Ladies of Charity hosts national assembly

Members of USA organization gather for first time in Diocese of Knoxville            

By Bill Brewer

The world is trying to return to normal from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Ladies of Charity USA organization is no different.

It has been three years since the Ladies of Charity USA held its national assembly, but the Catholic social services agency persevered by gathering in Knoxville Aug. 25-28 to mark the past, celebrate the present, and plan for the future.

It was the first time the Ladies of Charity in the Diocese of Knoxville has hosted the national assembly.

Knoxville Ladies of Charity executive director Susan Unbehaun, center, is joined by Ladies of Charity sisters at an assembly meeting.

The assembly featured a number of speakers, including four from within the Diocese of Knoxville who shared their unique stories of helping those in need through the support of Ladies of Charity.

The speakers were Father Patrick J. Griffin, CM, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who was ordained a Vincentian priest in 1979.

He served as the economic general of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) from 1993-99, and from 2010-14 he ministered in Paris as the director general of the Daughters of Charity.

He is now the executive director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s University.

Sandy Figueroa, who is active in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and is an associate member of the Sisters of Charity of New York, addressed the group.

She is a member of the VinFam North American Social Justice Committee as well as president and spiritual adviser of the St. Boniface Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

They were joined by Charles Levesque, who works as president and executive director of Depaul USA, which offers homeless and disadvantaged people the opportunity to fulfill their potential and move toward an independent and positive future.

Ladies of Charity USA members gather on the front steps of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Ladies of Charity heard from a quintet of Knoxville speakers who have had success in working with the people of Knoxville who also are served by the Ladies of Charity.

Father Ragan Schriver, a priest of the Diocese of Knoxville who currently serves as an associate professor of practice in the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, gave an academic approach to the practice of social work.

Father Schriver formerly was executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and continues to serve as the special assistant to the president of Catholic Charities USA.

Derrick Furlow Jr. spoke to national assembly attendees about how he used sports to improve his life growing up and how he shifted his perspective from being a player to helping those who currently and formerly played sports.

Mr. Furlow, a University of Tennessee graduate, is a motivational speaker who travels around the country sharing his story and influencing others to persevere in the face of adversity.

Chester Pun-chuen, who is active in the Diocese of Knoxville and works with organizations like Unity in Diversity, the Knights of Columbus, and Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish, delivered inspirational remarks about working with the Ladies of Charity to start an English Language Learners program.

Mr. Pun-chuen serves as program director of Access Cultural Diversity, which promotes English Language Learner programs.

Members are transported via bus to one of many Knoxville-area locations the Ladies of Charity USA visited during their national assembly Aug. 25-28.

The Ladies of Charity also heard from Dr. Bruce Spangler, a Methodist minister who is chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center in Knoxville, which serves the homeless.

The nonprofit Volunteer Ministry Center has worked with Knoxville’s homeless community since its founding in 1987 by downtown Knoxville churches.

Volunteer Ministry Center’s mission is to end and prevent homelessness.

National Assembly festivities took place at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Knoxville with neighboring Immaculate Conception serving as the host parish. The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was the site of the closing Mass for the national assembly, with Bishop Richard F. Stika serving as the celebrant.

Peggy Keene, president of the Ladies of Charity USA, reported that more than 110 people representing 19 states attended the assembly.

“This assembly was significant in that it was the first time we have all met face to face in three years. It is good for our members to meet those from across the United States to remind us that we are a nationwide association and also world wide,” Ms. Keene said.

“Ladies of Charity is the oldest Catholic lay association, founded in 1617 and in business ever since,” she added.

Ms. Keene said she and the attendees found the assembly to be spiritually uplifting as well professionally fulfilling.

Members share a lighthearted moment during a national assembly meeting at the Crowne Plaza.

“Our Vincentian spirituality was reinforced by morning rosary, opening Mass, prayer services, closing Mass, and just by being together and sharing our gifts with each other,” she said.

She noted that attendees had definite takeaways from the gathering.

“That the Ladies of Charity are still alive, well, and ready to move ahead. Being able to see each other face to face was the best. It was good to see old friends and make new ones. The women from Knoxville did a fabulous job in organizing; the hotel and staff, and the food were the best. The Knoxville community was very welcoming,” she observed.

She pointed out that the national assembly’s opening Mass was celebrated at Immaculate Conception by Father Richard Gielow, CM, with Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, associate pastor at Immaculate Conception, concelebrating.

“Whenever we are together to celebrate the Eucharist it is always special. This is our main focus whenever the ladies attend Mass together. The cathedral was beautiful; Bishop Stika was most warm and welcoming and an added joy to our celebration,” she said. “Our ladies loved meeting with Father Sullivan for the rosary on Friday and Saturday mornings.”

Susan Unbehaun, executive director of the Ladies of Charity in Knoxville, organized the national assembly with her staff and team of volunteers.

The Knoxville organization was founded in 1942 to serve the unemployed and underemployed from its service facility and thrift store at 120 W. Baxter Ave.

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