Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

75 years for province's first credit union

St. Malo branch was alternative to sky-high rates

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ST. MALO -- In the early 1960s, a young Louis Gosselin of St. Malo was looking to get a loan to buy his dream car, a blue Dodge Charger with dual exhaust and a 440 Magnum under the hood.

But the Caisse populaire de St. Malo, the first credit union ever created in Manitoba, had been founded by a Catholic priest and it still had a certain religious ethic: It didn't lend for luxuries. Even into the 1960s, members couldn't get a loan to buy a TV set, for example.

So Gosselin went down the road to nearby St. Pierre-Jolys and obtained a loan from the Northland Bank instead. Recalls wife Paulette, who has written a history of the St. Malo caisse: "I got stopped by police because that car made so much noise."

The St. Malo Catholic Church was present again at the recent 75th anniversary of the credit union. The ceremony kicked off with an hour-long mass, followed by speeches and a banquet in the church basement. And the monument erected to commemorate the first caisse, which was blessed by the local priest, included a portrait carved in relief of Father Arthur Benoit.

"He was the only person in the community with an education, the only person who could read and write. In those days, that's the way it was," said Ramonde Gosselin, the St. Malo caisse branch manager (who isn't directly related to the aforementioned Gosselins).

An earlier attempt to launch a caisse populaire in St. Jean Baptiste failed because people didn't support it. Father Benoit found St. Malo more receptive. It was during the Great Depression, said branch manager Gosselin, and banks weren't interested in a poor farm community such as St. Malo. There were also language issues, and the regular banks would only lend to St. Malo residents at exorbitant rates.

So on March 1, 1937, 12 people made the first deposits in Manitoba's first credit union, a total of $61.35, or about $5 each. It was enough.

At the time, the nearest bank was asking 60 per cent interest from St. Malo residents, said Gosselin. For a $50 loan, it cost $7.50 interest for three months. When the St. Malo caisse opened, the same loan cost $1.60. St. Malo's first loan was for $56.20 to a dairy operation to purchase a cream separator.

That kind of news spread like wildfire. By 1939, 19 credit unions had shot up in Manitoba where there had been none two years earlier. The Norwood Credit Union in Winnipeg was the province's second credit union, opening seven months after St. Malo's.

It bears mentioning the first credit union in North America was also a caisse populaire (people's bank) organized in 1900 by Canadian journalist Alphonse Desjardins, in Levis, Que. It was also in response to high interest rates some banks charged.

Father Benoit, who was later made a monsignor, came to St. Malo via Quebec.

"We had a priest who was very visionary for the community," said Gosselin. Another of Father Benoit's ventures was to allow schoolchildren in St. Malo to bring pennies from their piggy banks and open accounts. You could open a bank account with five cents. The program ran from 1937 to 1946, and again from 1961 to 1979.

The St. Malo branch has more than 1,100 members. That's in a town of 1,200, although members also come from outside the immediate community. The workplace language in the caisse is 100 per cent French, and about 60 per cent of customers speak French in the branch.

And there is still a Christian presence in the St. Malo caisse, if you count the large nativity scene in the lobby. But there was no baby in the nativity's manger. There was Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, but no baby. Where is the baby in the manger? Was it stolen?

"Not until Christmas," replied Gosselin.

There are now 26 caisse branches in Manitoba with total assets, including buildings, deposits and investments, of just under $1 billion. There are 190 credit union locations, in addition to the caisses.

All the caisses merged in 2010 to form Caisse Financial Group and become larger to compete in today's market. The financial group also bought out Northland Bank in neighbouring St. Pierre. Some Manitoba caisse branches today include St. Pierre, Lorette, La Broquerie, Ile des Chenes, Ste. Anne, St. Georges and South Junction.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2012 A7

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