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The scent of fresh, hot food and baked goods mingled with the content chatter of more than 100 people and the crinkling of wrapping paper Saturday afternoon at the annual St. Vincent de Paul Christmas party.

But the party wasn’t for employees. For the past 16 years, St. Vincent de Paul has been putting on a holiday party for Billings’ homeless population, providing a hot, free meal and giving out gifts of clothing and food.

“There’s a smile on every face usually,” said Harry Merchant, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul. “It’s a place to sit down, a place to have a warm meal.”

Shortly after 11:30 a.m. Saturday, just a few minutes after the party started, St. Vincent de Paul’s Charity Office, at 2610 Montana Ave., was packed with people lining up for food and gifts. There was seating for 80 people, and even as just about every chair was filled, there was a long line of people waiting to dish up on a spread of hot chili, meats, cheeses, fruit and cookies.

Merchant said he expected upward of 200 people to attend throughout the 90-minute event.

The food was provided by the members of the Laureate Theta chapter of Beta Sigma Phi, an international women’s sorority.

“It brings Christ back into Christmas,” said chapter president Sharon Scharosh. “For the community, it really brings together the spirit and the feeling, and it’s important for the clients of St. Vincent de Paul, too.”

The goal is to provide a little relief for those in need during the holiday season. Near the front of the room, attendees were given gifts of sweaters, socks and hats — items that can be vital for the homeless population during Montana winters — along with a small bag of homemade cookies.

However, Merchant said he hopes the event inspires people beyond just the winter months.

“The community really focuses on people in the Christmas season,” he said. “But our work goes 12 months a year and their need goes 12 months a year.”

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