Vincentians bring Christ to the poor for 170 years

To grow in service, faith remain goals of Rhode Island St. Vincent de Paul Society


CRANSTON — “Our main purpose and why we were even started was specifically for the members’ spiritual growth.” One hundred and seventy years after the founding of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Rhode Island, Reneé Brissette, St. Vincent de Paul Society council administrator, reflects on the ministry’s purpose, both locally and worldwide. To grow in faith through friendship and service to others remains the main goal of this charitable organization.
When Blessed Antoine Frédéric Ozanam, a 25-year-old college student at the Sorbonne, University of Paris, was asked what the Catholic Church did for the betterment of “modern” civilization in the year 1833, he felt called to form the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Within five years, that organization had spread worldwide. By 1853, it had reached the Diocese of Providence. Brissette relates this story to younger members of the Society, emphasizing that their founder had been roughly their age when he changed the world.
Currently the diocese hosts 24 different conferences, typically connected with a parish, with more than 450 active members, seven food pantries and four meal sites. Michael Vieira, president of the Rhode Island St. Vincent de Paul Society and a member for roughly 25 years, expressed his appreciation for the humanitarian work his fellow Vincentians accomplish state-wide.
“I’m so proud of the members of our 24 conferences here in Rhode Island as we continue the works of charity that started 170 years ago,” Viera said.
A religious goods store in Coventry, Gabriel’s Trumpet, helps support one of these sites at Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, featured in the August 24 edition of the Rhode Island Catholic. Gabriel’s Trumpet manager Donna Perry stated that the store is staffed solely by volunteers, with the proceeds from sales going directly to the St. Vincent de Paul Conference.
In 2019, the state Society set up an office in Cranston where Brissette works. Within the last couple of years, a prison ministry sprouted from the Society’s functions. This sprang from a need to provide former inmates with their own bedding so that they could move into new housing situations such as rehabilitation centers. Brissette hopes to see the ministry grow into more of a mentorship program in the future. The Society would also like to establish their own thrift store, utilizing a voucher system for those in need.
The 170th anniversary celebration spanned all of 2023, with various events highlighting important Society feast days. These marked a return to normalcy post-COVID and a “revitalization” of services, as Brissette sees it. The anniversary celebration concludes next month.

‘A loving way’ to help others
The main form of assistance the Society provides is financial. Ernest “Buzz” Corner helped found and serves as president of the St. Francis of Assisi conference at St. Francis of Assisi in South Kingstown. Its formation four-plus years ago came about when other conferences in South County received calls for assistance from people in the Kingstown area.
Corner explains that the St. Francis of Assisi Conference predominantly aids the needy through a financial crisis hotline. When they receive these calls, a two-member team goes to the person’s house for a “home visit” to help determine the person’s needs and seek solutions. Needs consist of anything from facing eviction to medical bills and even occasional car repairs.
Those they assist are “basically people that are working but have no safety net,” he stated. “Some people are under the misconception that it’s people under welfare that are supported by the state … but this has been a real eye-opener for us, because it’s a lot of people working in low-income jobs, trying to support their families.”
Aid means more than merely writing someone a check.
“We try to help people to self-sufficiency also, so we go over their income and expenses and try to help them to match up,” Corner said.
“We try to do that in a loving way without being intrusive, but that’s part of the service we offer.”
He describes the “vetting process” used to ensure that people are not taking advantage of their charity. This includes signing waivers to allow Society members to speak with landlords and other agencies to determine how best to assist the person in need.
Through collaboration with other organizations like the Jonnycake Center for Hope and the Warm Shelter, the Society endeavors to help those whose needs go beyond their own resources. They also pair with a local Protestant church to provide prepackaged meals once a week “to people who are having trouble putting food on the table,” Corner added. Around 250 people receive these meals either via volunteer delivery or walk-ups.
A retired dentist, Corner had previously worked in prison ministry and was searching for a way to become more involved in his own parish when another St. Vincent de Paul member recommended that he start a conference at St. Francis of Assisi.
“I had never done anything like this. I came in green,” he said.
The workload has been more than he expected but has been well worthwhile. Around 20 full-time and 20-30 part-time staff members comprise the conference — “really wonderful people in the parish that have stepped forward, very capable people,” according to Corner. It is a mixture including lawyers, nurses and “tech-savvy people” — a boon to an organization that faces these issues. “They realize it’s a way to really help people, not just referring them to an agency; we really get involved in people’s lives.”
Two pillars of Vincentian spirituality are “Seeing the face of Christ in the poor” and bearing the love of Christ to those in need. For Corner, these are more than words. “The spirituality of it is very important to us in view of the people we’re helping in kind of a loving, caring way.”
Bridging the past…
Though this council and others within the diocese are relatively new, the St. Vincent de Paul Society statewide has a strong past to reflect upon. “We look back at our history and all the years — 170 years — of all these incredible people who have just given their life to serving others and growing in their faith; and then at this point, we celebrated all that, but we also celebrated our future at this anniversary,” Brissette said.
And who better to speak to on the history of the St. Vincent de Paul Society than Providence College Professor Emeritus of History Raymond Sickinger? Not only has Sickinger written what is considered the definitive biography on Blessed Antoine Frédéric Ozanam, he and his wife Patricia have been members of the Society for nearly 40 years. He has served in various capacities in his conference and at the state and national level, with national president being the only role he has not felt called to.
For the 165th anniversary, he wrote a book on the Society in Rhode Island. In it, he notes that Rhode Island’s Catholics embraced it a mere 20 years after its founding in France, when the first conference began at what became the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, even before the establishment of the diocese itself. Eighty-seven members joined within the first year. From the cathedral, conferences spread to other parishes in Providence. One of its early charitable projects was supporting the Rhode Island Catholic Orphan Asylum and raising $1,500 in 1890 to build an addition for infants up to age four. They completed this work while assisting immigrants, particularly the newly arrived Irish.
Sickinger helped establish the conference at St. Peter Parish in Warwick, becoming its first president. “There’s always a need,” he said, just as there had been in Ozanam’s era, when the social and political upheaval “is very, very similar to our own time.”
Other organizations might meet one aspect of a member’s interest — sanctification, friendship or service — but only the Society offers the combination of all three, a draw for many volunteers like Sickinger.

