The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) dates to 1833, when French law student Frédéric Ozanam started the Conference of Charity to help impoverished communities in Paris. But the charitable organization’s history in the Valley of the Sun began more than a century later, when its Phoenix chapter opened in April 1946. Based inside what now is St. Mary’s Basilica, the local chapter was the work of five men who wanted to find a solution to increasing poverty in Arizona after World War II. With the help of donations, members started feeding those in need.
And the need was substantial, as journalist and SVdP volunteer Henry F. Unger recalled in the book The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Phoenix. “Every day of the week, the needy would ring the bell at the Church of St. Mary’s … to beg for food,” Unger said. “Facilities were lacking, and only sandwiches could be distributed.”
To keep up with the increasing demand, the chapter’s founders rented a small restaurant space near Fourth Avenue and Washington Street, opening it as the first SVdP Phoenix dining room in November 1952. But with only 36 seats available, the dining room was too small to accommodate the growing lines of people, so the organization had to expand. In 1954, it moved into a building at Ninth Avenue and Madison Street that could seat 400. Just three years later, the chapter’s executive board decided to buy the building next door as well, and it was used to house an SVdP thrift store.
In 1965, the organization started a tradition that’s still going on today: providing Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in its dining room. But as inflation and unemployment increased, so did the number of people who needed assistance. In November 1974, the Vincentian, SVdP’s quarterly magazine, reported that due to the depleted food stocks, the chapter would close the dining hall for the first time in 22 years: “Particularly, we are worried about enough food for our big, traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, when we normally serve nearly 3,000 turkey dinners and the trimmings.”
In subsequent years, SVdP continued to expand its services by starting a free medical and dental clinic, providing household items and furniture, and offering shelter and temporary housing. In the 1980s, SVdP purchased property near Watkins Road and Interstate 17 and constructed the building where the organization is based today.