Extent of the Society

There are more than 45 000 Conferences of the Society represented by some 850 000 members in 122 countries.

Objects and powers of the Society
  • To provide wholly or in part any of the financial, material, spiritual or social requirements of persons and families in need of assistance
  • To establish and maintain centres of care for people in need
  • To establish and maintain charity stores
  • To collect and raise funds, and to collect goods for any of the objects of the Society
  • To invest funds with registered financial institutions
  • To acquire by purchase, donation, or bequest, movable and immovable property for the purposes of carrying out the objects of the Society
  • To allow beneficiaries to occupy buildings owned or rented by the Society free of charge
  • To assist and co-operate with other institutions and associations for the specific purposes enumerated in these objects.
Sample activities of the Central Council (Johannesburg)
  • Person-to-person assistance of people in need: this forms the bulk of the activities
  • Assistance to the unemployed and single-parent families
  • Assistance to poor people who are suffering from HIV/AIDS
  • Generation of opportunities for unemployed men and women by setting them up in small business and thereby empowering them to earn an income
  • Maintenance of Frederic Place as a place of safety and care for old, frail and disabled persons who depend solely on the government old-age pension
  • Support for 48 vulnerable children in the Society's children's home in Everton
  • Provision of school shoes (for needy children attending John Berchman's School and for children in the squatter camps around Kliptown)
1580 - 1660
Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in France. Although he later achieved fame for his dedication to the poor, his early life was spent in a determined struggle to escape his humble roots. His family shared his ambition, hoping that a career in the priesthood would better the family fortune. After being educated by the Franciscans, he was ordained as a priest at the young age of nineteen. It seems that his early attitude to his vocation was as worldly as that of his parents. On one occasion while he was still in the seminary, he refused to see his father who had come to visit him because he felt embarrassed by the shabbiness of his appearance.
Vincent spent the best part of the next twenty years ingratiating himself with high society and enjoying the table talk of fashionable salons where he was welcomed because of his engaging charm and notable social skills.

In mid-life, his bishop appointed him to a rural parish in Gascony. This proved to be a rude awakening since he was surrounded by people who were unable to find work in the desperately poor farming community and who were dying from starvation. At first he made every effort to escape the situation and return to the glamour of the city, but the bishop was obdurate. Humiliated by his own poor living conditions and the extreme poverty of those who sought his help, he determined to make such a success of his appointment that the bishop would recognise his ability and promote him to a senior position in the Church.
He began to take stock of his resources. His former connections with the wealthy and influential led him to seek their financial assistance. He also returned to the salons where he had passed many idle hours with women who had nothing else to do and enlisted their help. Inspiring them with zeal, he organised them into groups to go from house to house requesting disposable items of furniture, food and clothing. The response was overwhelming and the project snowballed. Poor parishes all over France began to seek him out to learn from his example. The lives of thousands of people were changed for the better, not by receiving luxuries but by being given a chance to overcome the basic survival needs that held them back from taking steps to improve their living conditions for themselves.

Vincent was transformed by the experience. Faced with the extreme poverty of his surroundings and being shamed by the spontaneous generosity of those who had never been motivated to share their resources with those in need, he went through a spiritual revolution. He came to realise that assisting the poor was not only a matter of charity but also a matter of justice. Recognising that the mistakes of his youth had been caused by a poor spiritual formation, he founded an order of priests, the Vincentians, who would receive a thorough training and who would devote their lives to the spiritual and material needs of the poor. Later, he was joined by Louise de Marillac, a woman who shared his ideals, and together they founded the Sisters of Charity. He subsequently extended his work to include the foundation of hospitals and orphanages and homes for the mentally infirm. He spent the last years of his life serving the needs of prisoners and slaves.

Vincent became a legend in his own lifetime and was canonised as a saint in 1737.