Hands of service, hearts of love

by John Heuertz
Special to The Leaven

“The charity of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).

Catholics down through the ages have taken St. Paul’s stirring words to heart by helping the poor — and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth have shown the charity of Christ through their work locally since 1858.

Now, Sisters Irene Skeehan, Therese Steiner and Vickie Perkins are responding to St. Paul’s implicit challenge with an innovative program that is new to the Kansas City area.

“Heartland Charity Volunteers” pairs young women willing to donate a year of their lives to help the materially poor with ministries that exist to help the disadvantaged.

“Our goal is to offer volunteers the opportunity to catch the world on fire with charity by walking in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul,” said Sister Irene.

Volunteers will “live together, live simply, and live in service to the community in a spirit of charity” in a former convent building, said Sister Therese.

“As they form community, they’ll learn about community,” she said.

The first group of four volunteers from Montana, Idaho and Illinois will begin work this August and work through June of 2013. About a year of planning has gone into the August rollout.

“I think it’s just a wonderful opportunity for us and for them and for the Sisters of Charity, because we’re going to be exposed to them and they to us,” said Sister Vickie. “We’ve been saying all along we’re going to learn so much from them.”

Heartland Community Volunteers will benefit many local constituencies — not just the poor, but also individuals who want to help the poor, as well as agencies designed to do the same.

St. Vincent de Paul was known throughout 17th-century France for his love for the poor, and “Msgr. Vincent’s” charism of service to the poor has always been a part of SCL life.

Today, it’s the guiding spirit behind Heartland Community Volunteers.

As the brochure puts it: “Impelled by the love of Christ, the Heartland Charity Volunteers invite young women to be transformed in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul through intentional community living and direct service with those who live in poverty.”

“Vincent wanted dedicated women to work in the world,” said Sister Therese, “and we practiced the charism. But we didn’t really talk about it.

“When people understand where the energy comes from, it gives it life.”

“Our dream was to have young women working side by side with Sisters in our ministries, and I think that is what we are accomplishing,” said Sister Irene, “to help them capture the charism of St. Vincent de Paul by working with people who try to live by it.”

The spirit of charitable volunteer giving sometimes turns into a religious vocation. “That’s the work of the Spirit,” said Sister Therese, adding, “I think it’s kind of ironic that we’re called religious when everyone is called to practice their religion.”

“Most of them will get married,” she continued. “But they’ll still be generous, work with the poor, and share the Vincentian spirit with their children.

“That’s why I’m excited about it being part of the Vincentian family. I’ve not met anybody who has done volunteer service and didn’t find that it shaped their life, their priorities and goals.”

The idea of starting a project like Heartland Charity Volunteers was first recommended at the order’s 2010 general chapter in Leavenworth. Support for it was based in part on Jesuit and Franciscan successes with similar projects elsewhere.

“The 2010 chapter talked about it in context of vocations, whether religious or secular,” said Sister Irene.

“What’s been of real interest to me is that we have run across so many outstanding men and women who are interested in giving a year as a volunteer,” she added. “Some of them have a very deep spirituality, and it will be wonderful to work with them.”

“Sister Vickie called me in January 2011 to find out if I was interested in helping out,” said Sister Therese. “It was so hard to leave Montana, but I’m excited about the project.

“I prayed about it, and the Spirit moved me here.”

More information about Heartland Community Volunteers is available on the website at: HeartlandCharity Volunteers@gmail.com; by calling (913) 912-1038; or by “liking” them on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/ heartlandcharityvolunteers.

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