The St Vincent de Paul Society( SVP) was founded in Paris in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam, following the inspiration of St Vincent’s work supporting the poor. The organisation grew rapidly, arriving in England in1844 and then spreading across the world. It is now one of the largest Catholic lay organisations in the world, with an established presence in 150 countries and a total membership of 800,000.
With an international and national support structure, the SVP operates locally at parish level with local self-governing ” conferences” of laity, who meet monthly to share some prayer and to plan SVP local work. The core of the parish SVP conference work has, since the beginning, been ” befriending “: visiting people in need in their homes, in hospital, and more recently in care homes and in prisons on a regular basis, as well as offering additional practical support such as food, furniture or financial assistance where needed. Traditionally these visits are quietly organised and unsung – hidden acts of supporting charity.
In recent times this core friendship service has been complimented with a network of 43 local community charity shops (such as the one in Armley near Wilko’s), family holidays and children’s camps, as well as the new community support projects such as St Vincent’s Support Centre ( in Leeds near the Irish Centre on York Road, which combines a charity shop, a cafe and an advice, teaching and activities centre.
Our local parish SVP conference comprises a small group who meet monthly, (usually on a Wednesday evening for an hour and a half) to check on our visits and plan future work.
In recent times, not least during Covid, the requests and demands on the SVP radically changed. Home visits to the elderly and sick were supplemented by requests to help in situations of family poverty, relationship breakdowns and the settlement needs of refugees and new migrants. Particularly during Covid, our SVP members were active in food provision and house to house visits (including contacts through closed windows!). Following Covid our parish now has its own food bank and food parcel provision, run a school uniform project and, more recently, help evicted families to furnish and establish new homes in our parish neighbourhood. We regularly get referrals from the SVP nationally and from statutory agencies and health authorities to help individuals and families facing homelessness.
We may be a small member conference, but we get tremendous support from Fr Neil and our fellow parishioners at Christ the King/ Holy Family, who regularly give us great practical help with food , clothing , furniture and household goods. We also regularly support St Vincent’s Centre with provisions and they, in turn help us with furniture and household goods (e.g. they do electrical checks for safety on household white goods). Moreover our parish has most generously supported the St Monica’s project, providing a refuge for extremely vulnerable, single, asylum-seeking women, legally prevented from getting any assistance from ” public funds”, who would otherwise be on the streets, destitute.
Recently, housing is proving to be a real challenge. At present the private rented sector is putting up rents or selling up, which is leading to evictions (and sometimes families are turfed out with nothing). An increasing number of families are moving into west Leeds into cheaper terraces and flats. When their new place is found in our area, we help to ensure they are welcomed, their home furnished, and families are supported. We work closely with parents and our parish Catholic primary schools, who have themselves established inspiring “Mini Vinnie” groups among the children.
Of course we need funds( we individually contribute according to our means at our meetings) and we do get some national SVP grant support. Recently the SVP conference in Wetherby generously gave us some of their funds, as there are more immediate demands on our resources than theirs. But the rapidly increasing needs and rise in the cost of living cut mean greater demands on our personal time, resources and funds. We need more visitors and occasional collectors and deliverers, as well as money to be able to respond. In other words more people to join our conference. All are welcome to contribute what they can, even if it is just to join in in a brief prayer and offer encouragement.
.Significantly, as, unfortunately, cuts in council funding and local community centres are reducing support, the SVP is increasingly publicly recognised as the helper of last resort for those in desperate need. We are the ” turn to ” people! In other words SVP work is now that of practical evangelisation for the Catholic church in our communities.
When St Vincent lay on his death bed in Paris, he was widely regarded as a result of his holy life of service as ” on a fast track to heaven”. The story is told that the Queen of Sweden went to visit him, and she asked him what she should do to get to heaven. He replied (in French!) with one challenging word ” MORE”!! Can we all do a bit more to help?
A talk given by Sir John Battle in our churches on 23rd and 24th September 2024, as part of SVP Awareness Month.