A Priest, A Lawyer And A Canadian Walk Into A Room...

Last week, three men whose names you may recognize and who had not been in the same room in nearly a century, were all back in the same room again. All in all, you'd have to say they looked remarkably good, given all were born in the 1800s.

That was last week. This week, your challenge is to understand what the events of Nov. 24, 1908 have to do with your strategic planning for 2009, and beyond.

The men were Monsignor Pierre Hevey, Joseph Boivin and Alphonse Desjardins. There's a good chance you've at least heard of Desjardins, after whom the credit union movement in Quebec is named, less so the first two. And yet without them you might not be reading this, much less have a job in credit unions.

The three men, having all long ago gone on to that great co-op in the sky, were reincarnated last week by Credit Union Journal and St. Mary's Bank (America's first credit union), with generous sponsorship from, appropriately enough, CO-OP Financial Services. As reported on page 1 and on pages 12 and 13, 100 years to the day after a credit union sold its first "shares" in this country, we recreated that moment and others that led up to it using period re-enactors in the very same office and building where it all had started.

It was a bit eerie, frankly, to be standing in the Boivins' former home last week with the three credit union pioneers on hand. The Desjardins character especially resembled his namesake and he played his role with a French accent and the mannerisms of the day. Father Hevey so looked the part one person on hand thought he was a priest and kept deferring to him. Boivin wore the formal, black suit of an attorney, circa the early 20th century. As they stood together the trio of icons caused the same floorboards to creak as had the originals.

Outside, a horse-drawn carriage waited near the heavy, wooden front door of what today is America's Credit Union Museum. Girls in long skirts and boys in knickers and news boy hats ran along the cracked sidewalks. Inside the children waited on pew-like benches worn smooth by their grandparents' grandparents as they waited to deposit what were often just pennies with Mrs. Boivin.

It can be among life's delights to be caught up in a moment, or in this case, a moment from a century ago resurrected in front of our eyes. It was a joyous thing to be a part of. How sad it would be, however, to relegate those moments in time to the CU History closet, and not recognize the pertinent connection to the world in which your credit union is operating right now.

Father Hevey of St. Marie's Catholic Church, just down the block from what would become the credit union, had by the early 1900s seen what the wolves of usury and lack of credit could do, and had done to his flock. He invited Desjardins to speak to his congregation, a man who was becoming well-known in French-speaking Canada for his work in creating "people's banks," the kind that could serve the low-wage workers at the Amoskeag Mill - once the largest textile mill in the world - who filled Hevey's church in Manchester, N.H.

Outside of hardcore credit union trivia buffs, Hevey's name is all but unknown today outside of Manchester, where he also chartered hospitals, orphanages and more, as is that of Boivin, who led the credit union initially known as St. Mary's Cooperative Credit Association, often meeting with members in the evenings in an office in his home on Notre Dame Ave. after his lawyerly work was done.

Through the broad, front windows and across the wooden porch of the home the Boivin family resided in for years you can still see, the long, red brick buildings that had housed the mills along the Merrimack River. Some are vacant, reflecting a new economy that doesn't require the hulking, physical plants of a century ago. Others have been subdivided into offices for the small businesses hoping to become large.

That short century ago a French-speaking priest serving low-income, French-speaking immigrants working 12-hour days in the local mills, saw the pain of parishioners with no access to any retail financial services who were forced to turn to Shylocks and money-lenders.

It's ironic how often today we hear some suggest credit unions have outlived their purpose as the world is different. It is, indeed, different, but it hasn't changed; nor has the need for CUs.

Today we have priests and ministers speaking dozens of other languages, often Spanish, serving low-income, non-English-speaking immigrants working what are usually undocumented shifts at low wages in fields and factories, distrusting financial institutions and turning to usurious payday lenders and pawn shops.

Credit Union Journal is proud that more than any other publication we have always sought to honor the roots of credit unions and to connect them with the new branches that sprout each day - literally and figuratively. One day last week, you could actually watch it.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.