St. Vincent de Paul Society shows mercy to East Tennesseans

Emily Booker News, Year of Mercy

Pat Farner, left, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Council of Knoxville, is shown with Good Shepherd parishioner Michele Sexton and Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Newport.

Pat Farner, left, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Council of Knoxville, is shown with Good Shepherd parishioner Michele Sexton and Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Newport.

When people find themselves in times of crisis, they often call on the Catholic Church. The St. Vincent de Paul Society at Good Shepherd Parish in Newport is making sure the Church can answer that call.

Driven by a mission to alleviate suffering and promote human dignity, Vincentians focus on person-to-person contact, visiting with the poor and individually addressing their needs. There are 10 St. Vincent de Paul groups, called conferences, in the Diocese of Knoxville.

When Pat Farner moved to Newport, there wasn’t a St. Vincent de Paul conference at Good Shepherd. People would call the church asking for help, but there wasn’t the money or manpower to address every call, leaving Monsignor Bob Hofstetter overwhelmed.

Monsignor Hofstetter noted that Cocke County is one of the poorest counties in the state.

“There is tremendous need, especially in the winter when people need their utility bills paid, rent paid. …There is always more need, specific people who need help and need a place to stay,” he said.

Ms. Farner, who currently serves as president of the St. Vincent de Paul Council of Knoxville, had been a Vincentian in Georgia before she relocated, so she knew how much the society could help the community, especially in a county where over a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.

“To have a St. Vincent de Paul conference to kind of handle those [calls] and funnel those is really a great blessing for the parish as well as for the community and the people in need,” she said. She organized a conference at Good Shepherd, composed of women and men who return calls made to the church and meet with people in need.

“Mercifully, they’re able to reach out to these people and find them a decent place to live, help them get over some of their almost unimaginable difficulties that they’re facing,” Monsignor Hofstetter said.

Thanks to support from the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, the Vincentians offer financial assistance to those who struggle to pay for food, rent, utilities, or medicine. Last summer, they partnered with Capital Bank to offer a financial literacy class for the poor, a program they plan to continue.

They also help the homeless find shelter and get back on their feet. The Family Inns in Newport has worked with the Vincentians in helping several families get off the street. According to Ms. Farner there has been a surge of homelessness in the past year.

Melanie takes care of her husband and two teenage children. Because of health reasons, she has had trouble keeping full-time work. The family was living in a motel room when, just before Easter, the motel caught fire. The family lost everything. They moved to the Family Inns and got in touch with St. Vincent de Paul, which helped Melanie pay for an extended stay as the family resettled.

“We lost everything, and we were just trying to get stable,” Melanie said. “It’s brought my stress level down some knowing that, with their help, my daughter has somewhere to lay her head every night.”

“They’re a very, very good blessing to the community,” she said. Although she worries that some people might take advantage of their generous spirit, she added, “They don’t let that deter them from helping people. They see the honesty in everybody.”

But beyond the material aid, Vincentians aim to seek out those less fortunate and show them friendship and dignity.

“I think that it’s so much more than the money,” Ms. Farner said. “It’s taking the time to really help people. They’re not forgotten, and somebody cares about them.”

Even when funds are low and the Vincentians can’t offer financial assistance, they call or visit to let the needy know that they care about them and are praying for them.

“It’s sort of like being Simon,” she said of the Vincentian mission. “You’re not really carrying that cross, but you’re giving them some relief from their cross momentarily and letting them know that God loves them. That’s why we’re there.”

Although the conference at Good Shepherd has 10-12 members, the entire parish supports the St. Vincent de Paul mission. A few years ago, parishioners began volunteering to cut the grass around the church. The money saved was directed to St. Vincent de Paul. Parishioners also come out in full force for the Friends of the Poor Walk, an annual event that raises funds for the conference.

The St. Vincent de Paul conference at Good Shepherd also has the support of young parishioners. The parish began a youth group called the Vinnys for young parishioners to study compassion and work on their own projects to help the community.

“There is nothing like the kids to help your parish rally around,” Ms. Farner said.

Monsignor Hofstetter said Good Shepherd is known as a welcoming parish. Even non-Catholics know they can call the church for help.

“You know, church is people. Christ said again and again we need to worry about the widow, the impoverished, and I think that’s what we’re doing here,” he said.