President of Society of St Vincent de Paul in Scotland meets Vatican cycling team

Bernice Brady, the President of the St. Vincent de Paul (Scotland) community in Glasgow, who welcomed Vatican athletes during the recent Cycling World Championships in the city, describes the work carried on by her staff and volunteers as seeing “the face of Christ in those we serve.”

“You can’t solve all the problems. But if they know that they can come here and they know they’re going to be listened to, it does make a difference. And people always go away with a smile on their face,” Bernice told Vatican News.

In 1833 Frederic Ozanam and a group of friends from the Sorbonne University were challenged to prove their faith in Christ through action, not just words.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was formed when they took up this challenge and began to work with the desperately poor in Paris. Developing a simple system, they went in teams to help the poor in their homes, in the streets, in the hospitals and the asylums. Adopting as their patron Saint Vincent de Paul, a 16th century cleric renowned for his work with the poor, the Society arose from humble beginnings to become an international organisation found in 150 countries with 45,000 conferences and 800,000 volunteers.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society came to Scotland in 1845 only twelve years after the first Conference was founded  in Paris. The 1840s in Scotland were years of the Irish immigrants with a crying need for those in better circumstances to help poor, unjustly-treated and often sick people trying to eke out a living in Scotland.

Following the visit of the Vatican cyclists to the SSVP centre in Glasgow, the cyclists met with Pope Francis on Wednesday, and, in addition to the bike from the cycling race that was autographed by the Pope after the General Audience, the Vatican athletes also gifted him with an icon of the SSVP.

Speaking with Vatican News’ correspondent Mario Galgano, Ms. Brady painted an overview of her community, serving “those in need who come to our door” and are welcomed without any judgment or discrimination concerning “race or creed.”

“The whole point is to try and see the face of Christ in those we serve. That’s just an extension of our Catholic faith.”

People in need come from the most disparate backgrounds, ranging from locals to “refugees, asylum seekers, particularly from different war zones throughout the world.”

The community’s services are not really publicised, but word of their charitable work spreads quickly.

“We are on Facebook; we tell them the opening times,” said Ms. Brady, adding that Glasgow and its citizens can direct those in need to the right place.

“Here if you’re just new to the city I’ll tell you where you can go and get some clothes. It’s just word of mouth, simply. That’s it,” she said.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul provides “everything” that a person in need might find helpful. “It’s not what you would like; it’s what you need,” Ms. Brady noted.

“Invariably it’s always: ‘I need a coat, I need trousers, I need shoes, I need underwear.’ And then you’ll say: ‘Now do you need a scarf?’ because it’s cold, so you’re adding on all the time.”

As the community welcomes refugees and asylum seekers, including those who are do not speak English, one might think that communication could be difficult.

However, that’s not the case, according to Ms. Brady. “It’s amazing how you can communicate with somebody using sign language, just pointing with a smile.”

Communication means empathy: “They realise they are in a place of safety, they’re not going to be harmed, nobody’s going to shout at them, and they are going to be looked after.”

The clothes that are given out come from local parishes and associations and through private donations.

“Just before Christmas, we put up a Nativity scene outside in the window,” the President of the Glasgow chapter of the Society recounted, noting the anonymous donations that came with checks or more unconventional ways, such as “people putting money through the door.”

People who benefit from the volunteers’ services at the Society are usually young, mostly “thrown out of the house because of drink, drugs.”

They have “no job, no future, they don’t know where to go,” but the community does its best in the “limited amount of time” they have to make them feel at home.

The organisation provides food and clothes to some 15 to 40 women, and to between 10 and 30 men weekly.

“You don’t know how many people you’re going to serve, so I always ensure that we have eight volunteers, so you’ve got plenty of people to help.”

People serving the community are all lay people, usually retired, but also young people, inspired by the Caritas Award, instituted by Pope Benedict XVI as part of a legacy of his UK visit.

The Award is based on faith learning as a starting point leading to faith reflections and concrete actions showing young people’s witness of faith witness.

“We’ve had them,” Ms. Brady said, speaking about young volunteers. “It has sent them in a different direction. I always say to them, ‘Go home and appreciate your mum, your dad, or whoever is looking after you. Say thanks for the help you’re getting because a lot of people don’t get that.'”

After every service, the community members share a moment of prayer and spiritual reading. “This is very important,” Ms. Brady affirmed, “because it brings the people together in a spiritual manner. It improves our work.”

Ms. Brady has served with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for 50 years.

“I joined,” she said, “because my mum said ‘Don’t go.’ Because she was frightened of me coming into town on a Thursday night, and she felt it was going to be unsafe, and I thought, ‘No, I’m going in.'”

She concluded by recalling two moments that defined her experience as a volunteer.

“There was a young man who came here,” Ms. Brady recounted. “He sold newspapers, and for a long time, he was struggling with alcohol. He was possibly in his mid-twenties, and then he disappeared.”

One day, Ms. Brady and her husband recognized the man walking in the streets of Glasgow with a woman and two children beside him.

“The guy saw us. He just smiled over and didn’t say anything; we didn’t say anything to him because his life had moved on,” she said. “This makes it all worthwhile.”

In conclusion, Ms. Brady recalled the time she opened the Society’s door for the first time.

“It wasn’t windy,” she recalled, “but there was a gust of wind and leaves right up here, and I thought, ‘That’s the Holy Spirit.’ We were meant to be here.”