The St Vincent de Paul Society operates in at least 160 countries across the globe, and has more than 800,000 members. What many people might not realise is the breadth of its existence in Oceania, where Vincentians quietly go about their work in countries as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia, writes Frank Brassil.
The countries vary greatly in size and population and some are in the most isolated parts of the world. There are huge discrepancies in income and infrastructure across these countries, along with a multitude of cultures and languages including Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian, English, French and Portuguese, not to mention a diversity of local languages.
he Society has by far the largest presence in Australia, followed by New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. In most other countries in Oceania, it is represented by one or a handful of conferences.
The Society in New Zealand has a long history of commitment to Pacific Island countries and, despite being much smaller than Australia, has been consistently generous and supportive over a long period.
In 2012, the Society’s Oceania zone coordinator Keith Norton visited Chuuk, an island within the Federated States of Micronesia. When he arrived the New Zealand fireman found that many important buildings had been lost to fire. This was something he could help with. He persuaded the NZ Fire Service to allow a fire truck that was being decommissioned to be sent to Chuuk. Being a resourceful Vincentian, Keith relied on contacts in the NZ Air Force to arrange for the fire truck to be transported on a Hercules flight as part of a training exercise. As a result, the people of Chuuk can now deal with fires and a valuable resource has been re-purposed.
The Society’s Australian conferences support those in Oceania via ‘twinning’ and ‘assist a student’ arrangements. Twinning is an arrangement whereby conferences in various counties are partnered with those in a developing country, enabling them to better run their services. ‘Assist a student’ arrangements allow people greater access to education.AAA The Society in Papua New Guinea has a complex history and a special team is working towards re-establishing dioceses there. The intention is to support local conferences and build regional councils. At some stage the aim is to establish a national council.
In Fiji the Society has about 30 conferences, allowing for the operation of important services including Vincent House and the Fr Law Home.
As International Territorial Vice President for Oceania, my aspiration is to build connections between Vincentians across the Oceania Region, so that good ideas and expertise can be shared and we can truly be ‘One Society’, not only in Australia but across the Pacific.
Frank Brassil is National Treasurer of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia and the International Territorial Vice President for Oceania.