Jean-Noel Cormier, national president-elect of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Early days in St. Vincent de Paul Society rekindled as adult

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  • April 21, 2013

OTTAWA - Jean-Noel Cormier got his first glimpse of poverty — and felt an urge to help — in his childhood in Bouctouche, New Brunswick.

“It was a small village. We were not that rich. But we had kids poorer than us,” said the national president-elect of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP).

He remembers encouraging some of the poorer kids to go to school. They drank water from mason jars, he said, too poor to afford drinking glasses. “It kind of stayed with me,” Cormier said.

There was one family with 21 children living in a house. They had only 10 pairs of boots. The first 10 out the door “went out okay,” the rest had to make do, he recalls.

Cormier will carry those recollections with him as he takes the helm of the SSVP, which has more than 8,300 volunteers across Canada serving some 450,000 poor people each year. He hopes to encourage more SSVP projects in schools so that a new generation of young people will catch the call to service the way he did as a young person.

While the work SSVP does with the poor is always confidential regarding those they help, Cormier realizes that name recognition is important for charities as they seek volunteers and donations.

When he was eight, Cormier and his family moved to Montreal where, in Quebec, he encountered La Guignolée, a tradition carried out in December where people go door to door to collect non-perishable food and money for the poor.

It is then, at the age of about 12 or 13, that he first heard of the SSVP, and participated in its charitable work.

In his later teens, he drifted away from the SSVP but in early adulthood a job with Canada Post took him and his family to Toronto, where they became involved in the French-language parish Sacré Coeur that had an active SSVP and a Development and Peace group. The SSVP made up Christmas hampers for the poor. Becoming re-acquainted rekindled his interest.

When he moved back to Ottawa in 2000, a friend asked him if he wanted to join the Knights of Columbus. He answered he would prefer to join the SSVP. Cormier has been active ever since.

He started out doing what those in the Ottawa Central Council (which covers the Ottawa and Pembroke dioceses) do — volunteering to be on call for two weeks at a time, available to help any family in need. If a family calls, the SSVP will provide non-perishable food items and purchase fresh meat and produce that members deliver on a confidential basis.

The personal visits to peoples’ homes are a “trademark” of the SSVP, Cormier said. Visiting someone’s home gives an entirely different picture than one would get “if you are sitting in an office with a form to fill out, ticking off the numbers.” Members are careful “not to judge,” he said.

Today, the SSVP has a chance to increase its exposure and renew its inspiration through the charism of its founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Cormier is steeping himself in Ozanam’s life, working through a thick volume of his letters, written in old French. In a training session in Paris for SSVP work in Madagascar, Cormier was able visit the churches where St. Vincent de Paul and Ozanam were buried as well as the place where the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul served the poor.

Ozanam, a doctor’s son from a devout Catholic family, found himself in Paris after the French Revolution, when there were social forces trying to push Catholics out of running schools and out of the public square. Ozanam became convinced the Christian faith offered the best solutions to the problems he saw.

Cormier sees parallels to today’s world. He points out this is the era Les Misérables portrays, where the plight of the poor was terrible.

The SSVP is committed to systemic change, he said, oriented to give people the tools to rise out of poverty and stay out. In Canada, the poor people today are very different from 20 years ago, he said. “We need to change and adapt to be able to help them.”

The SSVP, headquartered in Paris, is active in 148 countries.

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