How One Worker-Owned Cooperative Offered Hope and Economic Development

When the big industry in a region closes its doors, or moves out of state or out of the country, there is justified anger, grief, and hand-wringing. Workers who depended on the jobs, checks, and benefits may have few employment alternatives.

Unemployment benefits can’t make up the lost income. The economy sags. The human toll follows.

But Opportunity Threads, a group that receives funding from the Catholic bishops through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), offers a story of hope amid such adversity.

For much of the last century the economy of western North Carolina has depended on furniture and textile industries. But when these industries closed operations in the area, local people stepped in to develop an alternative model of economic development.

Opportunity Threads is a “cut-and-sew” cooperative that employs 23 full-time workers, who in turn support at least 100 family members. Molly Hemstreet, now the general manager of Opportunity Threads, grew up in the area and taught English as a Second Language to recent immigrants. She and several community members pals identified a growing consumer interest in local, sustainable goods that support the “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental benefits to a community.

Working with one used sewing machine after hours in a borrowed room, they helped start a local renaissance in micro-manufacturing. Together they turned the excess inventory of irregular socks from a local small producer into winsome stuffed animals, and introduced “up-cycling” to the area.

With grant assistance from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Catholic bishops’ domestic, anti-poverty program, Opportunity Threads was soon established as a worker-owned business that draws on skilled un- and underemployed people in the community of Burke County, North Carolina, to create sustainable livelihoods and put a new face on textile production in the rural South.

Molly supports worker ownership because it gives people responsibility and a voice in the company and promotes dignity and respect. The long route to worker-owner may take a worker up to 18 months, but the painstaking training and vetting pays off by creating a group that works together as a balanced team. As further proof, Opportunity Threads has yet to lose an owner or “pre-member” to a vote of the worker-owners.

But that’s not all. Opportunity Threads has actively helped other suppliers and producers work together and share jobs. Molly calls it “co-opetition.” The work has developed into the Carolina Textile District, which aggregates work, screens producers, and determines who’s best for a job. Molly said the pie of the textile industry is large enough for everyone to have a piece without competing and being at each other’s throats.

In fact, so many other groups have asked Opportunity Threads how to establish a successful worker-owned model that Molly and others formed The Industrial Commons, which also got a grant from CCHD. The Industrial Commons now helps small- to mid-sized industrial firms and networks create economic opportunity for low-income workers, improve livelihoods, develop democratic workplaces, and root ownership in communities to create sustainable change.

From where I sit, that looks like a tremendously positive alternative to handwringing and despair.

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

 Going Deeper

In most dioceses in the U.S., Nov. 18-19, 2017, was the national collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Nov. 19 was also the first World Day of the Poor.  Use this Poverty Map to find out about work in your part of the country that is supported by the bishops through CCHD.

Miracles of Charity

“Human closeness at these times gives us strength, there is solidarity.”
– Pope Francis, Aug. 18, 2014

Human closeness gives us strength that leads us to solidarity. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on these words from Pope Francis since the Weather Channel monitors began to light up with the approach and landfall of Hurricane Harvey in late August, then the arrival of Hurricane Irma, trailed by the passing of Hurricane Jose, followed by the power and destructive force of Hurricane Maria. Wow! At one point I thought: “This is a disaster nightmare!  How do we process it all?  Where do we even begin to sort out what to tackle first?”

More than 20 million people were affected by one month of hurricanes.  Thousands of families lost loved ones, hundreds of thousands lost their homes, and countless individuals lost their income, their jobs, and their livelihoods.  Those who previously lived in poverty were now critically vulnerable, while many who never sought social services before had begun a poverty journey difficult to overcome.

The need was overwhelming, but in the days and weeks following the hurricanes, so too were the miracles I witnessed while supporting agencies in their disaster response, like the clients in Houston who offered and helped to unload the CCUSA Mobile Response Center, filled with much-needed resources, when no other volunteers were available.  These clients set up the distribution site and cared enough to serve each other until everyone received the resources needed. Indeed, in every place that was impacted by the hurricanes, the miracles of charity and generosity were evident.

