by MICHELLE VOLLAMAERE
AUCKLAND — Janet McCaffery is gearing up for the Christmas rush St Vincent de Paul style — shopping for, packing and delivering festive food parcels to 80 needy families in Massey and Ranui.
Things are getting worse for struggling families, said Mrs McCaffery, who has been a member of St Paul’s parish in Massey for nearly 40 years. Last Christmas, her group of six Vincentians expected to cater to 60 families and ended up delivering 86 parcels.
This year she set a mid-December deadline for anyone needing help to contact her — requests mostly come from Citizens Advice, Plunket and the local health nurses as well as from St Vincent de Paul’s main office, but in December there are also direct requests from desperate people.
“Then you get people tapping on the church door asking for food and money and everything else.”
Mrs McCaffery credits the far-from-wealthy parishioners in Massey’s St Paul’s parish and the neighbouring St Malachy’s in Ranui, both served by the priests from the order of Salesians of Don Bosco, for enabling her group to meet these extra demands. Their extreme generosity and weekly donations of food items and money at every Mass means that she does not have to ask the St Vincent de Paul headquarters for any of the nearly $4000 required just to produce the Christmas parcels. Her group also delivers food parcels to families on an almost daily basis throughout the year.
“It’s quite costly but, let me tell you, the generosity of our parishes is just wonderful. St Vincent de Paul would not survive without the help of our parishioners. Wonderful, wonderful people.”
In August last year, Mrs McCaffery received a papal honour, presented at Mass, for her Vincentian work. The parish priest at the time, Fr James Adayadiel, nominated her for the Benemerenti medal which, she said, barring her children and grandchildren, has been the highlight of her life.
“I could never explain to you how much that medal means to me. Lots of people get them, but I was thrilled, honoured, that Father had recommended me for it.”
She didn’t know about the nomination until it was officially announced, but had wondered why Fr Adayadiel had phoned and asked her for some personal information on the pretext of wanting to send her a birthday card. “It was just a white lie.”
Mrs McCaffery remembers taking on her Vincentian work almost as soon as she and her late husband Eddie and their young family moved to the parish because “Father asked me to”. Coming as she had from a large Catholic family in Scotland, before travelling to New Zealand on a holiday where she met and married Eddie, also from Scotland, her strong faith meant she understood her obligation to help wherever she could.
Since then, she has added volunteer work for St John, where she helps in the hospital emergency department one night a week, and for the Cancer Society to her portfolio. What little spare time she has she likes to spend with family and friends, but said she enjoys what she does because she loves meeting people, and “Everybody has to do their bit somewhere, don’t they?”
In the early days, though, seeing all that hardship was tough for her. She would come home in tears from her food parcel deliveries. It was the children, especially, in these struggling families, who would tug on her heartstrings. In fact her husband once suggested that perhaps the work wasn’t right for her, but what she saw gave her the motivation to keep going and do as much as she could, so she rallied her parish friends to give more and help more. She even had her husband and their three children helping.
Mrs McCaffrey said she is a little more hardened to it these days and can recognise when people are trying to rort the system, although the children still get to her. “My heart bleeds for the children.” Her Vincentians never give money no matter how compelling the request, she said, and there is a three-parcel limit after which the recipients are referred to a budget adviser.
These families are always in Mrs McCaffery’s prayers: “Every night. Every night and morning too. Believe you me my list is so high.” And on days when the work gets her down and she finds herself feeling critical of some her clients, she prays for help with “more positive thoughts”.
Each year Mrs McCaffery swears will be her last coordinating the food parcels. But again this year, when all the parcels are delivered and everyone else is happy, she will stop and celebrate Christmas with her family — her children and grandchildren.
“I’ll make time to relax,” she said, “and then early next year I’ll be back into it all again.”