MARQUETTE - In 1833, 20-year-old Frederick Ozanam, a student of the Sorbonne University in Paris, decided to form a group of students to reach out to the poor and visit them.
They brought with them food, clothes and friendship. Ozanam's group looked to St. Vincent de Paul, a well-known French priest, as their patron. Fast-forward 179 years and the mission to help all those in need has spread across the world.
Since its humble beginning, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has grown exponentially. As of 2006, the society had active groups in 142 countries on five continents. It encompasses 47,400 conferences and 650,000 members. The International Council is located in Paris, France.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was initiated in St. Louis, Mo., in 1845 and it arrived in the Upper Peninsula early, in 1855.
Each Roman Catholic parish has their own conference, with a total of seven in Marquette. The conference members decide how to delegate funds to those in need.
"The Catholic Church allows us to exist," said Ron Provost, president of the Marquette St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Provost said funds dispersed through the conferences are geared toward helping in any way they can, such as helping a family who cannot keep up with utility bills and are in danger of having their utilities turned off. Or those at risk of losing their home.
"Our mission is to take care of the poor. Period. We're not doing any of this for profit," Provost said.
Despite a great desire to help, however, the conferences have limits. While they approve more cases than they disapprove, many times the funds that are donated can only be part of the requested amount.
"Let's say an individual needs help paying off a $1,000 utility bill - which is not unheard of. The conference will often help pay a portion of that bill, but not all of it," Provost said.
The district conferences receive money through parishioners and collections at church from individual parishes. Each conference must meet a minimum of once a month. Most meet twice a month and some meet once a week.
During their meetings, the members compile a list of people requesting help and review every case.
Provost said in deciding whether they can help an individual, the board looks at an individual's financial status. In the case of rent assistance, they require a copy of the rental agreement.
They also look at a person's history and any attempts they have made to pay the bills themselves. Every situation has to be carefully weighed.
According to Provost, while funds have never run dry, there's always a greater need.
"Every organization today is looking for dollars."
The donations from parishioners make it possible for many of St. Vincent's local programs - including its food pantry - to remain open and provide services to the community.
Though the societies have spread across the globe, their mission statement has always remained the same: "No Work of Charity is Foreign to the Society."
Abbey Hauswirth can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240.