for radio and TV and in writing and advertising. This was all done very professionally and on and ongoing basis. The greatest work of the SVDP was the weekly visitation to the homes of people, listening to their stories of hardship and poverty and helping them with food,cash and advice in a non-judgemental way.
I loved the Christmas season when we were able to provide hampers to so many families and to see the genuine joy in their faces. All this great work was guided by the National President and some really talented people on the National Council who gave of their time and talents selflessly fulfilling what Ozanam said that it is in giving that we receive through people giving of their time, possessions and talents in their work for the poor.
I spent over 40 years actively working with the SVDP and was involved during all my working life trying to ensure that no family in need was left unaided, at Christmas, or special family events such as communion or confirmation, or during other life events.
By being exposed to such diverse levels of poverty my life has been hugely enriched. I am forever humbled and grateful to all those wonderful people I visited and who poured out their troubles and stories to me on a weekly basis. I thank my new painter friend, Michael, who was so humble in telling me his life story which sent me down memory lane to my time with the St Vincent de Paul Society. It also nudged me to look around and examine my conscience to see if I am doing enough for people in need.