By Richard Meek
The Catholic Commentator
Tucked away in a mid-city neighborhood dotted by homelessness, low-income properties and occasional spats of violence, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been an oasis of refuge for those in need for 150 years.
A rendering of a new chapel planned for St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge. Artwork provided by Robert L. Lunsford, architect
St. Vincent CEO Michael Acaldo is also hoping to make it an oasis of spirituality.
St. Vincent de Paul has launched a $350,000 fundraising campaign to build a 50-person chapel on the sprawling complex that currently houses the men’s homeless shelter, the Bishop Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter and the pharmacy.
“We believe every inch of St. Vincent de Paul is God’s place, but we do not have a place that’s a place of appropriate prayer, reflection,” Acaldo said. “Giving our guests a place for that is a very powerful opportunity. It’s equally important for our volunteers.”
Acaldo said the chapel has been in the planning stages for the past five years, originally surfacing during a long-range strategic planning meeting. He said several projects were discussed but the chapel repeatedly came up for discussion.
“It’s magnificent to see people that really do have strong faith,” Acaldo said. “Some of our guests may be Catholic, or they may not be Catholic but they have a strong faith in God. Even those who are non-Catholic just want to feel the presence of our Lord.”
The project was jumpstarted by a substantial gift from Baton Rouge resident Kathy Bishop and a C.B. Pennington Family Foundation grant. Acaldo said $210,000 has already been raised.
“(The two donations) really set the stage, along with other gifts (of varying amounts),” Acaldo said. “So we’ve got a lot of people out there that quietly have supported this and now it’s time to make this a reality. “
A meeting recently held with the Liturgy, Art and Music Board of the Diocese of Baton Rouge resulted in several recommendations to incorporate into the design of the chapel, which will be circular. With those recommendations in hand, Acaldo said the focus has returned to fundraising, and once the campaign nears its goal, another meeting will be set up with the liturgy board.
“We loved their comments,” Acaldo said.
A rendering of the floor plan of the new chapel planned for St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge.
He added that with the blessing of Bishop Michael G. Duca, the chapel will be named in honor of St. Louise de Marillac, who worked closely with St. Vincent de Paul during her lifetime and is also the founder of the Daughters of Charity and considered the patron saint of social workers.
Acaldo said he and others looked at several designs for small chapels and concluded the circular design would work best. The altar will be in the middle of the chapel and surrounded by pews. The chapel would be open during luncheon hours for guests and volunteers to use, and perhaps a similar window during the dinner service.
He said families often come together to serve the homeless and added “what a powerful thing” it would be to have a place that “mom or dad says to the child ‘let’s go say a prayer about what we just did or say a prayer before what we do.’ That is a great opportunity and that’s how we strengthen the faith one prayer at a time with the opportunity to be in God’s presence.”
Additionally, Acaldo mentioned the possibility of celebrating Mass on special occasions, such as the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul or St. Louise de Mariliac.
He said the chapel, which would be supervised when open, would fall “under the jurisdiction of St. Joseph Cathedral and (pastor) Father Paul Counce.”
“So everything we do we would make sure we had (Father Counce’s) blessing,” Acaldo said.
He said the chapel will be an opportunity for spiritual growth for volunteers, St. Vincent de Paul Society members and the guests being served.
“When you look at what we do as part of the Catholic Church, we’re a ministry, and we’re ministering to those who need a helping up and ministering to those that want to grow in their spiritual life,” Acaldo said. “And so those are the two main focuses on what we do.”
“We’ve had many volunteers say they would love a place to pray and a place to reflect,” he added.
Acaldo said it’s not uncommon for a volunteer working on the serving line at the homeless shelter to see one of their former classmates coming through who has fallen upon hard times or is suffering from an addiction. He said that can be difficult for a volunteer to handle, but the chapel would provide that person a place to pray, reflect and ask for God’s strength.
“I have been on the line with people that have witnessed that and I can tell you it shakes you up,” Acaldo said.
“(Volunteers) know that God is present because of good things that happen here wouldn’t happen without God, but there’s not a place that is God’s place, God’s space and that’s all we do there,” he added. “And I think that’s what this chapel is all about.”
The chapel will also feature a large cross sculpted by Frank Hayden that currently hangs in the St. Vincent boardroom.
Funding will determine the construction timetable but Acaldo is hoping to break ground by early 2020. For more information on how to donate, visit svdpbr.org or call 225-383-7837.