Chapter III: The development of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul throughout the world
The aims and objects of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul cannot be better set forth than in the following preface to the official Report of the Superior Council of England for 1912 :
“The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a Society of men in all countries associated together for mutual encouragement in the practice of a Christian life. By taking an active part, however small, in works of mercy, they hope to make progress in piety, and with this object they try to be the friends of the poor, visiting and relieving them in distress, instructing them in religion, visiting wrorkhouses, hospitals, and similar institutions, distributing wholesome reading, conducting Penny Banks and Libraries, and giving such kinds of help as may be most required. Mindful of their holy Patron’s care for the young, they take a great interest in boys, and they try to benefit them by assisting in the conduct of their clubs, seeing that they attend Catholic Schools, obtaining suitable situations for them when they leave school, and supervising their attendance at Mass and Catechism. Many other works are undertaken by the Society, varying according to circumstances, but the above are universally needed and belong to its general practice. It is a primary rule that no work of charity is foreign to the Society.
“Members are either Active or Honorary. An Active Member need not do more than attend the weekly Conference Meeting, at which there is a voluntary and strictly secret collection, and visit one poor family. As this need not occupy much more than an hour a week, no great demand is made upon his time, while he may easily find full employment for any amount of leisure and charitable zeal. The Society was founded by young men, and these are invited earnestly to become Active Members, assuring them of the brotherly welcome with which they will be received, and the speedy reward they will win in the gratitude of the poor.
“Honorary Members incur no obligation but the contribution of a fixed sum, annually or otherwise, to the Society’s funds, the amount being optional, and no minimum being fixed; they are entitled to attend all general meetings, retreats, etc., and to participate in the Society’s prayers and good works, and they add very much to its strength.
“All men are eligible as Members provided they are in a position to contribute anything, however small, to the Society’s funds, and are so far practising their religion that they may be expected to edify their fellow-members and be edified by them.
“There are 308 Conferences in England, which assemble at a stated time each week, and at which the brothers meet to join in common prayers and spiritual reading, to discuss the visiting and other works in progress, and to promote the objects of the Society. Men desiring to join the Society should communicate in writing with the local President, or with the Secretary of the Superior Council, from whom copies of the rules, reports, and all information can be obtained. Where no Conference exists, any eligible men may he enrolled as Corresponding members, and will so participate in the works and benefits of the Society.
“Ladies cannot be members, but by subscribing an annual amount, however small, they can be enrolled as * Benefactresses,’ and as such are enabled to obtain special Indulgences; and they may be of great assistance to the Society, either individually or in associations, by entering into communication with it, undertaking to visit cases more suitable to them, dispensing the Society’s relief to such cases, and helping to provide clothing, sick relief, bedding, or employment for the poor, or distributing literature.
“The Society is entirely non-political, but is open to co-operate with any charitable societies, whether Catholic or not, for the better care of the poor.
“The Rule of the Society was duly submitted to and approved by the Holy See, which in token of approbation has at various times enriched the work with ample Indulgences, particulars of which will be found in the Rule Books and cards of the Society. The present Holy Father deigned thus to address the President-General and some other members of the Society, whom he received in private audience on May 11, 1904 :
“‘Beloved Sons,—I wish to thank you for all the good you are doing. Yes, assuredly, I know your Society. I saw it at work at Mantua, and in Venice, where it was rendering invaluable services to the poor by distributing alms, but still more so by bringing them spiritual aid. How many families have been saved through its intervention! but above all, how many young men have been led back to the right path by it! The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a work of apostleship for good, while there are others which are, at the present day, works of apostleship for evil. Continue, therefore, to exercise charity in the way you are doing; you will find in it peace for your soul, and (he added smiling) when one has done some good in the day, he rests more peacefully at night. Your Society is the work needed for the present times. I will encourage and bless it.’”
The organization of the Society is as follows:
The General Council of the Society is situated in Paris. It has jurisdiction over the Superior Councils which are established in every country.
The Superior Councils have jurisdiction over the various Councils presiding over the Conferences in the districts of the country allotted to them. These are called Central Councils, and have control over what are called Particular Councils serving subdivisions of their district.
