COVENTRY — In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those in need – charitable acts now known as the Corporal Works of Mercy. These have always been the mission of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, St. Vincent de Paul Conference in Coventry/West Warwick, but they took on a different form when COVID-19 forced the closure of their soup kitchen in the West Warwick Senior Center. One man’s need to cook transformed the care the conference offered, filling the physical and emotional needs of others, particularly the elderly.
Mary Williams, president of the St. Vincent de Paul conference for the last five years and a parishioner at Our Lady of Czenstochowa, explains how the Grab and Go meals program came about after lockdown ended.
“When the churches reopened, [fellow parishioner Jim Murphy] came up to me and said he needed to cook,” she said. She spoke to Father Jacek Ploch, pastor of the parish, about the matter and he graciously allowed the St. Vincent de Paul Society to work out of the old school, cooking meals. Since indoor seating remained restricted, they focused on a meals-to-go program for anyone who could drive or walk up for a boxed meal. “That first week, about 20 people were served roast beef tenderloin.”
With Thanksgiving approaching in that same year, society vice president Linda Sinnot brought elderly community members to Williams’ attention. It was a revelation. Through her work in elderly care, Sinnot helped arrange for meals to be delivered on the holiday. The two women expected a handful of people to come and cook meals for the homebound on that day. Between 25 to 30 volunteers showed up. They cooked turkeys, sides and desserts, packaged them in to-go trays with festive touches like Thanksgiving placemats and delivered them to those in greatest need, not just of a meal, but of a friendly face.
“The elders were just blown away – they hadn’t seen people in some time,” Williams reported. One volunteer even witnessed a grown man cry.
What started small has grown to roughly 90 to 100 deliveries each week, taking place on Saturdays at the Our Lady of Czenstochowa Gymnasium. Five teams, predominantly made up of the same people, take turns arriving at 8:30 in the morning to begin cooking. With rare exceptions, everything is made from scratch and meals are delivered directly to the home. Volunteers receive proper training, and the conference maintains their food licensing certification. Members find joy in making meals that they would be proud to serve in their own homes. Additionally, Williams reported that distribution has only been canceled a handful of times: a couple due to heavy snow; others because of the yearly parish festival and bazaar when the gymnasium is in use.
“The people who volunteer are absolutely incredible,” Williams says. Drivers come from every parish in the West Bay. They have even saved lives. One time, a member discovered an elderly woman had been laying on the floor for 12 hours and called for emergency personnel.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society began in 1833 in Paris, France, when 20-year-old Frédéric Ozanam saw a need for the Church to do more to help the poor. Only 20 years later did the Society reach the Diocese of Providence. It did much to aid those suffering through the Great Depression and maintained two orphanages in Providence and Woonsocket around the turn of the 20th-century.
According to SVdP Rhode Island, the local Society has 400 members and 200 associates working in 27 parish-based conferences and one statewide youth conference.
A retired registered nurse from upstate New York, Williams had experience working with the St. Vincent de Paul Society when she came to Our Lady of Czenstochowa with a desire to help others. There she found what was essentially a dormant conference with only $10 remaining in its bank account. Now, upward of 70 members are involved in some way, including a teenage girl who “came for service hours and stayed.” She credits Father Ploch’s openness to the Society’s work, allowing them the space they need to continue.
The St. Vincent de Paul Conference encompasses all three parishes in Coventry and works with the St. Joseph Conference in West Warwick for the Grab and Go Meals. Williams attributes the success of the program to the parishes working together. “Everybody has a talent to offer. If you put your mind to it, you can get it done.”
All funding for the St. Vincent de Paul programs come from donations, grants, fundraisers from groups like the Knights of Columbus and the sale of gift cards at the church. Local Boy Scout troops collect canned goods on Halloween, which go to the food pantry. Additionally, the support of a local food bank and a partnership with Verizon helps provide quality meals and other necessities to the poor and the homeless. Williams shared that prior to visiting the kitchen, Verizon’s district manager had expected the Grab and Go meals to be simple fare and was stunned by the quality of the take-out boxes. She remarked that he is now “fully invested in being with us.”
Because of these partnerships, the St. Vincent de Paul Society has been able to expand their aid to Coventry families, offering monthly food boxes to supplement SNAP benefits. Boxes include only food items that the family will use, preventing waste.
Many homeless people have come to the society’s doors since the Grab and Go program began, but for Williams and her fellow society members, that is not enough. They began a school outreach program, working with local public schools to help combat hunger within the community.
“Coventry has an enormous homeless epidemic,” she said, with most of the local schools falling under the Title I program and 70% of students living below the poverty line. “Some of these families have been evicted from their homes, and they don’t file for homelessness because then their kids couldn’t go to school there anymore, so they often live in their cars. … That blew my socks off.”
Making the public aware of the aid the Society can provide can be challenging at best.
“Getting our conference name out to the community is a battle that we’re fighting against,” Williams said. And oftentimes people confuse the society with the parish of the same name in Coventry.
Overall, however, Williams reports that programs like Grab and Go Meals achieve their goals of feeding the hungry, and not only physically. Simply put, these initiatives recognize the dignity of those they serve – typically the poor and forgotten members of the community – as evidenced by the expressions of gratitude they receive.
And members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society benefit spiritually from their good deeds. Williams said, “We’re getting as much out of it as [those receiving the meals] are, if not more. It’s so rewarding.”
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