By Becky Aubut
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — Steve Meaney, a member of St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception Parish in North Attleboro, was recently commissioned as the president of the Diocesan Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society — an interesting leadership role for someone who admitted that up until recently he didn’t volunteer for much.
“My wife and I were the type of people who were never really ‘joiners,’” said Meaney. “We didn’t join organizations, that as we went through life, work and family were the main focus. Then in late 2008, the weekend before Christmas, we had a snowstorm and my neighbor next door — who I was aware was involved in organizations at the parish — was gracious enough to bring his snow-blower down to my driveway.”
As a thank-you to his neighbor, Meaney went with him to help distribute gifts to families in the area through the St. Vincent de Paul Society. After loading up a van at the parish, Meaney and his neighbor visited four or five needy families in the area and gave gifts to the children — the visits had a profound effect on Meaney.
“It was a really, really good feeling for me; the main focus of being a Vincentian, though we do help people in need, the main priority is to increase their own Spirituality and to grow in their own personal holiness; and just going through that experience was a really good feeling by helping these people and doing God’s work,” said Meaney.
People don’t always realize there are people in need, especially when it’s in their own town or city; it’s something Meaney admits he didn’t recognize when he drove around Attleboro: “I just didn’t open my eyes and realize it,” he said. “The graciousness of these people who allowed us into their homes and their genuine appreciation of the assistance we were offering — it just really made me feel good.”
Based on his experiences, a couple of months later his wife Diane and he went to an Ozanam orientation, named after Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of St. Vincent de Paul Society. After learning about the society, he and his wife joined the local conference at St. Mary’s Parish and have become more involved as years have gone by, including being the food pantry helpline as phone captains. And yet, after a couple of years, one thing continued to gnaw at Meaney; he would see the same families coming to the society for assistance time and time again, he said.
“What we do with those families, helping them with their immediate needs whether it be putting food on the table or assistance with keeping their lights on or home warm — that’s all very important, but there was something at the back of my mind that kept saying we should be doing more,” said Meaney.
Irene Frechette, a member of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Seekonk, has been a member of St. Vincent de Paul for more than 40 years, and became a member when men dominated the membership: “The wives of the men were very active helping them put together their various projects and raising money, so we decided that we should be full members. We appeared at the meeting and announced our membership,” she said, laughing at the memory. “It was breaking the ceiling there.”
Through her years, Frechette has also held many leadership positions, most recently as the president of the diocesan council — it was she who nominated Meaney for the position, she said, to replace her after her tenure was up.
Being part of the central diocesan council offers up a larger network, and a “wonderful opportunity” that she knows Meaney will take full advantage of; “Part of the problem being a local member is, you tend to see and only know what is going on within your group,” said Frechette. “If you are willing to develop yourself and look beyond your own parish and become an active member of a district, and then the Central Council — then, of course, the president of the Central Council becomes an actual voting member on the National Board — it’s an opportunity to meet the people doing the same thing you’re doing, with the same love and same fervor, and it’s an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things. It’s an opportunity to bring that information back to your own local, central council.”
And having that connection has helped introduce new initiatives into the diocese, including “systemic change,” something that Meaney and Frechette feel will guide Vincentians into a new way of helping needy families.
Six years ago the society voted in the first woman president of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Sheila Gilbert; “She brought a whole idea of systemic change to the society — nicely put it’s, ‘You always do what you always did, you always get what you always got,’ so it was time to do things different and think outside of the box,” said Frechette. “She has been an absolute visionary for the society in bringing us up into the 21st century; it’s not just about giving people a bag of food or keeping the lights on, it’s about helping them journey out of poverty.”
“It’s really about getting more involved with the families,” said Meaney.
Recently Frechette asked Meaney to attend a workshop on systemic change, which he did, and he learned even more about the new initiative and will enact many of the new ideas as he goes forward in his new leadership role: “These are programs we’re still continuing to develop and grow within the diocesan council. In this area, we’re still in the infancy stage,” he said.
Meaney is also looking into forming an “extension” initiative and to create new conferences.
“Right now in the Fall River Diocesan Council, we have 75 parish conferences and I began looking into it, and I believe the diocesan website states there are 83 parishes so it seems like there could be an opportunity to start some new conferences,” said Meaney. “Extension is also about revitalizing existing conferences where, because of a drop in membership or other reasons, may not be as active as they used to be. Extension is also about bringing new members into the society, so we’re very interested in diversity.
“The majority of our membership is older, and we’re very interested in bringing in younger people into the society. I would like to look into the possibility of forming youth conferences in the five Catholic high schools, as well as at Stonehill College. It’s hard to get younger members in that age group of 30s or 40s, but I think if we can ingrain the Vincentian spirit in people of a young age, then we have a better chance of people growing up and being involved during those mid-adult years.”
Frechette said that Meaney has been a “wonderful associate in bringing that whole concept to the Fall River area,” and said that Meaney showed an interest early on “to learn more and to find out as much as he could so that he could improve the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.”
“He is a dedicated Vincentian, and loves working with people in need. I just look forward to working with him as my leader now, and will support him fully,” said Frechette.
Though it seems that it took a serendipitous snowstorm to coax Meaney into becoming an active member, there is no question that it was God calling Meaney to service as he stands to make a huge impact in his new leadership role at St. Vincent de Paul.
“I have a lot to learn about the diocesan council,” he said. “Like I said, Diane and I were never really joiners and one of the great benefits of St. Vincent de Paul is the Christian friendships we’ve developed. We’ve met a lot of the nicest people in the world and I look forward to extending those friendships and look forward to continuing to grow my own Spirituality.”