  • The Diocese of Corpus Christi was “ground zero” for Hurricane Harvey, but the people there didn’t think twice about sharing their resources with the Diocese of Victoria, which had none. They packed up the CCUSA Mobile Response Center vehicle and sent it off to Victoria.  When the truckload of resources arrived, the people were waiting.  A mop, Clorox, food, water, diapers: these basic supplies brought tears to the eyes of those who were left vulnerable.  When the supplies dwindled in less than two hours, neighbors came with more and more goods.  Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes in the Bible, enough supplies arrived to serve hundreds of people during the following hours.
  • Catholic Charities San Antonio organized a convoy of 72 trucks that hauled $4.1 million in relief supplies, which were loaded by 600 volunteers and driven to Catholic Charities of Galveston/Houston. Upon arrival, the contents of the trucks were off-loaded by 300 volunteers.  Staff from Catholic Charities agencies in Albany, Camden, and Gary assisted with every aspect of the disaster services being provided. And in the days that followed, more than 450 CCUSA Annual Gathering attendees from across the country continued to support the disaster work in Houston and Beaumont by operating call centers, canvasing neighborhoods, participating in distribution sites, assisting in food fairs and mucking/gutting homes in the hopes of moving each family one step closer in their recovery process.
  • While activities continued in Texas, Florida began to respond to its own catastrophe following Hurricane Irma. Each of the Florida agencies began to support one another, providing mutual aid assistance and sending disaster supplies to those areas hardest hit.  Catholic Charities staff from Charleston South Carolina packed their bags to provide assistance to Catholic Charities Venice.
  • Hurricane Irma also caused havoc in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. Croix), and Catholic Charities/Caritas Puerto Rico reached across the sea to provide immediate help to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria brought devastation not seen on the islands since the 1920s.  Yet, despite the challenges that occurred in the previous weeks, both Texas and Florida agencies took immediate actions in support of their suffering Catholic Charities family members in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.

This is only the beginning. Disaster recovery services will be required for years to come. We can wait no longer to embrace fully the call of the earth and the poor as one single cry for justice and solidarity. Pope Francis explicitly reminds us that the “deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.” Catholic Charities USA affirms the veracity of this statement, an observable truth that is on display for all to see as both the intensity and the frequency of severe storms ravage our country and bruise and batter its poorest inhabitants. Meaningful investments in community mitigation, improved floodplain management, and increasing access to affordable housing are critical activities that represent tangible opportunities for all persons of goodwill to reduce the risk and exposure of natural disasters and, at the same time, demonstrate our unyielding commitment to justice and a preferential option for the poor.

May these stories inspire us all to heed the call of Pope Francis to offer human closeness that gives strength and leads to solidarity.  Every embrace of comfort, every tear shed with each other, every story of survival shared, every compassionate touch, and every action that provides hope is part of that miracle by which we, as Catholic Charities, have a profound impact as we support one another and provide meaningful and life-changing assistance to the 20 million disaster survivors who are on their road to recovery.

Kim Burgo is Senior Director of Disaster Operations at Catholic Charities USA. Zach Cahalan, Strategic Director of Disaster Operations at Catholic Charities USA, contributed to this story.

Going Deeper
Find inspiration in this story of solidarity between parish communities through aid for reconstruction.

Five Things You Need to Know about Poverty in America

Connor Bannon, intern for the Catholic Campaign/USCCB

If Pope Francis has taught us anything during these last four years (and I would submit that he has taught us quite a few things), it is that “poverty in the world is a scandal.”  It is a cry “in a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone.”  It is especially a scandal in a nation like the United States, which, despite possessing more than enough money to end material poverty, consistently exhibits one of the highest rates of poverty in the “developed” world.

Recently released to little fanfare, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 report on Income and Poverty in the United States reveals that 40.6 million, or 12.7 percent, of Americans live in poverty.

After spending several days pouring over this report and its close relative, The Supplemental Poverty Measure, I’d like to share five things that you should know about poverty in the United States.

1. Family matters.

Family Matters is not just an iconic television show.  It is also an important fact about poverty in America.  The Census report reveals that 13.1 percent of families with a single male householder and 26.6 percent of families with a single female householder live in poverty, whereas only 5.1 percent of married households live in poverty.

At the same time, nearly one in five children are living in poverty. That’s 13.3 million kids. Although children only make up 23% of the U.S. population, they disproportionally represent 33% of people living in poverty.

 2. Education matters.

Education Matters is not an iconic television show.  Nevertheless, it is an important fact about poverty in America.  This year’s Census data shows that formally educated Americans are much less likely to live in poverty than Americans without formal education.  More precisely, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that, whereas 4.5 percent of people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher lived in poverty, 9.4 percent of people with only some college lived in poverty, 13.3 percent of people with only a high school diploma lived in poverty, and 24.8 percent of people without a high school diploma lived in poverty.

