By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – The bishop embarrassed her – after her mother volunteered her.
She met with opposition – after her husband volunteered her.
Sunday she was honored – for leading a non-profit organization of volunteers for 21 years.
Frances E. Pike, 80, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the Diocese of Worcester, will retire on Dec. 31. Succeeding her is Alicia McKeon, who’s been executive-director-in-training for a year.
On Sunday Bishop McManus celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in Mrs. Pike’s honor at her parish, St. George’s, and blessed her and her husband, who is also active in the society.
In his homily Father William E. Champlin, the society’s spiritual adviser, and pastor of St. Leo Parish in Leominster, praised the Pikes’ work.
In written remarks for a reception afterwards, Mrs. Pike shared things she’s learned.
“Our volunteers within the society work hard, giving of their time, energy and personal giftedness for one reason – to serve God through serving others,” she said. “They truly live Christ’s mandate to feed, clothe, and visit those less fortunate.” She said she has the responsibility to use her gifts to help others, and receives more than she gives.
You could say she got this from her mother.
“My mother was very active and she volunteered me,” she told The Catholic Free Press.
The job? Typing (and retyping in those pre-computer 1950s). She was transcribing Bishop Wright’s English translation of a book about St. Joan of Arc.
“He was just a wonderful person,” Mrs. Pike said. “I worked hard for him.… I loved doing it.”
At her graduation from St. Peter’s High School he thanked her for all her work and gave her a big hug and a blessing, she said.
None of the other graduates received such recognition?
“None of them got embarrassed!” Mrs. Pike responded.
That didn’t stop her from continuing to serve.
In the Worcester Diocese 28 parishes have a St. Vincent de Paul Conference, the Pikes said. Nearly 500 Vincentians make up these groups, volunteering their time to bring shut-ins Communion and to assess and meet people’s needs for material help.
“I do get volunteered,” she said. “Bob volunteered me for St. Vincent de Paul.”
Her husband, Robert F. Pike, 83, introduced her to the international society by taking her with him to local meetings.
Mrs. Pike recalled when the president of the society’s executive board retired, another man took the job temporarily, and her husband was asked to take the position. Mr. Pike was tied up with leadership in the Knights of Columbus, and the society was in financial difficulty, so he suggested his wife for the position.
“I had just retired from the Massachusetts Easter Seals as director of development,” Mrs. Pike said. So she volunteered as president for two years. That was in 1995 and the society was a primarily-male organization, she said.
“One person told me to my face they wanted Bob and not me; there’d never been a woman,” Mrs. Pike said.
But, her husband said, “It was between her and I, and I wasn’t taking it.”
Two years later the society decided to hire an executive director, and she was voted in, she said. The bad feelings about female participation had dissipated.
“They didn’t run it like a business,” she said; it needed a business plan and a budget, which she was able to provide.
“Under my ‘reign’ we purchased the building here,” Mrs. Pike said of the 507 Park Ave. thrift store and central office. Previously they’d rented buildings.
They also bought their first vehicle – to pick up donations.
The society gets its operating funds from monetary donations from individuals and foundations, and from money made from donated items. Donors bring items to the thrift store or drop them in St. Vincent de Paul bins set up in various places. A recycling company pays the society for cloth items unfit to sell in the thrift store.
Mrs. Pike isn’t just concerned about the society’s finances, however.
“It’s a ministry,” she said. “You need to have a good Catholic foundation. We encourage our Vincentians to increase their faith.”
Mrs. Pike said she brought the Top Hat Awards to the Diocese. At a Communion breakfast on the feast of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the society’s founder, honored Vincentians receive a plaque and a book about Blessed Ozanam, dubbed “an apostle in a top hat.” One of those awardees was Joan Leary, now 86, a Vincentian from Our Lady of the Angels Parish and a volunteer at the thrift shop since 1999.
“It’s been great,” she said of her thrift shop service. “I love the people. I love going through the bags (of donations). I’ll say, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?’”
The society also helps non-Vincentians serve others.
The incoming executive director recalled how the Pikes let her bring her father to work with her a few years ago. She was outreach coordinator for the society and he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He volunteered at the thrift shop, allowing him to minister while being ministered to.
The Pike’s son Francis has a similar story. When he was unable to work for medical reasons, his mother had him help at the thrift shop, he said. Nearly nine years later he’s still volunteering there, now as store manager.
“Donating my time helps them and it helps me and it’s all due to their good works,” he said of his parents.
“I enjoy … working with her and alongside of her,” Lisa Kuhne, a thrift shop employee, said of Mrs. Pike. “She has a way of bringing out the potential you didn’t know you had in you.… She makes us feel … (like) a second family.”
“She’s really nice about letting me know why we help,” said Jennifer Stearns, another thrift shop employee. “We’re all here to help … the people less fortunate than us, not be judgmental.”
The society also reaches out to people being served elsewhere.
The Pikes said it provides school supplies to kindergartners and teachers in Catholic schools, gives Christmas stockings to children at Catholic Charities’ Youville House and gives Problem Pregnancy vouchers for new cribs for its clients. Mrs. Pike said this program is funded by The Bishop Rueger Fund for the Poor, which the society established in 2004 to honor the diocese’s auxiliary bishop.
The society is apparently making a difference in some lives. Mr. Pike said it bought laptops for clients entering college, and one graduate is going for further studies at Harvard University.
“My goal has been to increase the membership” in the society “because some of our Vincentians are getting older,” Mrs. Pike said.
Mrs. McKeon said the society is working on a program to get youth and their parents involved.
The fact that “we all have the same goal” – to help people – makes her eager to continue Mrs. Pike’s work.
“They’re big shoes to fill,” she said. She’s seen the Pikes put heart and soul into meeting the needs of people who are spiritually or emotionally poor or who don’t have the opportunities “many of us take for granted.”
Asked her retirement plans, Mrs. Pike quipped, “Taking care of Bob.” She said they hope to travel – they have sons in Texas and Florida as well as a son and daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here.
She said her husband will remain president of St. George’s St. Vincent de Paul Conference and a member of the board of directors. And she still plans to volunteer if needed.
Old habits die hard.