‘A beacon of hope on the White Horse Pike’


Encountering Mercy: Clothe the Naked

“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In October and November, the Diocese of Camden has focused on “Clothe the Naked” and “Bury the Dead,” respectively. Profiles in these months highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives.

Store manager Dennis Chang stands with Cathy Rainey, president of the Saint Simon Conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, in the Saint Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Berlin.
Store manager Dennis Chang stands with Cathy Rainey, president of the Saint Simon Conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, in the Saint Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Berlin.

Cathy Rainey remembers one of the first families she met when she became a member of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society at Saint Simon Stock Parish. A couple entered the door at the back of the Saint Vincent Thrift Store on the White Horse Pike in Berlin. Their heads were bowed with embarrassment.

“We’ve never had to ask for help before,” the woman said.

Cathy sat with the couple in the office with its two metal desks and learned more of their story. They were both retired, and with chronic health issues they were finding it difficult to pay medical bills and still have enough money to buy food.

Cathy had them sit with her at the computer and showed them how to navigate the web of resources that are available to help people who have run out of places to turn.

The Saint Vincent de Paul Society is a lay ministry founded in France in 1833 by Blessed Frederic Ozanam. Then as now, the Vincentian mission is to see the face of Christ in the needy and poor and to serve them by embracing works of charity and social justice.

According to Cathy, “Saint Vincent de Paul donations belong to the poor. Our goal is to be matchmakers, to be a conduit that’s safe for everyone.”

That can mean helping people with immediate needs for clothing and food, but it can also mean helping them to find other resources in the broader community.

“Nobody walks away without help.” Cathy says.

The Berlin store and food pantry is run with the participation of 17 official members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, and more than 40 other volunteers. Only one of the members, store manager Dennis Chang, draws a part-time salary for his work. He grew up in poverty in Fiji and remembers the experience of his own family.

“I want to make sure others aren’t treated the way my mother got treated,” he said.

His joy today is palpable. “Boy, do we feel good when we’re able to help someone. … We’re like a beacon of hope on the White Horse Pike.”

In 2001, Cathy retired from her job as an occupational therapist after working for 25 years in public schools. Since then, she has volunteered at the thrift store and food pantry two days a week, and today she puts in even more hours as the president of the Saint Simon Stock Saint Vincent de Paul Conference. She wears many hats in her role, from coordinating volunteers, to chairing monthly meetings of the conference, to trying to get to know some of the frequent customers in the clothing store.

Cathy, like everyone who works at the thrift store and in the food pantry, offers her time as a labor of love.

Most of her time is spent in the store, which offers used clothing and small household items, displayed on donated racks and shelving. “The store is our cover, but when you talk to people, that’s when you connect.”

“We’re blessed to have hope and faith,” Cathy says. “We meet people who don’t. That’s poverty of the worst kind. … We’re not social workers. Our goal is to be missionaries to other people spiritually.”

The linking of the corporal works of mercy with the spiritual works of mercy is nothing new. As Cathy notes, “You can’t separate them because we’re trying to help the whole person.”

In fact, an integrated mission is the foundation of the work of Vincentians all over the world. The conference at Saint Simon Stock Parish began in 1972, and the thrift store opened in 1978. There are 29 other conferences that operate at parishes throughout the Diocese of Camden, but the Saint Simon Stock Conference runs the only Saint Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in the diocese.

The store helps to support the food pantry, which helps about 250 families each month, but the work of the conference extends beyond clothing and food. At times, the conference members decide together to send representatives on a home visit, especially if an individual or a family comes to them under the threat of eviction or losing their utilities. In these cases, the conference turns to prayer.

“We request that the Holy Spirit informs our choices,” Cathy says, “because some of the choices are hard.”

According to Cathy, “People come in and say they don’t know if they will make it through the day.”

And as with the couple that she met in her first days with Saint Vincent de Paul, the goal is not just to help in tangible ways, but just as importantly, to restore hope and dignity. By the end of that meeting, Cathy recalls, the husband and wife sat up straight and could look her in the eye.

“I could see hope happening.”

***********************************************************************************************************************The mercy of clothing the naked

In 1833, Frederic Ozanam, a law student at the Sorbonne, was challenged by a fellow student to show evidence of Christ working through Christians to do good in the world. Inspired to gather other young men together, he encouraged five of his friends to meet with him and to begin serving the poor under the direction of Emmanuel Bailly, a married layman who was editor of the Tribune Catholique.

They named their fledgling organization the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, taking Saint Vincent as their patron. The lay society also worked under the guidance of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who helped to form the young members in the spirit of Saint Vincent, teaching them to serve the poor with respect and compassion.

According to the website of the National Council for the United States of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the “Society’s 160,000 trained volunteers in the United States provided 11.6 million hours of volunteer service in 2015, helping more than 14 million people through visits to homes, prisons and hospitals at a value of nearly $1 billion dollars.”