3. Work works, except when it doesn’t.

It has been said many times and in many ways, but the fact remains: the best anti-poverty program is a good job.  The current Census report shows that only 5.8 percent of all workers live in poverty.  That said, it also reveals a dichotomy between full-time, year-round workers (2.2 percent of whom live in poverty) and part-time, year-round workers (14.7 percent of whom live in poverty).  The best anti-poverty program is not just any job.  The best anti-poverty is a good job, which is to say a full time, year-round, job that pays a living wage. Learn more: Demanding a Living Wage

4. The safety net saves.

While it is true that the best anti-poverty program is a good job, it is also true that the social safety net saves many vulnerable men, women, and children from the grips of poverty.  In this regard, the supplemental poverty report reveals that Social Security keeps 26.1 million people, including 1 in 3 seniors, from living in poverty.  Moreover, the reports show that refundable tax credits, food stamps (i.e. SNAP), Supplemental Security Income, and housing subsidies keep a combined 18.2 million people out of poverty.  Learn more: Safeguarding and Strengthening the Social Safety Net

5. Healthcare costs.

The Census Bureau also measures the impact of select household expenses on low-income families and individuals. The Census Bureau found that an astonishing 10.5 million people were made poor because of high healthcare costs and that “medical expenses were the largest contributing cost to increasing the number of individuals in poverty.”  Achieving affordable healthcare, in other words, is not merely a matter of healthcare policy, it is an essential part of any “war on poverty.” Learn More: Making Healthcare Affordable

Learn more! Our interactive map at now has updated statistics for your state to inform your advocacy efforts.  Additionally, the county-level view of our map highlights programs across the country doing this critical work with help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Connor Bannon an intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Going Deeper!

During Poverty Awareness Month, join the U.S. Bishops, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and the Catholic community in the United States in taking up Pope Francis’ challenge to live in solidarity with the poor!  Join us this January, as we reflect daily on the reality of poverty and respond with charity and justice.  Sign up to receive daily reflections in your inbox during Poverty Awareness Month.

Persecution: Solidarity in Suffering

Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is not a abstract concern for me. It is deeply personal.

Two years ago in Erbil, Iraq, I looked out the window of my hotel to see tents packed together on the grounds of a chapel.  Christian families, displaced from Mosul, now lived in tents.  I remember strolling through the narrow, mud-caked paths among the tents.  Families, many with young children, shyly peered out from their tents. In one tent there were 2 families and 11 persons.

In a “deluxe” camp for displaced Christians, families lived in “caravans” (small trailer homes).  I remember seeing blankets and mattresses neatly stacked in a corner, a silent testimony to the family members who shared one room.  A mother broke down in tears as she described their night flight from Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS).  They fled with only the clothes on their backs.

In Dohuk, north of Erbil, I met a 34-year-old Yezidi policeman.  His family of 8 fled on foot to Mount Sinjar where they spent 12 days with little food in scorching summer conditions, hiding from ISIS.  Kurdish fighters rescued them.  They now lived in one room in a nearby village; 5 other families were in the same house.  He hoped to return to his ancestral village when security allows. He was in Dohuk for a Catholic Relief Services distribution of kerosene heaters, kitchen kettles, carpets, and blankets to get them through the cold winter.

A year ago in Jordan, I met an Iraqi Christian family, mother, father, and three young adult daughters.  They too had fled ISIS in the middle of the night.  On the road to safety they saw young women being kidnapped and thanked God that they were able to flee safely with their daughters to Erbil and later Jordan.

A young male student from the University of Mosul wanted to continue his studies, but he needs to leave Jordan because he cannot work.  I wonder if any country accepted him as a refugee.  I worry that our nation is closing its doors to many such fine young men.

It is important that we pray and work for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, have designated Sunday, November 26, as A Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians that initiates “Solidarity in Suffering,” a Week of Awareness and Education.

USCCB is collaborating with the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need on this project.  There are resources available to assist parishes, schools and campus ministries in observing this Day of Prayer and Week of Awareness at  There you will find homily notes, intercessions, recommended aid agencies, prayer cards (in English and Spanish), logos for local use (in English and Spanish) and much more.  For social media, we are using the hashtag: #SolidarityInSuffering.  I hope you will join us in this effort.

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said, “To focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities is not to ignore the suffering of others. Rather, by focusing on the most vulnerable members of society, we strengthen the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all.”  Persons of all faiths suffer persecution.  In the Middle East, Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims suffer from ISIS.  We must express solidarity in suffering with our brothers and sisters.

