By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — "It's not the 25 years," said Erika Johnson, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is celebrating its anniversary on Monday, "it's the number of hours people have put in helping others because they care about the community."
The society traces its roots and keeps its headquarters in France, where in 1833 Frederic Ozanam, a student at the Sorbonne and fervent Catholic, grew weary of critics chiding the church for failing to succor the poor. He founded the Conference of Charity, which soon became the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, named after the priest who in 1625 formed the Confraternities of Charity, associations of laywomen of the church that visited, fed and nursed the poor and infirm in and around Paris.
The first conference of the Society in the United States was established at the Basilica of St. Louis, known as the "Old Cathedral," in St. Louis in 1845 and grew rapidly. Today it counts 172,000 members in 4,600 communities who serve 14 million people each year.
The Society in Laconia sprang from the initiative of Father Rodrigue Gallant, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Belmont and Father Micael Griffin, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Laconia, whose notice in the parish newsletter drew the first volunteers.
In Laconia, the society numbers 130 volunteers who provide foodstuffs to 1,100 people in some 360 households each month. Jo Carignan, who manages the food pantry, said that her team provides more than $560,000 worth of food to needy families each year, including the 800 baskets, each with a turkey, distributed at Thanksgiving.
The thrift store sells and donates new and used clothing, furniture, housewares and appliances contributed by families and businesses, applying the proceeds to its other programs. The society donates approximately $25,000 worth of items each year. Each year the society provides more than $150,000 of financial assistance in the form of rent payments, security deposits, utility bills, dental and medical fees and even repair bills to needy individuals and families. And the Children's Foundation provides educational assistance for educational and medical needs as well as extracurricular activities and child care for children in both public and parochial schools.
"We never close the door to anybody," Johnson said
Johnson said that perhaps the greatest reward is to see someone who came to the society seeking help return in the role of a benefactor or donor. She recalled a Saudi Arabian man who received assistance from the Society who brought a collection of toys to be distributed to others at Christmas. Another man who came seeking clothing after his release from jail, returned clean shaven, in a suit and tie to say that was employed and make a donation. "My heart goes out to all of them," she said.
Carignan described many of those who seek assistance as "working families with two adults, often both working two jobs, who are just not making it." She added that she is especially troubled by the growing number of "18- to 28-year-olds with no job, no skills, no education and no common sense. We're seeing a lot more that," she said.
Johnson said that the success of the society stems from the generosity of the people of the Lakes Region. "It starts with the children," she remarked, noting that children having birthday parties ask their guests to bring food rather than toys, then make a donation, while the kids with the lemonade stand at Temple B'nai Israel donate their proceeds to the society.
Johnson stressed that the society consists solely of volunteers. "There are no paid employees," she said.
"They are here because they care and they work when they are here," echoed Carignan, who added "You have to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. You have to have a purpose."
Erika Johnson, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, left, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, shares the occasion with veteran volunteers, to her left, Jeanette Buckley, Jo Carignan and John Peavey (Laconia Daily Sun photo/ Michael Kitch)
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