Our History: Background and Founding

Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union was launched in 1911 and officially began operations as “the little bank around the corner” in the winter of 1912. Located in the heart of what was then a primarily Franco-American neighborhood and headquartered in St. Joseph’s (later named St. Jean Baptiste) Parish rectory on Merrimack Street in Lowell, Massachusetts, it started by safeguarding the “pennies and nickels” of St. Joseph School children. Its origins however, are part of a larger story, that of cooperative credit and the credit union movement.

While the “roots of cooperative credit are obscure,” the “development of practical cooperative credit originated in Germany” in the mid-19th century. It was a movement born of increasingly complex financial conditions and the needs of “modern economic life for both farmers and workers” who did not have ready or affordable access to financial resources and services. The movement soon spread to other European countries and, in 1900, “crossed the Atlantic to Levis, Quebec where Alphonse Desjardins established La Caisse Populaire de Levis.” This first North American credit union opened for business on January 23, 1901. Its first deposit was ten cents. By the end of the day deposits totaled $26.40.

As a court reporter and law clerk, Alphonse Desjardins had come to recognize a need for adequate banking services for the “common wage earner.” He began researching the cooperative banking movement in Europe “and adapted the system for his fellow Quebecois.” His approach was unique as he united diverse elements of the European models, combining urban and rural cooperatives—“banque populaire” and “caisse rurale”—that would serve the financial needs of both groups in his hometown.

After establishing the credit union in Levis, Desjardins developed a missionary zeal for the movement’s potential and future and embarked on an advocacy tour of the United States, “preaching” the gospel of cooperative credit.

Desjardins naturally looked to the familiar, well-established parishes as the core of credit union organization and development. His first stops included the mill towns of New England where two forces encouraged “the growth of credit unions among newly arrived French-Canadian immigrants” — distrust that made access to credit difficult for the new immigrants and parish pastors who “sought to instill the principles of thrift among their parishioners.” One of Desjardins’ first stops was in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Ste. Marie’s Parish. Following an organizational meeting in November 1908, the first American credit union was established, La Caisse Populaire Ste Marie.

During Desjardins’ visit to Manchester, Jay invited him to Boston for a meeting with a group of “public-spirited citizens,” among them Edward Filene, to explain the credit union concept and operation. Subsequently, Jay asked Desjardins to help draft the first Massachusetts credit union law. The law was adopted on April 15, 1909, and the stage was set for the movement to follow the Merrimack River from Manchester south to Lowell.

Lowell was fertile ground for Desjardins’ message. The French-American population was growing, numbering at this time about “fifteen thousand souls” and well organized around the parish institution. These 15,000 “souls” inhabited not only the area called Little Canada bordered by Moody Street, the mills and the Merrimack River, but also the blocks south along Pawtucket Street to Wannalancit Street. And since the construction of the Textile Memorial Bridge, many who had originally settled in Little Canada began moving just north over the river to Pawtucketville, a largely undeveloped area.

In June 1911 Desjardins was invited by Rev. Fr. Henri Watelle, OMI, pastor of St. Jean Baptiste Parish and Frank Ricard, a parishioner and well-known local businessman, to speak at the parish’s “fête champêtre,” a field day celebrating the Fourth of July . The fête opened at one o’clock on Sunday, July 2, on the grounds of the Franco-American Orphanage on Pawtucket Street. The celebration included concerts, pageants and Desjardins’ highly anticipated lecture which began at 4 p.m.

The Lowell Courier Citizen reported that Desjardins spoke “to a crowd of nearly 1,000 interested men and women. The sweltering heat of the day did not detract in the least from the attention given him by his large audience and his remarks were punctuated with applause from his delighted hearers.”

The French newspaper L’Etoile was more effusive in its report, noting that:

After Mr. Desjardins’ conference, it was a race to see who would sign the petition lists in order to assure the foundation of the first ‘credit union’ in this city, that of St. Joseph’s parish. Mr. Ricard asked for only 100 signatures, but he obtained over 200.

This is how the initial idea of establishing a Franco-American bank in upper Merrimack Street — the most populated Franco-American neighborhood — and about which many laughed, in ignorance, yesterday afternoon saw its perfect and complete realization.