Members of Society of St. Vincent de Paul embody ‘Jesus’ message of great love’
“Lord, help me to make time today to serve you in those who are most in need of encouragement or assistance.” -St. Vincent de Paul
Inside a small apartment in downtown Roanoke, a donated table, chair, loveseat, and lamps from St. Joseph’s Furniture Closet have turned “a shelter into a home,” in the words of the man who lives there.
Patrick Crowe, a wheelchair-bound senior citizen who recently moved to Roanoke, said the gift of the furnishings was an unexpected blessing. “This just proves that God will provide,” he said.
St. Joseph’s Furniture Closet is an offshoot ministry of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), a worldwide Catholic lay organization of men and women from all backgrounds that helps those in need in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul. Although the local society, founded in 2017, is based at St. Andrew Catholic Church, its membership is open to all Catholics in the Roanoke Valley and beyond.
The society’s members pay visits to home- bound parishioners and also help others outside the parish with disaster relief, transportation, and financial and material assistance – including groceries and household furnishings.
The furniture ministry accepts donations of gently used furniture and other household items such as dishes, cookware, and utensils. All tax-deductible donations go directly to those who need them.
Making places ‘homey’
“A lot of people have places to stay but it’s bare and it doesn’t feel very comfortable,” said Aimee Valenzuela, Adult Faith Formation and Social Ministries Coordinator at St. Andrew and also a member of the SVDP. “Having some nice things makes it homey.”
Some clients are referred by organizations besides the SVDP, including Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Blue Ridge Women’s Center, and Family Promise. Others are parishioners who are, or who know someone, in need of assistance. Sometimes people call the parish office or simply knock on the door of the church, asking for help.
Recently the furniture ministry helped an Afghan family of six – soon to be seven, with a baby on the way – who was referred by Commonwealth Catholic Charities.
“They were so happy and grateful,” said Valenzuela. “They had only been here about two weeks and had very little, and we were able to help them furnish their home.”
The need for furniture and household items became clear in the ministry’s early days when Vincentians Kathy Sullivan and Teresa Hancock-Parmer delivered food to two women and their two toddlers who had fled domestic violence.
“There was no table, no chairs, no sofa, and they only had one pot to cook in,” Sullivan recalled. The volunteers quickly rounded up some furniture and kitchenware to help them.
“We asked each other, ‘How many other people are in that situation?’ and put out a call for donations,” she said.
Thus the Vincentians’ small furniture ministry was started, with a few items stored in a garage behind St. Andrew. Two years later, that space was needed as a construction office during the church renovation project, and the ensuing pandemic curtailed the ministry’s in-person activity.
Ministry gets new home
Early this year, the diocese offered the parish a nearby property that it owns: a warehouse of about 7,000 square feet, including two private offices and bathrooms, plus a parking lot. The space had been used by the nursing and retirement facility Our Lady of the Valley but was no longer needed. The parish accepted it as the new home of St. Joseph’s Furniture Closet and pays for maintenance.
Soon after the February launch of the rekindled furniture ministry, donations began arriving from area Catholics and the larger community.
Some donors have expressed their happiness at being able to give the belongings of deceased loved ones to the ministry.
“It makes them feel good to know their family members’ things will go to someone who really needs them,” said Sullivan, a retired veterans’ benefits administrator.
Items must be clean and in good shape, “Like something you’d give to a friend or family member,” she added. Financial donations are always welcome.
“It’s a great ministry and we’ve had a lot of good donations, from individuals and from businesses,” said Wayne Gould, development coordinator for St. Andrew Parish.
Noble Office Furniture of Roanoke donated tables, chairs, and sofas, as well as furniture from a retirement home that was being redecorated.
Gould also reached out to George Cartledge and Robert Bennett of Roanoke-area Grand Home Furnishings, who allowed him to post flyers about St. Joseph’s Furniture Closet inside their stores.
“I thought if people come in to buy new furniture, they may be looking for a place to donate their old items,” Gould said.
It’s also a good way to get the ministry’s name out into the larger community. “Most people don’t know Catholics do all these charitable things,” added Valenzuela.
Visiting two by two
The Vincentians visit people in pairs, to chat with them, ask what they need, and observe their living situations.
“We go out two by two, just as Jesus sent his disciples in pairs,” explained Sullivan. “And also, as Jesus said: ‘When two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.’”
They also pray with them, she added. “No one has ever said no to prayer when we ask,” she said. “They are so moved. Some were not brought up in the Catholic faith, or any faith, and they often say, ‘No one has ever prayed for me before.’”
Crowe, 71, contacted St. Andrew when he needed transportation to Mass, and two Vincentians came to visit him. They discussed a regular ride to church for him, but they also offered something else.
“They saw my apartment and the lack of furniture and said, ‘We can help you out.’ They were very gracious,” Crowe said. “I met them by the grace of God.”
One of those visitors was retired social worker Lynn Marie Lee, who helped measure Crowe’s apartment to see what would fit. “St. Joseph is the patron saint of the home, so it’s the perfect name for this furniture ministry,” she said.
Just before learning about the Vincentians in 2017, Lee had prayed “Lord, give me the heart of a servant.”
“This has been so fulfilling. Even though we serve our neighbors in need, it is more of a blessing for me,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
“What they provided me with turned a shelter into a home,” said Crowe, who now has a ride to Mass at St. Andrew each Sunday as well.
On a cold and gray St. Patrick’s Day, he returned to St. Joseph’s Closet to meet with Sullivan to happily accept two table lamps that she had described to him.
“Jesus told us to love God and love one another, and the St. Vincent de Paul society embraces that,” Crowe said. “These Catholic Christians are the embodiment of Jesus’ message of great love.”
For more information on how to donate or volunteer, please visit www.standrewsva.org.