I came across this story about St. Ann parish’s credit union in the summer and have been meaning to share it for a while. A Catholic parish running its own credit union is something new to me, although I’ve since spoken to some priests who say it was more common in the 20th century in some places. St. Ann’s is “run by a small team of volunteers and two part-time employees” for the purpose of helping their community avoid predatory loans:
Mary Snyder and her husband had already spent a decade feeling like they were drowning in more medical debt than they could count, let alone pay off, when a sewage backup caused the plumbing in their Arlington home to go haywire.
Unsure how they’d ever pay a plumber to repair the system and damage to the house while living paycheck to paycheck, the couple didn’t head to the local branch of a national bank, but rather, a small office in the basement of their parish, St. Ann Church in Arlington.
With “zero credit,” no bank would have made a loan, but the longtime parishioners were members of St. Ann Federal Credit Union, a member-owned cooperative organization. The credit union has a unique mission: to provide an alternative for parishioners who might otherwise turn to high-interest credit cards or predatory lenders. Manager Mary Green sat down with the couple to provide financial counseling and approved a $1,200 loan at 8 percent interest, covering emergency expenses.
“She wasn’t pitying us,” said Snyder, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons. “She was helping us in a very real way, which is hard to describe when your entire world is out of whack.”
St. Ann might seem unique, but American parishes were instrumental in the credit union movement during the early-to-mid-20th century. St. Mary’s Bank, the first credit union in the United States, was founded in 1908 by a Msgr. Pierre Hevey, a French-Canadian priest in Manchester, N.H., to help his parishioners, mostly immigrant millworkers, save and borrow money. La Caisse Populaire, Ste-Marie (“The People’s Bank”), as it was called at the time, cost just $5 to join, and members’ deposits were held in a metal box at the bank president’s home.
Catholic parishes were influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” and the principle of subsidiarity — that social change is best handled on the lowest possible level. The pontiff’s concerns about unregulated capitalism and the concentration of wealth, land and industry, inspired many Catholics to create credit unions and other cooperatives, according to David Bovee, an associate professor of history at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.
During the 1920s and ‘30s, hundreds of parishes, assisted by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), formed their own credit unions in an effort to alleviate poverty in their communities and lead the United States out of the Great Depression.
“In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, at the parish level, people could invest,” and the widespread “boom and bust cycle” could be avoided, Bovee said. One NCRLC leader said that “it takes away from ruthless competition, which is pagan, and substitutes brotherly love, which is Christian.”
The principle of subsidiarity, “that social change is best handled on the lower possible level.” This is a foundational concept for understanding the appeal of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (or “cultural nests” as I initially thought of them), and for understanding a Christian response to the secular culture wars.