Ralph Middlecamp installed as president of U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary C. Uhler, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Nov. 09, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
ralph middlecamp
Ralph Middlecamp joined more than 10,000 members of the “Vicentian Family” for a recent gathering in Rome. He is the new national president of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul. (Contributed photo)

MADISON -- This story has a dateline of Madison, but Ralph Middlecamp will be traveling throughout the United States and the world in his new position as national president of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP).

Middlecamp has worked with the local SVdP for almost 30 years and will remain based in Madison during his six-year term as the society’s national president.

Gathering in Rome

In October, he joined more than 10,000 members of the “Vincentian family” for a gathering in Rome to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and the men’s Congregation of the Mission.

The gathering included an audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis venerated a reliquary containing the heart of St. Vincent de Paul.

Middlecamp said the incorrupt heart is usually kept in Paris in a reliquary at the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity.

He noted that over 200 Vincentian organizations were present in Rome. There are SVdP societies in 150 countries.

The worldwide Church

“My new position allows me to see the worldwide Church at work,” he said.

Besides Rome, he has also visited Paris and will be going soon to Quito, Ecuador, for a meeting of SVdP leaders from the Western Hemisphere.

In Quito, he will be giving a talk on the history of the founding of the society. He noted that the new international president, Renato Lima de Oliveira, is from Brazil.

Founded by college students

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded in 1833 by college students to help impoverished people living in the slums of Paris, France. The primary figure behind the society’s founding was Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, a lawyer, author, and professor at the Sorbonne. Ozanam was 20 years old when he founded the society. He was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1997.

The society took St. Vincent de Paul as its patron. Middlecamp said St. Vincent de Paul had two life-changing experiences in 1617. “He heard the Confession of a dying man and realized the poor were not being served well in spiritual matters. He started recruiting priests to do missions for rural parishes.”

Also, as the new pastor of a parish, St. Vincent de Paul found poor families often had nobody caring for them, but he found parishioners who could help and then founded the Daughters of Charity to assist the poor.

“He knew that the poor needed priests for spirituality, and lay people could be given a mission to help the poor,” said Middlecamp.

SVdP gradually expanded outside Paris in the mid-19th century. The society’s first conference in the U.S. was established in 1845 in St. Louis, Mo.

Growth in Dane County

When Middlecamp became involved in the society in Madison about 30 years ago, there were four SVdP conferences; now there are 18. “We have had significant growth and doubled our members. They are younger than they used to be.”

Some members are young people who get involved before they are married and have children. Others are “empty nesters” who become active after their children go to college or when they retire.

Just as the society was started by college students, the conference at St. Paul’s University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was started in 1935. “It is the oldest conference at a nonreligious college,” said Middlecamp, pointing out that the conference went inactive for a number of years but came back. “They’re now a very active group,” he said.

The Madison society also has a youth council made up of high school students. “They bring a lot of enthusiasm,” said Middlecamp.

When he started working for the society, there was one store on Williamson St. and Port St. Vincent for homeless men. Now there are seven stores in Dane County, a busy food pantry, a charitable pharmacy, and Seton House providing transitional housing for women and children.

Facing challenges

He said the society has improved its recruitment and training, but there are challenges, such as aging of members and diversity of members, including more Hispanics and Asians. “We have to be aware of a diverse population,” he said.

The society used to do its work quietly with little publicity. But Middlecamp said that has changed, with the society following the admonition not to put its “light under a bushel basket.”

“If we want people to know what the opportunities are to help, we have to build awareness of what we’re doing,” he said.

The society has also changed its focus from just providing assistance to people in poverty to helping people get out of poverty through advocacy. The society is collaborating with Catholic Charities and other organizations in these efforts.

The national SVdP council is creating a new strategic plan to address these issues, among others. Middlecamp said the society is reemphasizing the spiritual nature of its work. “We want to help people grow in holiness, and one way is to do it through service.”

One of the visions of their founder was to create a worldwide network of charity. “We want to get into some areas of the country that are not covered by the society,” he said.

Middlecamp also believes in finding innovative ways to help the poor. One of them is the pharmacy established in 2013 in Madison. The pharmacy provides individual help for customers, so about 200 volunteers are needed to assist.

National position

Middlecamp is looking forward to his position as national president. “I am deeply honored to have been elected to serve at the national level an organization that I love and to which I have devoted 30 years of my life. It’s a challenge I will enjoy.”

As national president, he will work “to promote continued growth in friendship, service, and spirituality at all levels of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.”

Richard Pilsner, president of the society’s District Council of Madison, said Middlecamp will be missed locally, but he has done much to build a robust Dane County organization -- one positioned to continue to serve effectively.

“Ralph has been the guiding force in growing our local efforts and operations in service to people in need,” said Pilsner.

Middlecamp was honored at a farewell celebration in Madison. At the event, it was announced that the center on Fish Hatchery Rd. will be renamed the Middlecamp Center for Vincentian Charity.


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