An example of the organization of the Society in England will best illustrate its methods:
The Superior Council of England has under it six Central Councils, eighteen Particular Councils, and 308 Conferences.
These Councils are situated respectively at Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Under these Central Councils there are Particular Councils at London, Liverpool, Preston, Manchester, Blackburn, Burnley, Bury, Oldliam, Rochdale, Newcastle, Jarrow, Durham, Bradford, Leeds, Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Sheffield. There are, in addition, fifty-three isolated Conferences situated in country towns not yet grouped under Particular Councils.
The total number of active and honorary members attached to the 308 Conferences of the Society in England in 1912 is given as 5,818. The total number of visits paid by them to poor families in 1912 is stated as 160,526. In addition, there were 45 orphans partly or wholly supported; 6,149 boys under the care of Patronage Committees; 2,585 boys attending Sunday-schools; and 3,195 adults attending Clubs and Evening Schools.
Finally, the net receipts of the Conferences in England in 1912 were £13,575 3S. 9d., and the actual expenditure, £12,461 7s. 2d.
The Reports of the Conferences throughout the country to their respective Councils show a remarkable record of the variety of good works carried out by the brothers in addition to their normal work of visiting the poor at their own homes as friends. In nearly every parish some member of the Conference registers the attendance of boys at Mass, and afterwards teaches in the Sunday-schools. Hence they keep in friendly relations with the families of the children. Other members of the Conference attend Police Courts, Workhouses, etc., to see that Catholic children are suitably provided for in respect to religious matters.
Others, again, organize Boys’ Clubs for Cricket and Football, Boys’ Brigades, Boy Scouts, etc. They also manage Young Men’s Clubs, Evening Schools for adults, etc.
Some Conferences support, wholly or in part, destitute boys in orphanages, supplying them with clothing, etc. One Conference reports that one of the poor boys under their charge won a scholarship, and the Conference provided him with a complete outfit to go to college.
The most striking point in all the reports of Conferences with respect to their patronage works is the prevailing anxiety shown by them to look after the boy at the most critical period of his life, when he leaves the protection of school and home, and is exposed to the demoralizing influence of other boys of his own age, who have had no religious and moral training, and whose sole idea of life is to seek for material pleasures and amusements.
This is the most important of all works of the Society, for it is training the men of the next generation, who will in turn influence succeeding generations for good or ill.
Many Conferences allude to the desirability of apprenticing boys to trades which will provide a future for them, but all lament the double barriers which prevent their action. These are, first, the payment of the apprenticeship fee, and the helping to support the boy until such time as he can earn sufficient wages ; and the next is the refusal of the Trades Union to allow more than a certain number of boys to be apprenticed except in proportion to the men employed.
In Ireland there is a Superior Council in Dublin, with Central Councils at Derry with 15 Conferences ; Kilmore with 5 Conferences; and Down and Connor with 58 Conferences.
There are Particular Councils at Dublin with 32 Conferences; Belfast with 20 Conferences; Cork with 4 Conferences; Derry with 5 Conferences; Limerick with 4 Conferences; and Waterford with 4 Conferences. In addition there are 144 isolated Conferences in various districts. The total number of Conferences in Ireland is 210, having 4,601 active and honorary members.
In Scotland there is a Superior Council of Edinburgh and 1 Particular Council with 27 Conferences and 329 active and 46 honorary members. In Glasgow there is a Superior Council with 67 Conferences and 958 members. There is also the Central Council of Galloway with 9 Conferences and 123 active and honorary members.
In France itself there are 1,522 Conferences, with a membership of 24,300 brothers.
In Belgium there are 1,188 Conferences with 23,689 brothers.
In Italy there are 342 Conferences, with 6,579 brothers.
Spain has 551 Conferences with 14,921 members.
Switzerland 72 Conferences and 2,321 members.
In the Dominions overseas of the British Empire, there are also 337 Conferences with a membership of 11,804 active and honorary brothers. ..
In India there is at Bombay the Central Council of Western India with 1 Particular Council and 18 Conferences with 499 active and honorary members. There are also Conferences at Calcutta, Rangoon, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Gibraltar, and Malta.
