Monday 1st April marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the St Vincent de Paul Conference in St Joseph’s, Kilmarnock. Mass will be offered on that day in thanksgiving for care given and for the deceased members of the St Joseph’s Conference.

The first Saint Vincent de Paul Conference in Scotland was founded on the 25th May 1845 in St Patrick’s, Edinburgh. Their main task was to visit the homes of the poor and sick, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, pray at their deathbeds and follow their remains to the cemetery. It was this more than
anything else which impressed the non-Catholics in the city.

Their ideals were for a night shelter, the supervision of apprentices and an orphanage. Soon, however, the work was becoming too much to cope with, especially financially. There was so very much to do with more immigrants arriving and the city becoming unhealthier.

The first Conference to open in Galloway was in St Andrew’s, Dumfries on 2nd February 1862. The next Conference to open was in St Margaret’s, Ayr on 1st November 1868, closely followed by that of St Joseph’s, Kilmarnock on 1st April 1869. These were years when, as a result of the Famine, Irish immigrants sought work in Scotland. The Society sought to meet the practical needs of the poor.

Between 1872 and 1899 a further four Conferences opened in Girvan, Kilbirnie, Cumnock and Stranraer. During the 20th century a further 28 Conferences were established, many of them opening in the late 50s and early 60s with the advent of new church buildings, which addressed ongoing social needs.

The organisation started as a debating society, led by Frederic Ozanam, called a Conference of History. In 1833, its members were committed Catholics who found themselves defending the Church against accusations of always backing the rich and powerful. Following taunts of “call yourselves Christians, what do you care about the poor” they realised the taunts had some validity. They resolved “there has been enough talk, it’s time for action” and went out into the streets and with the help of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity (a religious order founded by St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac) brought material assistance and listened to the needs of those in living in poverty.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul was formed when they took up this challenge and began to work with the desperately poor in Paris. Developing a simple system, they went in teams to help the poor in their homes, in the streets, in the hospitals and the asylums. The Society arose from humble beginnings to become an international organisation found in 150 countries with 45,000 conferences and 800,000 volunteers.

Blessed Frederic died in 1853 and was beatified by Pope John Paul in 1997. Informed by an extensive survey of the Society in Scotland in 2017, the sheer scale of human kindness and human compassion hidden in the following statistics is remarkable.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SSVP) was carrying out an incredible 50,000 visits to the lonely and infirm in Scotland annually. In Scotland’s eight dioceses 2,000 SSVP members carried out 53,493 home visits, 12,261 hospital visits and financially assisted 6,196 families.

A spokesperson for Volunteer Scotland said that while they didn’t retain statistics on volunteer numbers the SSVP’s 2000 were ‘a really large number’ that few Scottish charities would be able to match. Archbishop Tartaglia said that each of these thousands of interactions ‘is a sign of Christ’s presence among us.’

In Kilmarnock, the SSVP’s main outreach is through the Wednesday drop-in group. Those in need come along and, over a cup of tea or coffee, speak to others or share their difficulties with a member who listens with a sympathetic ear. Often practical help is given to help solve a problem or meet a need such as hunger or poverty. The Conference sees a variety of issues each week, including loneliness, alcohol and substance addictions, and single parents who require support. Other needs are met outside of the Wednesday group and parishioners and others are invited to share their own needs or those of others with Fr McGrattan or a Conference member.

To get involved, please speak to Fr McGrattan or contact any Conference members. Thank you for your ongoing support through the weekly collection
which regularly gathers about £800 per month, a sum given directly to those in need.