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Reflecting on the Church’s teaching about immigration

Official logo for the “Share the Journey” campaign, a two-year program that Caritas Internationalis launched Sept. 27.

“We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant, or a refugee, become a threat, take on the status of an enemy. An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs…because of the color of their skin, their language or their social class…because they think differently or even have a different faith….And, without our realizing it, this way of thinking becomes part of the way we live and act…Little by little, our differences turn into symptoms of hostility, threats and violence. How many wounds grow deeper due to this epidemic of animosity and violence, which leaves its mark on the flesh of many of the defenseless, because their voice is weak and silenced by this pathology of indifference!” Pope Francis to the Consistory of Cardinals

Many of us have little to no personal experience of the experiences of marginalized groups mentioned by the Holy Father. Perhaps our only interaction comes through news, movies, music, or social media. I would like to share a few experiences of people whom I care about being marginalized whose “wounds grow deeper due to this epidemic of animosity and violence.”

A friend of mine sent me a text recently after her encounter with a person exclaiming anti-immigrant sentiments. “I was spit on,” she said. “I am too stressed and slightly scared to be outside in public.” Sadly, this was just one of several encounters she had over the course of a few days in the past several weeks. She is a Latina and has regularly been the target of such hate in her hometown of Dubuque. However, as has been reported across the nation, these unprovoked attacks on immigrants have come with more regularity in recent years.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new to America. Irish, German, and Italian Catholics were depicted as violent, apish, uncivilized, dirty, and generally undesirable. Many of the same things said about undocumented and legal immigrants today were said about immigrants of the past.

According to family oral history, I am the descendant of an undocumented immigrant who boarded a cattle ship as a stowaway in Europe and entered the United States in the late 1800s. His name was Christian Schmidt. He rarely spoke about where he came from and how he got here because he was fearful until the day he died, even after becoming a naturalized citizen, that he would be sent back to an uncertain fate. He was here for decades, raised a family, farmed the land, passed on his Catholic faith, and helped to build up his adopted nation. His descendants became school teachers, farmers, social workers, priests, deacons, nurses, soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines— the very fabric of America. Even so, he and many like him were considered a “enemies,” threats to America, all because they came “from a distant country” with “different customs.”

The situation Christian found himself in generations ago is the same millions of migrants find themselves in today. His fears were the same as the fears of immigrants today. His desires and dreams were the same as those of immigrants today. His intrinsic dignity as a child of God, made in the likeness and image of our creator, was the same as that of the immigrants today.

How can we help change the narrative about immigrants, whether here with or without proper documentation? As the Psalmist says: “seek peace and pursue it” (PS 34:15) we ought to recognize that building peace does require action, we must actively pursue peace by turning away from the “pathology of indifference” of which Pope Francis speaks.

Pope Saint John Paul II spoke in particular about undocumented immigrants in 1996 stating we must consider the issue “from the standpoint of Christ, who died to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant ….The first way to help these people is to listen to them in order to become acquainted with their situation, and, whatever their legal status with regard to State law, to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence.”

Christ calls us to seek compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters who present themselves to us as Christ in our midst. Let us join our voices with those of Pope Francis and our bishops to promote a welcoming attitude towards all immigrants, including those without documentation and advocate on their behalf for comprehensive immigration reform that keeps families together, respects the human rights and needs of immigrants, reduces wait times for the immigration process, allows for earned legalization, restores due process for migrants, and allows for the nation to maintain safety for all. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also promotes: “increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live, and work in the United States, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would‐be terrorists. Any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional, and humane.”

The recent recession, the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and some devastating acts of terror worldwide have shaped the discussion on immigration and security proposals in our nation. Though these are legitimate concerns on their own it is problematic to point to immigration as the source of these problems. Studies have shown that immigrants, whether here legally or undocumented, are far less likely to commit crimes than natural born citizens of the United States. Communities with higher numbers of immigrants, again regardless of immigration status, are generally more economically stable and successful than areas with lower migrant populations. It is also important for us to recognize that the net immigration from places like Mexico is nearly zero, meaning that the people who come from Mexico each year are nearly equal in number as those returning to Mexico in the same year. Undocumented immigrants also pay tens of billions of dollars’ worth of taxes each year and billions more into the economy with their commercial purchases. Understanding the facts about immigration can help us to promote policies that are not based on fear but on faith, hope, love and justice; making our nation stronger and building a greater culture of encounter and culture of life. Let us stand up in solidarity with the marginalized, opposing “animosity and violence” when we encounter it in speech or action, especially within our own spheres of influence. The immigrant is our brother, our sister, Christ in our midst.

