Sitting in the Indian Ocean, south east of Australia, the New Zealand branch of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is perhaps the best witness to the international dimension of the SSVP: 18,000 km separate this Vincentian land from the Society’s birthplace in Paris.
Its story began in 1867, with a French Marist priest: Jean-Baptiste Chataigner. Soaked in the work of Frédéric Ozanam, and inspired by the work of the SSVP in France, he founded the very first Saint Vincent de Paul Conference in Christchurch. 22 members formed the original team, along with 7 women as helpers.
In 1876, Fr Chataigner was joined by Charles O’Neill, a Scottish engineer, and a man of great charity. He had been very active in the SSVP in Scotland, and when he emigrated to New Zealand, he founded the Wellington conference, the first to be officially aggregated by Council General. Acknowledged as one of the founding parents of the Society in New Zealand, he certainly played a very important part in its development throughout the country, and was also a pioneer of the SSVP in Australia, where he settled a few years later.
The New Zealand SSVP today
With 150 Conferences (2009 estimate) and xxxx members, the Society is found all over the country. It is one of the largest charitable organisations in New Zealand, known particularly for its “community shops”, which offer low-priced, secondhand goods to the general public. The profits from sales go to fund the SSVP’s social works.
The Society also benefits from the support of the clergy, with a strong involvement by bishops, priests and religious who have contributed to its flourishing over the years. Cardinal Thomas William (former archbishop of Wellington) spoke at the celebrations for the 150th anniversary: « Je suis immensément fier de la Société, comme l’a été chaque évêque de Nouvelle Zélande, pendant les 150 ans durant lesquels les Conférences et Conseils ont été établis, diocèse par diocèse, paroisse par paroisse […] L’une des préoccupations constantes pour chaque évêque est de savoir comment offrir aux hommes, aux femmes et aux jeunes la possibilité de s’engager à servir l’église et la communauté en réponse à l’enseignement du Christ. Cette préoccupation a été satisfaite de façon remarquable par la Société et ses membres au cours des dernières décennies. »
Ang : (I am immensely proud of the Society, as is every New Zealand Bishop past and present, over the 150 years-period during which Conferences and Councils were established, diocese by diocese, parish by parish […] A constant concern for every bishop is how to provide opportunities for men, women and youth to commit themselves to serving church and community in response of Christ’s teaching. Their concern has been met in wonderful measure by the Society and its members over the past decades.)
The Society in New Zealand can also boast of its dynamic, strong youth membership, known as “Young Vinnies”. The youth conferences formed in schools and universities have helped thousands of young people to explore the spiritual life and work of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. Closely involved in their local community, the Young Vinnies put all their energies into organising collections, running projects to meet local needs in small towns, or to run training sessions and larger projects in bigger towns.
150th anniversary celebrations
The ceremony was held in Christchurch, birthplace of the New Zealand SSVP, in the presence of its leaders, including the National President Terry Comber and many invited guests. The International Council General was represented by Frank Brasil (Territorial Vice-President for Oceania), Thomas Tan (Territorial Vice-President for Asia), Tony Muir (Twinnage Coordinator) and Luke Bower (Youth Coordinator for Oceania). Representatives of twinned countries also attended: Sri Lanka, Samoa and Tonga.
Mass was celebrated by his Excellency Archbishop Martin Krebs. A congratulatory message was displayed on a large screen during the ceremony from the President General Renato Lima de Oliveira, who had visited New Zealand a few months before.