by William J. Bechaver
WALSENBURG- This year marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of St. Mary Credit Union.
Begun back in 1943, the credit union initially made membership available exclusively to active parishioners of St. Mary’s Church. Originally it was simply called the St. Mary Parish Credit Union. It was organized under the guidance of Fr. Raymond L. Newell, who was the pastor of St. Mary’s at the time, with the assistance of a young priest who had just arrived in Walsenburg a few years before, Fr. Howard Delaney.
Financial times were lean during the war, and membership was sparse. In the years that followed, interest and participation grew very slowly. There was simply no time or personnel available back then to promote the enterprise sufficiently. It continued in that fashion until the early 1950s, when it was realized that some tough decisions would have to be made. The choices were clear and few. The directors could either liquidate and cease operations or continue and attempt to expand.
Spurred on by the efforts of Fr. John Martin, and other ambitious members at that time, participation in the credit union began to grow. To expand membership, the union was opened to all residents of the community. Emma Bellotti served as unofficial manager back then. The new surge in growth prompted the opening of an office to house the credit union, as well as the employment of a full-time manager.
Though it bears the name and was established with parishioner membership, the credit union has always been strictly a business agency and entirely separate from St. Mary Parish. However, when its first official office was opened in 1957, it was housed in a room in the St. Mary Rectory building. The full-time manager was George Batuello, who had previously served as a deputy in the county treasurer’s office. At that time, membership in the credit union had grown to nearly 330 members.
Later, the office was moved to its long-time location in the one hundred block of East Sixth Street. Helen Panucci took over as manager for a time until George Batuello returned, and in 1959 Lillian O’Rourke began work there as his assistant. She was soon named the manager, and Rosemary Biggi became assistant the following year. Through their many years of service, the credit union and its membership continued to grow.
They even encouraged young people to save their money wisely by starting saving accounts for young grade school students. Then, weekly, one of the ladies from the credit union would visit the schools, allowing students to make deposits into their own personal accounts. There’s not a person between the ages of 25 and 60 who went to school here who doesn’t fondly remember these weekly visits by the credit union lady.
O’Rourke continued in the capacity of manager until her retirement in 1988. Biggi retired earlier the same year. Marion Tressell was named manager upon O’Rourke’s departure, and Mary Bohannon succeeded Biggi the following year. In 2000, the St. Mary Credit Union moved to a newly renovated building on South Main Street, where it continues to be housed to this day.
Amazingly, the credit union holds an important place in the history of our community, financing many local businesses and investments over the years. It has also played a role in many of our personal histories. Marion Tressell’s grandfather served as an officer on the very first board for the credit union. Lillian O’Rourke is my aunt, my own grandparents served on various boards over the years, and I have been a member all my life. In fact, the first entry in my credit union savings account book was made when I was just seven months old. Even then I recognized the importance of saving my money and investing it wisely.
Today, the St. Mary Credit Union is going strong, with an astounding 2,075 members. It has made a substantial impact in the community which, 65 years ago, made an investment in the St. Mary Credit Union.