As a new century dawned the Society of St Vincent de Paul continued with its mission to actively seek out those in need and offer practical assistance and support in whatever way it could. The Society had shown from its inception its ability to respond to demands and needs of the time and this was to continue throughout the next century.
The SVP in the Early 20th Century
Concern for Youth
Whilst the 20th century had many tumultuous events, the SVP maintained a focus on supporting those younger members of society who were in danger of falling away from or losing their faith. This was demonstrated in work involving youth clubs, scouts, religious instruction and Mass attendance. The year 1918 itself is described as one of very great significance for the SVP in its ‘spiritual and corporal care of youth’. A report records 382 Conferences of which 68 were operating youth and men’s clubs, 27 instructing in Sunday Schools and Catechism Classes, 19 running boy-scout troops, 12 boys’ brigades and 2 cadet corps.
In Preston, one brother registered attendances at Mass of 30 boys and also taught in Sunday School; ten brothers managed a guild of 250 men and 360 boys, including 3 children partially maintained in orphanages.
In Hebburn, St Aloysius’s Conference numbered 26 brothers. During 1918, they completed 1,249 visits to working boys in their own home, so as to ensure attendance at monthly Communion. There was a guild of 150 boys and a boys’ brigade of 50. The inmates of Monkton “Imbecile Home” were taken to Mass each Sunday.
The editor of The Universe, Brother Archibald Dunn, wrote about such young boys being of an age which was the most critical period of life:
“When a boy leaves the protection of home and school and is exposed to the demoralising influence of other boys of his own age who have no religion and no moral training ………”
The attention paid by the SVP to the education and spiritual development of youth was especially appreciated by a Belgian bishop, who thanked Brothers for having looked after 350 of his refugees stranded here during the First World War. A “continued Catholic education had been ensured and six of the boys were then studying for the priesthood”.
Unemployment increases poverty but recruitment flourishes to meet the need
Although it might seem that the 1914-18 War was the most worrying time at the beginning of the 20th Century, unemployment was a much more prolonged problem and gave much work to the SVP. The period between 1914 and 1918 was, in fact, the only period during the first 30 years of the century when employment could be guaranteed, because most men were fighting at the front in France.
Archbishop Bourne of Westminster said that, of all the associations he knew, the SVP was the one best adapted to deal with the needs of the poor during the years of widespread unemployment.
Despite the devastating loss of brothers during the First War, the increased help needed for the unemployed nevertheless helped to stimulate recruitment to unprecedented levels:
“In 1905, the number of Conferences had just passed the 200-mark and we had just fewer than 3,000 brothers. During the worst years of unemployment, leading up to 1925/6, and despite a loss of one-fifth during the War, SVP members actually more than doubled so that, by 1925, membership was 6,500.”
Following the Second World War, our society has witnessed huge changes in terms of social reform with the development of the Welfare State, the birth of the NHS, educational reform and a political commitment to look after people “from the cradle to the grave”. The responsibilities assumed by the State towards the poor have increased dramatically and whilst the principle is laudable and it has been a successful approach for many people over the last 60 years, there are still those who need help. The SVP has continued to develop to respond to help those in need as society has modernised and changed and has undergone significant changes in the way it operates, constantly evolving to ensure it stays true to its mission, values and history.
With so much social support being offered by the state, the work of the SVP has now moved towards more focused, community based activities through the efforts of the parish conferences, which in modern times are the beating heart of the society. Today’s volunteers work together as a team actively seeking out those in need in their community and addressing the perennial issues of poverty, loneliness and illness, as well as supporting people with and in their faith.
Equality a long time coming
Throughout this history reference is made to ‘brothers’ with no mention of female involvement. The SVP was founded in the mid-19th century at a time when females’ status and rights in society were seen as secondary to men and it was unthinkable for women to be involved in the work ‘only men could do’!
Until 1963 women were organised separately throughout the world as the ‘Women’s Society of St Vincent de Paul’, with headquarters in Bologna, Italy. It was founded in 1856 to render charitable aid to the afflicted in matters which men could not handle, such as the care of widows, orphan girls and mothers with small families. After a trial period the women’s Society was amalgamated with the men’s Society in 1967 and now admits both men and women with equal responsibility. Membership is approximately 50/50 male-female. Today, the SVP’s current National President is Helen O’Shea, appointed this year.
A challenge for the Society today
The early history of the SVP shows how radical the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society was in those days. Our work has changed very much today, and one reason for this is a change in the Lay Apostolate. Earlier times saw the SVP as the dominant and, in some respects, the only Lay Organisation in the Church. Nowadays there are many more, doing a variety of different works, which is an encouraging development.
The challenges are, however, as great as at any time in the past 174 years. Have we lost the radical approach to need? Are there lessons for us in the energy and ingenuity expended by our predecessors for the welfare and faith of young people? Are we still as keen to encourage lapsed Catholics to return to the practice of the faith? Is there still a need for us to distribute Catholic literature? Are we doing enough for the unemployed?
The answer is that it is up to every one of us to do the best we can. Given a generosity of spirit, the Society will respond to need as it has always done, with a renewed vigour, with the help of Blessed Frédéric and with the Holy Spirit teaching us that our work never springs from ourselves alone.
If you have enjoyed this series of articles and would like to find out more about the SVP, please contact Lance Philpott – Membership Development Officer for the Diocese of Hallam – at Lancep@svp.org.uk.