In this series on Catholic social service organisations, Catholic News features the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which has been helping the poor and needy in Singapore since 1951.
Joyce (not her real name) was a single mother of three young children. She was struggling to find employment, meet the demands of parenthood from getting a roof over their heads to putting three meals on the table.
Lost and under severe stress, she approached the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SSVP) for assistance. The SSVP’s Social Office then took up the case.
The SSVP Social Office is an initiative which started in 2015 to provide more holistic assistance to the poor and needy, more commonly known to SSVP as Friends-in-Need (FINs), in Singapore.
After hearing her story and her challenges, the case workers and SSVP members, who are also called Vincentians, decided to intervene by setting goals and introducing suitable programmes that would be beneficial for Joyce and her family. This included arranging tuition for her children and helping her find a stable job.
The Vincentians from the Church of St Anthony made regular visits to Joyce’s home not only to provide provisions, but to also to journey with her in her struggles and concerns.
Meantime, other Caritas member social service organisations, such as the Catholic Lawyers Guild stepped in to assist Joyce.
Today, Joyce has secured a permanent home for her family as well as better employment.
A Vincentian helping a FIN prepare his bait for prawning during a social outing.
Whether it is helping the poor by providing provisions, assisting those facing financial hardship or visiting the sick and lonely, the primary mission of SSVP, as a lay apostolate organisation, is to “follow and imitate Jesus”, said Ms Florence Tan, SSVP president, who has served as a Vincentian for 15 years.
“One of the key things that Jesus did was to help the poor … when you follow and imitate Jesus then your heart will go towards wanting to do what He did which is to help your neighbours,” she said.
SSVP has been helping the poor and needy in Singapore since 1951. Today, it has about 600 members from 29 parishes in Singapore serving 2,200 families or over 3,300 FINs. The organisation serves FINs regardless of race, language and religion.
Fr K. S. Michaelraj saying a prayer at the Church of the Sacred Heart before rations are handed out to FINs.
Over the years, it has responded to social changes by expanding its range of services which include setting up the Social Office and launching new initiatives, such as the Milk and Diaper project.
These changes also come with a need to equip Vincentians with skills that allow them to better serve FINs. Training by professional social workers from the SSVP Social Office and workshops are held periodically, said Ms Tan.
The Milk and Diaper project is targeted at low income families by providing milk and diapers for their children. SSVP is currently supporting about 180 babies across various housing estates.
When migrants encounter issues such as work disputes, injuries or employers not paying them, SSVP also assists by providing them their basic needs as well as referring them to other Caritas member organisations who can support in other areas.
Visits to the migrant dormitories are organised during Lent and Advent to give migrants provisions and Vincentians take the opportunity to interact and befriend them.
Several SSVP conferences in parishes provide tuition for children who come from homes facing various challenges.
At St Joseph’s Church (Bukit Timah), not only is tuition provided but a chartered bus also brings the children to the parish and back home. Church volunteers, who are auxilliary members of SSVP, also befriend the students to encourage them to continue with the tuition programme.
There are also annual Masses that bring FINs from different areas together. In April this year, SSVP held its first evangelical outreach rally for FINs from various parishes at St Joseph’s Institution.
“At the end of the day, we identified certain groups of people who had needs and we set up programmes that catered to them,” said Ms Tan.
Several SSVP conferences in parishes provide tuition for children who come from needy homes.
Because of the sheer number of programmes, SSVP may sometimes seem to be just an organisation that gives food and money. However, Ms Tan said that Vincentians are always reminded of their mission of following in Jesus’ footsteps.
“We befriend and interact with our FINs where they are at. To understand their troubles and to journey with them through it,” she said, adding that there is no fixed time frame that Vincentians are supposed to journey with an individual or family.
“Depending on their needs and situation, some journeys are very long,” said Ms Tan.
Ms Magdalene Tan, a Vincentian for 25 years, said, “It’s not just helping the poor. There is a spirituality at work and Christ is the focus of what we do … When they [FINs] see us, they know that Christ cares for them.”
She shared an experience of how a Catholic FIN, who had not attended Mass for a long time because of a physical ailment, was “deeply touched and grateful” after she was brought to Novena Church by Vincentians and received the sacraments.
Ms Alicia Ang, another member, said that her journey as a Vincentian “has gone beyond simply doing acts of charity and bonding with our FINs. In fact, I have also grown a lot spiritually in the past three to four years since I’ve joined. I’ve been inspired to attend retreats, which I have never done before … I have also been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by
Vincentians with big hearts and even greater passion to do good.”
Moving forward, SSVP has placed a greater emphasis on engaging parishioners and parish communities in their mission.
One such example is when SSVP conferences in various parishes launched a Christmas initiative to support FINs in their vicinity. This initiative, often jointly organised with other parish organisations, see FINs writing down a list of items that they wished to receive during Christmas.
The lists are then taken up by parishioners who will purchase the items and return them to the parish for distribution to the FINs.
Next year, a social enterprise, the SSVP Shop, will be launched to further aid those in need.
According to Ms Tan, the enterprise, to be located at 501 Geyland Road, will have “value for money items” and a small cafe. It will be manned by Vincentians.