For more information on the Church’s teaching and approach to immigration reform go to:

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at The Witness.

Going Deeper!

Join Pope Francis’ two-year campaign to Share the Journey of migrants and refugees. Visit for stories of migrants and refugees, a toolkit for leaders, social media content, and more.

Civil…. Dialogue…. What a concept!!

Young Asian woman is emotional as she talks. A mid adult African American man and two Hispanic young women are sympathetic and concerned as she talks. The group is sitting in chairs in a circle.In our current climate, I find it very challenging to bring up any issue facing our nation in discussion with fellow parishioners, friends, and even family members. It seems that the most important issues, like immigration, race, health coverage, or income inequity and poverty, are understood from a one-sided view with little interest in understanding or valuing another’s perspective.  And, I am really as guilty as the next person! I find it easier to just talk about the weather and non-controversial issues than to seek to understand why my family and friends come to such different conclusions than I do.

It was this current climate that prompted me to participate in the Civil Dialogue on Immigration sponsored by the Office of Life Ministry in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The experience proved to be well worth the commitment.

One weekend last summer, over 20 volunteers gathered at St. Patrick’s Church in Tampa to participate in a facilitator training workshop presented by two Catholic Relief representatives, Chris West and Joe Hastings. Chris and Joe created the civil dialogue process we would be using at the session, which they have used in other locations across the nation. We learned some basics of effectively facilitating group discussions, some facts about the immigration of individuals by country in the Tampa Bay area, and the Catholic immigration principles that our bishops use when responding to issues of immigration.  It was emphasized that our main goal was to provide a safe environment where all would feel respected and welcome to express their views.  Success would be measured by whether the participants left with a better understanding of others’ perspectives.

The next day we held the Civil Dialogue session at St. Patrick’s Church in Tampa. Over 80 individuals from parishes around the diocese were assigned to smaller groups with two facilitators.  Our moderator set the tone by reviewing the purpose of the dialogue as an opportunity to listen and learn from one another on the topic of immigration. He covered the ground rules which ensured that we were there to understand, not persuade: we would speak for ourselves (not for a group); we would not be critical of others’ views; we would listen with resilience – “staying with it” even if some things might be hard to hear; and remember that each person is sacred, a dwelling of the Holy Spirit, a child of God.   After getting a commitment to abide by these ground rules from each person at the table, the participants shared their own immigration stories.  How beautiful it was to hear others share how and why their own families traveled to our country. Many came because of hunger (think: the Irish potato famine), economic opportunity, escape from persecution or dictatorships, or for adventure and new opportunities.  This simple sharing brought all into the experience of immigration as opposed to only looking at people who are currently immigrants.

Our moderators shared the five principles from church teaching with regard to migration:

  1. Persons having the right to find opportunities in their homeland
  2. Persons having the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
  3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. (Wealthier nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.)
  4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
  5. The human dignity and the human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.

There was a lot of reaction to these principles, some expressing a level of surprise that the Church acknowledges the rights of countries to protect borders. A few commented that they have never heard that principle from the Pope or the Bishops.

We followed by sharing how events related to immigration have affected us personally and what, if any, personal experiences we have had related to recent immigrants. Finally, we asked “what is at the heart of the matter for you?”

What followed was a rich dialogue that revealed personal experiences that clearly influenced each individual’s current views. Within the groups, people shared openly their struggle with wanting to do the right thing and care for the stranger, but also feeling a need to respect laws and uphold a measure of fairness. When we peeled back the surface level ‘public positions’, individuals began to share why this issue is important to them and what values they hold that are touched by this issue. Here we could find common ground among people who had different perspectives but had commonly-held beliefs.

Were we successful? When participants were asked to share one thing they learned or gained from today’s dialogue, they shared comments such as:

  • “I learned about the various challenges facing immigrants beyond the documentation process.”
  • “Everyone has different perspective but everyone wants to be respected.”
  • “There is a need for more dialogues like this in our church communities and in our communities.”
  • “I gained a greater understanding of the issue by hearing others’ views.”
  • “We can find common ground and values even when our conclusions are different.”
  • “Talking about such controversial issues is possible!”
  • “There were many opinions and many solutions but we all want to make the USA better.”
  • “Solving the problem of immigration should start with each individual.”
  • “This was a great experience. I learned a lot!”

For me personally, I learned that this a complex issue that surfaces conflicting feelings and values as a practicing Catholic. While polarization is becoming so deeply entrenched, opportunities to listen and learn the “why” behind others’ views can only have a positive impact as we move forward.