In Canada there is a Superior Council with 2 Central and 13 Particular Councils, and 157 Conferences with 7,690 active and honorary members. These Conferences are situated in all the provinces and cities of the Dominion.
In British Guiana there is a Particular Council and 3 Conferences, English and Portuguese. There are also Conferences in Jamaica, Trinidad, Santa Lucia, and Haiti.
There is a Superior Council of Australasia, comprising Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania; it includes 2 Central and 9 Particular Councils; there are 175 Conferences with 3,242 active and honorary members. There are Central Councils in New South Wales and Melbourne, and Particular Councils at Melbourne, Sydney, Bendigo, Adelaide, Brisbane, Charters Towers, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland, etc.
In Africa there is a Central Council of the Western Province of Cape Colony, with 6 Conferences; a Central Council at Port Elizabeth with 7 Conferences. There are also Conferences at Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg, and Kimberley.
In the United States the first Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was established in 1845 at St. Louis, Missouri, and in New York in 1846. The Society and its objects were enthusiastically taken up by the practical American people, and it is now thoroughly organized in all the States. The statistics for 1910 show that there were 730 Conferences, with 12,062 active and honorary members. In that year there were 24,742 families visited, and 233,044 visits paid to them, while 2,949 situations were found for members of the families. The amount expended in charity, etc., during the year was 8387,849.
Among the various works taken up or supervised by the Conferences in the United States may be mentioned the support of Orphans, Homes for homeless lads, or for those employed in works, Boys’ Clubs, visits paid to Hospitals and Prisons, Sailors’ Homes, Employment Registers, the work known as that of St. Francis Regis for supplying the certificates required by the French Law for marriages, etc.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is entirely a lay organization. The Conferences are established in the parishes with the consent of, and for the assistance of, the parish priest, who generally acts as chaplain. The Rules are simple and practical, and are distinguished by a truly democratic simplicity. The President of the Conference is elected by the members and confirmed by the Council of the town where it is situated. These local Councils consist of the Presidents, Secretaries, and Treasurers of the various Conferences within their jurisdiction. These local
Councils, again, are grouped into Provincial Councils, which are governed by a Superior Council, which generally includes all those in a nation or province.
The Council-General of the Society meets in Paris, and is reported to by all the Superior Councils throughout the world.
The constitution of the Society is essentially democratic ; the President is only primus inter pares, all the members of the Conference, whether they be peers, shopkeepers, or workmen, are equal. No political discussion is permitted at the meetings of the Conference. There is another remarkable rule which marks it off from all other charitable societies, there are no paid officers in the Society—all services are gratuitous, and the meetings of most Conferences are held in the schoolrooms of the church. Thus the whole income of the Society goes to the poor direct, for the brothers carry it to their charges on the weekly visits which they pay to them. It may be added, as an example, that the meetings of the Superior Council of England are held in the crypt of one of the London churches. There is a strange contrast shown between the balance sheet of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and those of the great majority of charitable associations, which generally show an expenditure of about one-third of the total subscriptions in the costs of administration.
Another characteristic of the Society is the spirit of Catholic modesty and self-effacement which was enjoined on its members by Ozanam. He was intensely opposed to ostentation, and did not approve of the brothers wearing any distinctive dress or badge, or even of their taking part officially as a body in any public ceremony or procession. But he strongly recommended the brothers to mingle in the ranks of any religious processions of the people in private dress, and thus to encourage the devotion of the poor whom they visit.
It would seem that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with its unassuming and practical work and its absence of any kind of self-advertisement, should be a very attractive one to Englishmen, in whom the spirit of philanthropy is so general. But the work does not appear to be sufficiently known or understood, or the number of its members would be greater and its finances strengthened. Nevertheless we see frequently in Catholic newspapers piteous complaints of recent converts that they cannot find sufficient outlets in their parishes for their fervent zeal. And yet there is a Conference of the Society in every parish, at the weekly meetings of which a few unobtrusive members attend and study the needs of the poor, who, as our Lord said, “are always with us.”