…With the future
Carrying boxes and moving chairs for older members of the Society didn’t seem like enough for Kathleen (Kat) Brissette, daughter of the aforementioned Reneé, who, along with her siblings, grew up watching her mother’s work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. These young people also began bringing their friends to meetings.
“We started to see and get to know the Vincentians who were doing great work and thought we could help, too,” Kat stated. “The more we were around them, the more inspired we were.”
In 2015, the group of young people sat down and brainstormed ways to become more involved. Thus was born Next Gen, the Vincentian ministry for those between the ages of 14-25.
“It’s an incredible way to live out our faith on a day-to-day basis,” Kat said, noting how younger generations have different skill sets than their older counterparts, work around different schedules and can relate to the younger people they assist. Additionally, Next Gen helps educate other young people about the realities of living in poverty through poverty simulations. “It’s a cool way to bring awareness and understanding” to those who have never experienced it.
Next Gen encourages young members to find ways “to step outside the box, come up with something different” to help others. Through events like Do Güd Day, college- and high-school aged kids “come together for service and competition.” At the end of the day, hundreds of toiletry kits — necessities not provided by food stamps — have been put together and the winning team is announced. Kat reported that participants have fun “while making a difference.” She currently serves as the National Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul 2nd Vice President, as well as an appointee to the International Council of the Society, cheerfully giving most of her free time to the Society.
All in the family
While part of their mission is friendship, the Society seems to promote family ties as well. Each of these aforementioned members have relatives involved in St. Vincent de Paul. Whether they saw the impact a grandparent had on his community or had been involved in their mother’s volunteer work, that family influence evoked a desire to give of themselves. Husbands and wives often make home visits together. Siblings formed youth organizations and became active members as adults.
Sickinger recalls his grandfather’s funeral where hundreds of people shared stories of how he, as a cobbler, aided them through the St. Vincent de Paul Society and as its president. Today, his daughter and son-in-law run one of the food pantries, making them third-generation Vincentians. Corner and his wife both volunteer their time. All four of Reneé Brissette’s children serve in their own conferences and hold various offices.
Every conference and its members share an uncommon love for others and seek to treat each person they aid with dignity, respecting the humanity of the individual. Sickinger related how volunteers at his conference’s food pantry know most of their people by name along with their needs and preferences.
Poverty persists in Rhode Island, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society aids those caught in its harrowing grasp.
Reneé Brissette said that many Catholics in the diocese remain unaware of the Society members in their midst who do so much good, a fact she attributes to the humility of these “servant leaders.”
However, she says that “incredible things are constantly going on” in the areas where they serve.
“The three main prongs are faith, friendship and service, and that’s what it’s all about … each conference does it, and they do it uniquely.”