By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published Thursday, December 20, 2012
In October Father Frank McNamee received a request to meet for spiritual counseling with a woman seeking to reconnect with the Catholic Church as she faced death. Arranging with her nurse, he visited her, and their conversations were good but brief as she was very weak. But she knew “this was the right thing to do.”
The rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Father McNamee visited her three times.
“She wanted to be at peace. She really just wanted to reconcile with the church, just to come back to the church. She was putting all her affairs in order and that was one thing she really wanted to do,” Father McNamee recalled. “She knew she was going to pass and she wanted to get to heaven. It was a great privilege for a priest to be able to journey with that person in the last days of her life.”
Later she expressed her desire to anonymously aid the poor and suffering and asked him to suggest such charities. He mentioned the St. Vincent de Paul Society and others. On the final visit to celebrate Mass, she gave him a white envelope.
“I left and opened the envelope. … It was a gift for a half million (dollars). It was directing a check be taken from a trust and go to St. Vincent de Paul,” he recalled. “I was honored. I was totally surprised and shocked. Helping the work of SVdP, I knew that gift would be such a tremendous blessing to the work of SVdP.”
The Society’s executive director John Berry then got the good news on his cell phone from Father McNamee while driving between meetings.
“I was just kind of responding like I would to any small gift, and he said, ‘It’s kind of a big gift.’ I said something like ‘oh really’ and he said $500,000 and that’s when I almost crashed the car. I said I’ll be there in 10 minutes and drove to the cathedral. It’s the biggest gift we’ve ever received in our 110 years of the Society in Georgia,” he said.
By November “I actually got a call from Merrill Lynch saying it was in our account. I didn’t really believe we were going to get it, but it was wired in and we have it.”
And the Society continues to delight in its early Christmas surprise. Berry sees the $500,000 gift as a great affirmation of the impact their volunteer Vincentian army makes daily, whether making home visits to assess the needs of people requesting help, or working in their thrift stores, or processing food in their growing program of distributing food to the hungry. He also sees the Holy Spirit’s power in touching the donor’s heart.
“It’s a validation of the work 4,000 volunteers in Georgia do. It’s a validation that they make a difference and are changing lives one at a time,” he said. “It’s a great Christmas story. It’s the Holy Spirit at work to help us as the Holy Spirit always does. Between Father Frank and the cathedral and the donor, this was just an amazing thing.”
The donor, a widow with no children, died just a week after meeting Father McNamee.
“Her generosity was amazing and the fact that she wanted her generosity to be in the Atlanta area and to be part of the mission of the Catholic Church and the works of charity and looking after the poor,” said Father Frank. “I think within her life she’s done a lot of wonderful things and this is something she wanted to do for the poor. One thing was she didn’t want anyone to know she gave that gift.”
To ensure the Society’s work in Georgia continues, SVdP will use a portion of the gift to strengthen its endowment fund. It will also make some technical upgrades, starting with its e-record client database management system. But the majority of the money will go to direct services to help the poor as requested.
And it will maximize every dollar. In fiscal year 2010 the Society helped 189,000 people and in 2011 aided 202,000. And Berry expects this year’s number to be thousands higher with the majority of clients these days being the working poor and middle class people out of work.
In response, SVdP is expanding, adding four or five new parish conferences next year to its current 76, which is up from 58 five years ago. Additionally, it has six family support centers and plans to add three new centers next year plus new programs established by the Sullivan Center in Atlanta, with which it recently merged. And it will expand its food program started in 2010 that processes 10 tons of food monthly from Kroger stores and Sam’s Club and distributes it to 38 area food pantries. The demand “just grows every day,” Berry said.
As Berry begins his seventh year of leading SVdP, he finds fresh inspiration along with renewed appreciation for the integral support that Father McNamee and many other priests and deacons around the archdiocese provide them. And the cathedral has one of its most active conferences.
“When somebody looks at your organization and what you do and says I want to give this amount of money to help your organization continue and do its work, it really does inspire you to do it even better,” Berry said. “It’s a powerful validation of what 4,000 people last year did to touch 202,000 lives—and it matters.”