By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Consider this an SOS.

This past November, Philadelphia’s Archdiocesan Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul experienced a 40 percent drop in donations from the previous November, according to Carey Gibbons Roberts, executive director of the city’s oldest lay organization dedicated exclusively to serving people in need.

The reasons why are not difficult to understand. The country is in financial crisis and people have less money. When people have less money they can’t afford to donate money. When people have less money they are less likely to buy new furniture, new clothing or a new automobile. Therefore, they are less likely to donate their used items to organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which needs the donations to continue its charitable work.

The sad fact is that at times like these, when donations drop, calls for assistance are the greatest – and calls for help have indeed doubled, according to Roberts.

The society, an international charitable organization that was founded in France in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam, came to Philadelphia in 1851 and quickly took really has two branches, the central council, and at this time, 65 parish-based conferences that perform the corporal works of mercy within their own communities. The Archdiocesan Council, headquartered at 901 E. Luzerne St. in Philadelphia, operates four thrift stores where people can buy serviceable used clothing and other items at modest cost.

To fill their warehouse and stores, the council picks up items at inspanidual donor homes and through parish drives. In addition to selling items at low prices, it also honors referrals from parishes or social service agencies to assist people in need, regardless of creed. Those referred receive two changes of clothing at no cost, and furniture and utensils at a deep discount, according to Roberts.

The sense of charity extends to the work force – a number of employees are ex-offenders who might not obtain employment elsewhere. Unfortunately, because of the financial pinch the council has had to lay off some employees and reduce operating hours.

The council also funds and operates Guiding Star Ministries, a home for pregnant women, single mothers and children.

“At any one time we have six women and their children,” Roberts said. “They can stay up to 18 months, but the average stay is six months. The goal is to make them self-sufficient.”

“Donations are down, but it is not the monetary donations that are hurting, it’s the clothing and furniture donations,” said Dom Visco, president of the Archdiocesan Council. “We could see the drop in September and October, but it really hit in November,” he said.

On a brighter note, the parish-based conferences have been less affected by the recession than has the council.

Visco’s own conference, located at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Doylestown, is thriving.

“We donated 200 Christmas dinners this year and distributed 1,000 presents,” he said.

The conference itself has about 15 members, almost evenly split between men and women, although up until the 1960s the St. Vincent de Paul Society was entirely male.

“We have members who are teachers, bankers, homemakers,” Visco said. Even though Doylestown is relatively affluent, there are needy people. “We get about 30 calls a month,” Visco estimated.

Through its strong parish support, the OLMC Conference has an excess, and has twinned with North Philadelphia’s needier Our Lady of Hope Parish, as has Our Mother Consolation, Chestnut Hill.

Donations should be sent to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, 901 E. Luzerne St., Philadelphia, PA 19124. For item pick up, call 215-288-9540. Also see

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.