A Saint Vincent de Paul thrift store in Ottawa. The society's Ontario regional council elected Linda Dollard as its new president over the summer. She is the council's first female president. Photo/courtesy of Society of Saint Vincent de Paul Ontario Regional Council

Ontario's St. Vincent de Paul Society chooses its first female president

  • September 9, 2016

Ten years ago Linda Dollard thought she might get involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society when she retired. Then she would have the time.

At 56 and still putting in a 40-hour week at Great West Life in London, Ont., Dollard is now the first woman to take on the job of Ontario regional council president. She finds herself leading an organization that reaches out to poor people in hundreds of parishes from Kenora to Kingston.

The married mother of two young men has found her own faith strengthened and challenged by direct contact with the poor. Her move up through the ranks of the volunteer-run organization has been surprising to her. At each stage over her decade of involvement she’s thought she was already doing what God had called her to as a Vincentian.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t be bothered dealing with the higher levels,’ ” she told The Catholic Register. “‘I just want to focus on what we’re doing here…’ I never dreamed I would have this position.”

Elected president last December, Dollard only formally took the reins from outgoing president Jim Paddon over the summer.

Now she’s hoping more people start dreaming of what they can do with St. Vincent de Paul — particularly younger people.

“There’s some conferences and councils where we have people who have been involved forever,” she said.

“That’s OK, but we need to get some younger members involved. At some point those older members aren’t going to be around. Who is going to continue that good work?”

Though the society accepts members as young as 12, St. Vincent de Paul has a solidly entrenched reputation as an exclusive preserve of the more senior of the senior parishioners.

“Our members are getting older and we need newer, younger members. That’s definitely a priority for us,” Dollard said.

Part of Dollard’s strategy is to bolster the existing St. Vincent de Paul youth conferences in Windsor, London and Kitchener and spread that model to parishes elsewhere in Ontario. Teens and university undergraduates, banded together in their own conferences, have the freedom to try creative approaches to the basic mission of reaching out and directly helping the poor in their communities.

But Dollard also wants older, working-age adults who can bring their skills, their energy and their contacts to the work of the society — people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

“It’s a matter of raising more awareness within the parishes,” she said.

She hopes local councils can persuade parish priests to speak about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from the pulpit and thereby raise the society’s profile within parishes. But Dollard’s best strategy is precisely the one that got her to join the local St. Vincent de Paul council in London — a personal invitation.

“I want people who are within St. Vincent de Paul, within those parishes, identifying people who they think would be a good fit,” she said.

“It’s not for everybody. Not everybody is a good fit. But I don’t think we have enough of those personal invitations. If we did that more, I’m confident we could recruit younger people.”

Dollard was shocked when she learned she was the first female president of Ontario council.

“When Jim (Paddon) mentioned that to me, I said ‘Are you serious?’ ”

There have been other women leading provincial councils elsewhere in Canada. Dollard doesn’t think she’s blazing a new trail at this point.

“It’s not about gender. It’s about having the right skill set, being able to do what’s needed,” Dollard said.

The barriers that really need to be broken are barriers the poor face daily in being accepted, valued members of our communities, Dollard said.

“How can we help our friends in need to break those barriers?” she asked.

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