Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 6.2 (2003) 134-145
IN 1617, VINCENT DE PAUL, the pastor of Châtillon-les-Dombes, a rural parish in the diocese of Lyon, France, stepped up to his pulpit and made an appeal to his congregation. He had learned of a family some distance from the village that was sick with the plague. He asked if any of his parishioners would be able to help them.
After mass Vincent took one of the more prominent members of the parish and set out to visit the family. To his surprise, all along the road he found women from his parish coming from and going to the needy family's home. "As it was summer," he says, "and very hot, these good women were sitting along the side of the roads to rest and get cool. There were so many of them that you could have called them a procession."
From these beginnings came the confraternities of charity—parish organizations that undertook to feed the poor, nurse the sick, and provide decent burials for those who died. The confraternities depended on the laity, and the laity did not let them down. When Vincent designed the statutes of the confraternity, he outlined their purpose: to give spiritual and corporal aid to the poor, and, "finally, to accomplish Our Lord's ardent desire, that we love one another."
In time, the charitable impulse of these volunteers was placed on a firmer footing with the institution of the Sisters of Charity. Many years later, Vincent de Paul would look at the extraordinarily successful Sisters of Charity and deny that either Vincent or Louise de Marillac was its founder. Instead he attributed the honor, under God, to a simple peasant woman named Marguerite Naseau who had come to him and offered herself for the service of the poor. She led him out along the path of charity like the women of Châtillon-les-Dombes.
In 1983, Father Jack Heffernan, pastor of Saint Brigid's parish in Ottawa's lower town, stepped up to his pulpit and made an appeal to his congregation. The problem he was facing was caused by another kind of plague—homelessness. So many people were knocking at the rectory door and asking for help that his housekeeper was overwhelmed. Even with the assistance of volunteer sandwich-makers she could not meet the needs of those who came to her.
Beggars have always knocked at rectory doors, but what Father Heffernan was experiencing was on a different scale. These were the glory days of "deinstitutionalization." Across Canada, between 1960 and 1976, the number of beds in mental hospitals was reduced by two-thirds. People who for many years had lived in sheltered environments were now back in their communities—or, frequently (because the support systems waiting to receive them were totally inadequate), on the streets. In Ottawa, the reappearance of the beggars coincided with another trend, "gentrification." Downtown neighborhoods, notably that of Sandy Hill (only a short walk away from Saint Brigid's), were full of large run-down houses from an earlier era that had been turned into boarding houses. They offered so much living space that night shelters for the homeless, which we see in such abundance today, were unnecessary. Now the houses were being restored to their original use or split into condominiums, and their previous tenants found themselves dispossessed. The contagion spread as more and more people chased less and less housing. Of course, this was not just an Ottawa problem. Within a few years, a discussion paper from Health Canada would state that across the country, "the homeless now include those who are mentally ill, families, the working poor, people with disabilities, seniors, youth and single individuals who do not have sufficient funding to secure and maintain decent housing." It was in the inner cities that the shock waves were strongest. In Ottawa, that included Father Heffernan and his parish.
It was decided that a soup kitchen would open in the basement of their church. The first meal, served on February 7, 1983, did not present too much of a challenge: seven volunteers for only two clients...