A few months ago, Leo Beland was cleaning out his Pawtucket home and found a photo of his great-uncle, a priest by the name of Father Joseph Hormisdas Beland. His great-uncle also happens to be a founding father of Navigant Credit Union.
Leo was kind enough to donate the photograph to Navigant Credit Union, where it now proudly hangs in our Smithfield headquarters. He was also kind enough to give us a few hours of his time, where he told us stories about the history of Central Falls.
Here’s what we learned.
It’s a hot day in mid-July, and Leo Beland is pacing through the Pawtucket home he purchased back in 1950, pulling family photographs off the wall and rifling through old newspaper clippings. Ninety-seven years old and counting, he’s hardly lost a step.
“I still get around like it’s nothing. I can’t believe I’m in this shape after all these years,” Leo tells us as he comes back into the kitchen with two photographs.
One of the photos is in color; it looks like it was taken at some point in the last 10 years. It’s a wide shot of a happy, smiling family – in the middle are Leo and his late wife, Theresa, and they’re flanked by the family they built together – three daughters, six grandchildren and more than a dozen great grand children.
The second photo is much older. It’s in black-and-white and there isn’t a smile to be seen – but, just like the first picture – it’s a photo of a happy family. Taken sometime near the tail end of the 19th century, it’s a perfectly preserved photo of Leo’s ancestors. In the back row of the shot, dressed in black priest’s garb and staring sternly at the camera, is Leo’s great uncle, a man by the name of Joseph Beland.
Joseph Beland is the reason we’re sitting at Leo’s kitchen table. Because in addition to being the brother of Leo’s grandfather, Joseph Beland was also the founder of Navigant Credit Union.
Father Joseph Hormisdas Beland was born in Canada on July 3, 1857 and ordained in 1883. In 1894, Father Beland was installed as the pastor of Notre Dame parish in Central Falls.
When Father Beland arrived, he found a struggling community. The church he was put in charge to lead was outdated and needed repairs. His parishioners, mostly French-Canadian immigrants, had uprooted their lives to move to the United States for a shot at a brighter future. They worked hard and saved their money, but that idyllic “American Dream” they had heard so much about still seemed out of reach. They were struggling to learn a new language, struggling to feel at home in this brand-new place, and – most importantly – struggling to convince the community’s established banks and financial institutions to trust them enough to take their business.
Father Beland, stationed in Central Falls to offer spiritual guidance to his parishioners, recognized the community’s struggles – and had an idea.
“He figured we needed a bank,” Leo tells us.
Leo doesn’t have many personal memories of his great uncle. He was just eight years old when Father Beland passed away. But he remembers plenty of stories passed down through the generations.
“Central Falls residents at this point in time had to go to Pawtucket or other towns to try to find a bank, but they were finding it just about impossible to get approved. So my great-uncle figured he’d take what money he had, and find the few people in Central Falls who had a little bit of money squirrelled away and convince them to pool it together to create our own financial institution.”
That’s exactly what Father Beland did. He found a small group of initial investors, and helped lobby the Rhode Island General Assembly to pass a law in 1914 that allowed so-called “loan societies” to incorporate as officially recognized community credit unions. On March 9, 1915, Navigant Credit Union – then known as La Credit Union de Notre Dame de Central Falls – was officially born. Headquartered in the basement of Father Beland’s Notre Dame Parish and launched with around $22,000 in assets, it was Rhode Island’s first-ever credit union.
Father Beland and his partners adopted a simple motto for the newly created financial institution: “People Helping People.” And they lived by it. Immediately, La Credit Union de Notre Dame de Central Falls began approving loan requests that had long been denied. They helped underserved members of the up-and-coming Central Falls neighborhood buy land, build homes and launch small businesses.
Father Beland passed away on the morning of October 23, 1929. At the time of his death, La Credit Union de Notre Dame de Central Falls had grown into a staple of the community. It was using its assets to, quite literally, build the city. The first-of-its-kind, member-owned credit union helped build a brand-new church. It helped opened a school, renovate a hospital and maintain a local cemetery.
Father Beland was instrumental in founding Rhode Island’s first credit union – an institution that, over the next century or so, grew into the Navigant Credit Union we know today. More than that, though, Father Beland was an early believer in the power of community. His idea was that every “hard-working person of strong moral character,” regardless of where they came from or how much money they had in their pocket, deserved a chance at a better life. He believed that, if he could convince a group of like-minded people to work together toward a common goal, they’d be able to build something special.
Turns out, he was right.
Born in 1922, Leo Beland grew up in the neighborhood his ancestors helped build. A decorated war hero and dedicated husband, father and grandfather, Leo is the epitome of his Uncle Joseph’s idea of a “hard-working man with strong moral character.”
Growing up on Dexter Street in Central Falls, Leo spent his days with his brother and father going door-to-door down Broad Street selling fruits and vegetables. Weekends were spent roller-skating, traipsing around Rocky Point and Crescent Park and courting his soon-to-be beloved wife, Theresa Morin.
Leo and Theresa met as teenagers and got married in 1945.
“I met her when she was 16, and – after our first date – I dropped her off at her house, and she said ‘Leo, when am I going to see you again?’ She asked me that same question every day for 70 years – so, I just kept coming back.”
Leo enlisted in the military in October of 1942, serving as a Corporal in the 329th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. He earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal for his serving during the Normandy Campaign. When he returned to civilian life, he became a mechanic, opening up a small garage on the corner of Roosevelt and Abrams Streets.
We ask him how much Central Falls has changed in the last 90-odd years. The answer: Just about everything.
“It was such a small town back then. We knew just about everybody on the block.”
We ask him what he misses the most about Central Falls in the 1930s. The answer: Driving on streets with no red lights.
“I learned how to drive when I was 12 years old on my father’s Model T Ford,” Leo remembers. “That was the car back then. You could get it brand-new for $295 in any color you want – as long as that color was black.”
We’re wrapping up our conversation at Leo’s kitchen table and looking at a few more old pictures. There’s Leo and Theresa beaming at the camera during one of their weekly dates. There’s three generations of baby pictures showcasing Leo’s kids, his kids’ kids, and his kids’ kids’ kids.
As he’s putting his prized pictures back where they belong, we ask Leo for his secret. How does he still, as he put it, “get around like it’s nothing” at 97 years old.
The answer, without skipping a beat: “Love.”
“I was very much in love with my wife, and I love my family very much. So, I gave myself more time.”
Just like his great-uncle, Leo built something substantial that will outlive him. Father Joseph Beland helped build a community.
Leo built a family.