A hundred and fifty years ago today, the Rev. Cyril Delacroix, a French priest, arrived in Baton Rouge, bringing with him the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and striking out to minister to the poor in a city reeling from four years of devastating civil war.
Though Delacroix, who led the society for its first 28 years, would recognize little of modern Baton Rouge, the Catholic charitable organization he brought to the capital city is bustling and vibrant as it strives to provide desperately needed services to a poor and homeless population that organizers say seems to keep growing.
Over Christmas, hundreds of hungry Baton Rouge residents, hundreds of volunteers and Bishop Robert Muench all crammed into the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room in Mid City, eager to celebrate the holiday over hot meals. Even before the last diner was out the door, staff and volunteers already were making plans for the next day’s meals and for all the other services offered by the society.
“Father Delacroix had a very big vision. He saw the community as a whole. He was a man of faith, but he was also a man that put his faith into action by serving everyone,” said Michael Acaldo, president and CEO of the society in Baton Rouge. “I think that there’s a recognition that, whether it was 1865 or 2015, the poor and those in need are still with us. There are, unfortunately, more people suffering in poverty and more of those that are homeless.”
The diverse crowd turning out for a meal at St. Vincent de Paul over the holidays spanned a wide range of backgrounds. They include the working poor, stopping in during a break from their jobs for a hot meal that would otherwise be out of reach, and homeless people lined up outside the dining room who were eager for a dry place to sit and a bit of sustenance for their stomachs.
Lionel Sheppard, shaking hands and wishing a Merry Christmas on his way out the door, said he often stops in at St. Vincent de Paul for a meal between shifts at work. “It’s a blessing, man. You can’t afford a meal? You can come here,” said Sheppard, 50. “It’s been a blessing for a lot of people.”
Charles Terrell, a 40-year-old former commercial truck driver, said he’s leaned hard on the society for help recently, after hitting what he called a rough patch and struggling to put his life back together. A recent felony conviction has kept him out of work, Terrell said, and hot meals and occasional showers at St. Vincent de Paul have helped keep him going.
“The last year, I lost my job and got in trouble with the law, lost everything,” said Terrell, who said he once earned a good living as a truck driver and now hopes to contribute to the organization and volunteer there once he’s back on his feet.
“St. Vincent de Paul has been here when I needed it, no matter where you come from, what you did or how you lost it. When money’s tight and you’ve got nowhere else to go — it’s shown me how to survive again, regroup and look for a job. At least there’s a meal a day, and you don’t have to worry about going hungry.”
The society serves its meals in a 12-year-old dining room that seats 120 people — twice as many as the previous room and dramatically larger than the society’s first permanent dining facility, a 10-seat room on South 21st Street that opened its doors in 1982.
Since then, Acaldo said the society has served a daily hot meal without missing a single day in those 33 years.
The number of volunteers working with the society — serving up Christmas meals and helping out with other programs — also has grown dramatically in recent years. About 150 volunteers helped serve Christmas lunch this year, dishing out plates, serving tables and refilling glasses.
“When I started 15 years ago, we’d get maybe 15 volunteers for Christmas Day,” Acaldo said.
But even with those larger facilities, the teeming dining room filled up quickly, with volunteers holding up fingers to direct diners to seats as they came open.
Debra Blacher, an administrative assistant at St. Vincent de Paul, said if she could ask for one thing for the society’s 150th birthday, it’d be larger dining facilities and even more beds at its shelters.
“I wish we had a bigger place so we could serve even more people,” Blacher said. “The needs just get bigger.”
“It’s very humbling because it makes you appreciate what you have, no matter how small,” said Blacher, who started volunteering with the society several years ago and had worked full time at St. Vincent de Paul about 11/2 years ago.
In addition to the daily meals served up at the dining room at 220 St. Vincent de Paul Place, the society operates three homeless shelters, a homeless day center, a charitable pharmacy that dispenses no-cost medications to the impoverished and a thrift store whose proceeds go back toward supporting the group’s work.
Terrill Germany was standing near the front doors to greet diners as they came in the door for Christmas lunch. She said she started volunteering with St. Vincent de Paul about five years ago, shortly after a messy divorce landed her in a battered women’s shelter. A 58-year-old tax professional now firmly back on her feet, Germany said the experience gave her a new appreciation for the kinds of services charities like St. Vincent de Paul offer year-round in Baton Rouge.
“Now I see friends I went to school with coming in here, and I’m able to direct them to services they need,” Germany said. “Sometimes they just need encouragement — they come to hear they’re worthwhile.”
Surveying the room, Germany said she sometimes wonders how St. Vincent de Paul is able to stay afloat, considering the number of needy in the area and the society’s limited resources.
“I just wish more people would see the need,” Germany said. “Come volunteer! I guarantee you’ll come back.”
The volunteers offering their time over the holidays were as diverse as those coming for lunch, from wealthy suburban families to those who once lived on the streets themselves.
Although Catholic values guide the society and much of its support comes from the Catholic Church, devout Catholics were lined up in hairnets, gloves and disposable plastic aprons alongside Baptists, Jews, Mormon missionaries and those of no faith.
In the upcoming year, Acaldo said, the society hopes to break ground on an expansion of the Bishop Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter, which serves homeless women and children, growing the facility to 70 beds from 36.
Although Acaldo said the visibility of the society in Baton Rouge has grown in his nearly 27 years with the organization, the number of people needing their help has as well.
“I can tell you that the number of homeless men, women and children has just exploded in our community,” Acaldo said. “It’s important for people to know that so they can get involved and help us make a real difference for those in need.”