Where do we go from here? Our facilitators gathered again on Monday evening to debrief about the dialogue and talk about what’s next.  Can we implement more civil dialogues on a smaller scale in our local parishes? Can we use this process to discuss other issues?  These are all under discussion and hopefully will come to fruition.   In light of current events in our country, this civil dialogue process brings me hope that we can move forward together toward greater understanding of one another.

Loretta Rieman is a CCHD Intern in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Going Deeper!

Visit for helpful resources on reaching out, such as Questions to Facilitate Encounter, A Guide to Dialogue on Difficult Issues, and Encouraging Civil Dialogue

The Enduring Charism of St. Vincent de Paul

A statue of St. Vincent de Paul is seen in an April 30 photo in front of a chapel that bears his name on the Washington campus of The Catholic University of America. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Today, September 27, we celebrate the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest of peasant origins who died in 1660. Pope Leo XIII recognized him as the patron saint of charity and of all charitable organizations.

Why does Vincent de Paul have this distinction when so many of the great saints were models of charity and also founded organizations dedicated to charitable works?

One answer is that Vincent was one of the first to recognize that the Gospel call to charity was a responsibility of all believers. He provided the organization and a spiritual foundation for the clergy and laity, even young peasant women, to serve the suffering and poor for the love of God. He famously wrote, “There is great charity but it is badly organized.”

This year the religious orders and organizations founded by St. Vincent de Paul or claim him as their patron are marking the 400th anniversary of the charism of their Vincentian Family.

What is this Vincentian Charism being celebrated? Briefly, St. Vincent had experiences during 1617 that changed the direction of his ministry, and he began to organize Christian efforts to work with people who are suffering and poor. Those experiences convinced him that people in poverty were spiritually hungry for better pastoral care and that parishioners were willing to put their faith into action by aiding their neighbors in need.

From that date forward, St. Vincent de Paul organized the faithful around him to bring good news to the poor. To advance this mission, he founded an order of priests (the Congregation of the Mission), an order of women religious (the Daughters of Charity), and an association of laywomen (the Ladies of Charity or AIC). His clear understanding and articulation of the charism of service to the poor found in the teaching of Jesus continued to inspire people long after he died. Today, there are over 250 organizations in the Vincentian Family that share this 400-year-old charism, the largest of those being the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with almost one million members in 150 countries.

Volunteer Joe DeLibero and executive chef Chris Hoffman break down onions in the kitchen of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix Nov. 17. Society staff and volunteers prepare 4,500 meals a day and will do more for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

For St. Vincent de Paul, the Gospel command to serve Christ in the person of the poor was a real obligation. He tells his followers that, “The poor are our masters.” This is the basis of his spirituality of service but he is under no delusion about the difficulty of this work. Anyone who has worked in a food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter understands what Vincent de Paul meant when he wrote, “Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and with the sweat of our brows.”

Collaborating with St. Louise de Marillac and countless others, Vincent de Paul was innovative in his approach to meeting the needs of those he served. His progressive reforms included homes for the elderly, orphanages for children and improved conditions for prisoners.

He lived in the time we may recognize from fictional novels like The Three Musketeers or The Man in the Iron Mask. The historical characters in these novels including King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin all knew this simple peasant priest from rural France. They respected and often supported his work with people experiencing poverty. Nonetheless, Vincent was not afraid to jeopardize that support when he observed they were creating conditions of poverty and suffering. His firm beliefs eventually cost him his position on an important royal advisory council. St. Vincent de Paul not only served the poor but he risked his personal reputation to advocate their interests.

There is a saying that “The Gospel should comfort the afflicted and it should afflict the comfortable.” The words of Jesus did that to St. Vincent de Paul starting in 1617 and he passed that comfort and affliction on to those around him. By the grace of God, that charism is still alive in the Church today comforting and afflicting as needed for the sake of the Kingdom.

Ralph Middlecamp is the president-elect of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul. His six-year term begins October 1. He has been a Vincentian for over 30 years, and most recently served as the CEO of the Madison, WI District Council.

Going Deeper!

Around the United States, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are working for just wages, empowering low-income persons to address poverty, securing access to employment for formerly incarcerated persons, and fighting predatory lending.  These stories and others are featured on

Voice of the Poor – the advocacy arm of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – identifies issues that are critical to people living in poverty and helps bring attention to them so communities and our elected representatives can develop strategies and tactics to reduce or eliminate poverty. Learn more about their important advocacy work online.