Americas Credit Union Museum: A Tribute to Ron Rioux
Ronald J. Rioux, former president and CEO of St. Mary’s Bank, the nation’s first credit union, played an instrumental role in the creation of America’s Credit Union Museum.
Rioux first thought of establishing a U.S. credit union museum and education center in 1993, during a trip to Quebec for a credit union conference. While there, he visited the home of Alphonse Desjardins, the founder of North America’s credit union movement. Desjardins’ home in Lévis had been preserved as a historical site and museum open to the public. Would it be possible, Rioux wondered, to establish such a historical site or museum honoring Desjardins’ American counterpart, Monsignor Pierre Hevey?
Monsignor Hevey, with Desjardins’ help, established the first credit union in the United States—St. Mary’s Cooperative Credit Association (later called St. Mary’s Bank) on Manchester’s West Side in 1908. Hevey, the pastor of St. Marie Church, realized his parishioners had minimal options for saving their hard-earned wages and even fewer options to borrow or invest. At the time, traditional banks were not willing to accommodate people of such modest means, many of them immigrants. Hevey’s introduction of the credit union movement in the U.S. was transformative and had a profound and positive impact on the lives of immigrants and other underserved populations.
Rioux felt strongly that any credit union museum should appropriately recognize Hevey for his vital role in establishing the first credit union in the U.S. In addition, and just as important, the museum should also be an education center where visitors could learn about the rise of America’s credit union movement and the fundamental skills of saving, borrowing, and investing.
While Rioux believed that the museum’s focus would go beyond St. Mary’s Bank, the credit union’s first office seemed a most fitting site. And he learned the home where the first office was located was just one block away from St. Mary’s Bank’s Manchester, New Hampshire headquarters. Upon his return from Quebec, Rioux immediately set about making his dream of a credit union museum a reality. He shared his idea with St. Mary’s board of directors and laid out a plan to acquire the three-story tenement house on Notre Dame Avenue.
St. Mary’s Bank director Eugene Lemieux introduced Rioux to Armand and Joanne Lemire, the owners of 418-420 Notre Dame Avenue, so he could ask if they might consider selling the property to St. Mary’s Bank. Rioux was both surprised and elated when, just a few months after his initial call, the Lemires told him they had decided to donate the property to the cause.
With the support of St. Mary’s board of directors and the help of Attorney Ovide Lamontagne, the SMB Charitable Foundation was established in 1994 to formally accept the Lemire’s generous gift. On International Credit Union Day in 1996, credit union leaders and government officials from around the country gathered on the front porch of the house for a ceremony to celebrate the structure’s heritage and announce its preservation as a credit union museum, library, and education center.
The acquisition of a site for the credit union museum moved Rioux’s project forward, but there was still much work to be done. Over the next five years, countless individuals and organizations would contribute time, funds, and resources to restore and renovate the three-story property to be used for exhibits, a library, and a lecture hall. The SMB Charitable Foundation would undertake a $2 million fund raising campaign to create support for the museum across the country.
Thanks to Rioux’s vision and commitment, the work of the SMB Charitable Foundation board, and the support of Credit Union National Association, among many others, America’s Credit Union Museum opened its doors in 2002.
“A credit union is owned by the members. It is the members, in a sense, who support each other. It is a family kind of approach. It’s a terrific concept. And it works.”
-- Ron Rioux, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Bank, 1993 to 2009