Members of the Ladies of Charity, founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1617, held their 14th national assembly in Milwaukee this month, spending four days praying, learning and gathering inspiration for their widespread efforts to serve Christ by serving the poor.
More than 150 women from across the country gathered Sept. 11-13 at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center to carry on a nearly 400-year-old tradition of service and fellowship.
This year’s assembly theme was “Just Care! Vincentian Women in Action.” Many of the speakers and workshops focused on how to support the work of the caregiver in family life.
Gayle Johnson, national president of the Ladies of Charity, described what lies at the root of the organization’s
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Mary Domer, co-president: firstname.lastname@example.org
“We’re trying to walk individuals out of poverty and transform their lives. All kinds of poverty – material and spiritual,” she said. “The Vincentian heart involves an openness, and the idea of not only giving but receiving. This openness helps to establish a bond between the one serving and the one served.”
Attendee Sheila Gilbert, national president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, confirmed the significance of the Vincentian charism that underlies the work of the Ladies of Charity.
“We make a real difference to people who have very little hope. We deal with people who don’t have what we call a future story. A future story … it’s your dream, how you want to be all that God wants you to be,” Gilbert said. “Hope is the primary thing we can give people – hope for that future.”
Keynote speakers at this year’s assembly included Ladies of Charity member Marilyn Martone, a theologian and health care ethicist who has represented the Holy See at the United Nations on women’s issues, and Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice.
Several of the other speakers and panelists represented the Milwaukee community, including Lynda Markut, education and support coordinator for the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Julie Darnieder, director of the Marquette University Legal Clinic, and Gerri Sheets-Howard, executive director of the House of Peace.
Prayer, formation and fellowship were equally important aspects of the weekend.
“Part of our ministry is prayer and spiritual formation,” said Johnson. “Prayer and reflection are an integral part of our lives, in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul.”
“You have a chance to see people you only see once a year,” said Gilbert. “You can support each other with prayer, support each other with comfort, and celebrate together.”
Mary Domer and Mary Johnson are co-presidents of the Milwaukee chapter of the Ladies of Charity, active for 57 years. They spoke about working toward change that is systematic but also personal.
“It is so important to reach out on a person-to person basis, not as server and recipient,” said Domer.
“The Spiritual Works of Mercy are all about meeting people’s basic needs first and in a way that is loving, compassionate, caring, respectful and with true sincerity,” said Johnson.
In Milwaukee, the primary work of the Ladies of Charity is a program providing clothing to school children from needy families. The program is operated out of a site rented from St. Francis of Assisi Parish, though the organization’s 45 members in Milwaukee come from a number of parishes on Milwaukee’s North Shore.
Last year, clothing was provided to 945 children. Donations and volunteer help are always welcome.
Domer and Johnson noted the impact of the work can spread within the community. Many parents of children who receive clothing return to volunteer.
“They recognize the gift,” said Johnson.
“And they’re passing it on,” added Domer.
One of the Milwaukee chapter’s major contributions to the national assembly was facilitating a session on the life of Dorothy Day, a New York City journalist in the early 20th century who embraced a life of radical solidarity with and service to the poor.
During the session, participants viewed segments from “Entertaining Angels,” a film about Day’s life and work, and reflected on how the film’s message confirmed and challenged their call to serve.
“This exercise reveals your innermost self,” said attendee Solange Hess, as she took notes during the session. “How many of us want to be associated with the poor, the dirty, the reprobate? Dorothy Day sees the light of Christ in everybody.”
Hess, a nine-year member of the Ladies of Charity from Greenbelt, Maryland, said that after 55 years as a nurse, membership in the Ladies of Charity has given her the opportunity to serve in a new way.
“As we grow older, we become more reflective,” she said. “The change has to show in action. The Ladies of Charity have given some of us that opportunity.”
Domer also sees the work of the Ladies of Charity reflected in Day’s life story.
“We all have these dreams. We know what we want to do to save the world,” said Domer. “And you need a whole group around you to help do it.”