A child’s bicycle leans against a radiator and cardboard boxes containing toys and clothes tower in the hallway of Ozanam House in Bridge Street in Derry’s city centre.
The building is named Ozanam House in honour of French scholar, Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam, who, along with a group of students, founded the Conference of Charity, later known as the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, in 1833.
St. Vincent de Paul will celebrate their 180th anniversary next year and Derry man, Cormac Wilson, believes the charity are every bit as relevant now, as it was when it first set out to help the poor and vulnerable on the streets of Paris in 1833.
“We are always busy but as you can imagine there is a greater need for our help and support in the run up to Christmas.”
St. Vincent de Paul will not be alone in their anniversary celebrations in 2013. Cormac, who turned 60 in March, will also commemorate his 30th year of volunteering with St. Vincent de Paul next year.
“It all started with a conversation between myself and Hugh McLaughlin in Dodd’s Pub on the Foyle Road 30 years ago, believe it or not,” said Cormac.
“Hugh was involved with the St. Vincent de Paul and asked me if I would be interested in volunteering. I didn’t know what to expect at the start but I thought I would go along and find out for myself - the rest is history as the man says.”
Cormac was born and reared in 110 Bishop Street in March 1952. His father, Johnny Wilson, was from outside Derry, near the Mullennan Road; he worked as a Plant Foreman in DuPont.
Cormac’s mother, Sadie (nee McGrory) from Inch Island in County Donegal, was a qualified dressmaker and worked in some of the city’s many shirt factories.
“I had a very happy childhood. We didn’t have too many luxuries but we never had to go without either.
“My earliest memories are of meeting my father as he walked up the Abercorn Road after a day’s work and I can also remember preparing for my First Holy Communion at Long Tower Primary School.”
Cormac left Long Tower P.S. for St. Joseph’s Boys’ School in Rosemount but after a few years he left to go and study business studies at the North West Regional College on the Strand Road where he remained for three years.
After finishing his studies, Cormac got a job working at the City Accounts Department in the Guildhall but after 18 months he left and went to work for the Motor Tax Office in Custom House street.
“I was offered a promotion in Coleraine but I didn’t go for it and as a result I decided to take a career break from local government. I thought about things long and hard. I had just got married so I decided to try something completely different and I became a driving instructor and worked at that for 25 years.
“I enjoyed every minute of my time as a driving instructor. I remember I was teaching a young fella how to drive and he thought he was ready to take the test when I knew he wasn’t. He said to me one day that he thought he was like ‘gold dust’ - I told him he was more like saw dust,” said Cormac laughing.
Cormac retired from his career as a driving instructor in 1999 after undergoing triple bypass heart surgery but continued to volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul.
“There was no sense in carrying on with my career as a driving instructor. I’d taught countless people how to drive and the business was quite successful but it was time to walk away so that’s what I did.”
Cormac and his wife Rosaleen (nee Campbell) have reared four sons and three daughters and will enjoy a happy family Christmas together in Cormac’s and Rosaleen’s home in Bishop Street.
The prospect of a happy family Christmas is what most people look forward to and Cormac is no different; he has every reason to be excited about sharing Christmas Day dinner with his wife, children and grand-children but there’s work to be done first. There are people who need help.
“I am no saint - I am far from it in fact but as soon as I started volunteering with St. Vincent de Paul I soon appreciated how well my family and I had things when compared to other people.”
In 1993, Cormac was elected as President of the St. Columba’s (Long Tower) St. Vincent de Paul Conference; in 2002 he was elected as President of the entire Derry city area and was responsible for the administration and management of the 17 conferences (branches) within the Derry area and in 2007 Cormac was elected as the Regional President for Northern Ireland and remained in the post until September this year. He is now the Regional Senior Vice President.
“None of what St. Vincent de Paul has achieved locally would be possible without the help, generosity and selflessness of the people of Derry, ” he said.
When Cormac first decided to join St. Vincent de Paul he was 30 years-old and along with wife, Rosaleen, was working hard to raise seven children.
“I suppose when I look back at the decision I had every reason to say no but after talking to Father Stephen Keogh at Termonbacca I decided to give it a go.
“I have had some amazing experiences in the last 30 years. It’s a great feeling when you help someone and believe me when I say this, there are still plenty of families and people who need our help.
“Christmas is always a busy time for St. Vincent de Paul. In years gone by families would have approached us for help with groceries, clothes and money for a few bags of coal but in recent times it’s all changed.
“One of the obvious things that can lead to poverty is mismanagement of money but how can you mismanage what you don’t have? Whilst social benefits are always to be welcomed they are not always adequate and the forthcoming changes that are proposed with the universal credit are likely to make the poverty situation even worse Poverty is a real issue in Derry and it can sometimes lead to depression and in some cases, suicide.
“The disintegration of the family unit is central to the social problems that we are now experiencing but I have to stress that our criteria at St. Vincent de Paul is guided by one simple thing - need.
“There is also a perception out there that we are a Catholic charity for Catholic people. Whilst we will never deny or doubt our Catholic ethos we will never turn people away because they are not Catholics. Immaterial of who or what you are, St. Vincent de Paul will help you if you are in need of help. Poverty does not discriminate and neither does the society.”
Cormac said that that the help and support offered by the St. Vincent de Paul conferences in Derry is only made possible by the generosity of the public and by the tireless commitment of the society’s volunteers.
“The people of Derry are amongst the most generous I’ve ever come across - without them I don’t think we would be able to help as many local families that we have.
“Our volunteers members in Derry and indeed all over the North and the rest of Ireland are absolutely amazing. Their selflessness is so inspiring and the society would be lost without them.
“I have no doubt that because of their determination to help others they will continue to service the needy for the next 180 years of the society’s life.”
Cormac still has the scars from his triple bypass heart surgery from 1999 but in 2009 he suffered a stroke in Ozanam House. Many would be forgiven for thinking that this was the perfect time for Cormac to finally walk away from his time with the society but he didn’t. After undergoing major surgery and period of convalasence Cormac gradually made his way back and retained his commitment and connection with the society.
“Health permitting, I attend eight o’clock Mass every morning in Termonbacca. I have a very strong faith and it’s because of my faith that I know how important it is to help other people.
“I have had my fair share of health scares but as long as I am fit and able I, along with the great team at St. Vincent de Paul, will continue to assist those who need help.
“The society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded in 1833 and then became established in Ireland in 1844. We are an ageing society, in fact I think some of the current members were here in 1844,” he joked.
“But seriously, the current membership has a responsibility to secure the future good works of the society and in order to do so youth development has become a priority. Coupled with youth development the society will always need the help and support of the ever generous public and I’d like to appeal for their continued support in the future. But perhaps the most important thing the society can do is continue to bring hope to those in need in the years ahead.”
For further information on the SVDP in Derry, contact Cormac Wilson on 028 7126 5489 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org