Centennial: History Snapshots & Stories

Centennial: History / Snapshots / Stories

SVdP Begins in Washington State in January 1920!

Back in 1918 and 1919, Seattle was changing rapidly from a pioneer outpost to becoming larger than its sister city down the road in Tacoma. Before World War I, the Catholic Church ran an organization called the Parish Betterment League. With the war, the organization became badly fragmented and never returned to its original work.

A young man from Chicago, Charles Albert, showed up on the scene in Seattle in 1918. He had been relocated to Seattle by a federal agency. That was good news for Seattle and St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP). Charlie started the first Conference in the state of Washington on Jan. 26, 1920---100 years ago. The Conference was started at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Wallingford shown above in a photo taken in 1924.

When Charlie moved here he had already spent some time as a St. Vincent de Paul Volunteer Vincentian as a teenager in Chicago.

At the time, there was not a single SVdP Conference between the windy city and Vancouver BC. Charlie met Warren I. Nahm, formerly of St. Louis---and the rest is history as the saying goes.

Charlie and Warren set up the first Conference at St. Benedict in 1920 and within a year they had helped to engineer the creation of conferences at Holy Family (White Center), Holy Rosary, Sacred Heart, St. Edward, St. George, St. Anne, Christ the King, St. John, St. Joseph, St. Margaret, St. Francis Xavier and Our Lady of Queen of Martyrs.

The young Vincentians knew they needed money to support their work. One of their ideas was opening a salvage bureau, which today we call a thrift store.

Below is a photo at our first store, the Salvage Bureau, at First and Battery in Seattle in April of 1926.

Photo Courtesy of PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection. Museum of History & Industry.

Seattle Council Expands from One to Twelve in Year One!

By the end of 1920, Charlie Albert had been inspired and called to set up more conferences and the list of twelve included Holy Family White Center, Holy Rosary, Sacred Heart, St. Edward, St. George, St. Anne, Christ the King, St. John, St. Joseph, St. Margaret, St. Francis Xavier, and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.

Charlie Albert made other monumental strides in the early history of the society in Seattle. In September of 1921, he was appointed to membership in the Superior Council of the United States, governing body for all U.S. SVdP operations. He delivered a paper entitled, “The Personal Service of members in Parishes Where Material Needs Do Not Exist,” Eventually the paper became a pamphlet that received distribution throughout the U.S.

In February of 1921, the Particular Council was formed and this became the forerunner for the Seattle King County Council, which still functions today.

Then on October 8, 1923, the International Council Organization in Paris, France officially recognized the Council Office. This is formal and official recognition from the highest governing body in St. Vincent de Paul on a worldwide basis.

From its early beginning, the Seattle Council had a great interest in the immigration issue and the treatment of young children. The Council helped young Filipino men with support services from its beginning in 1920. The Council created the Filipino Club, managed by L.J. Esterman, a lawyer. Some experts estimate that as many as 3,000 young Filipino men came to the U.S. annually to work during the 1920s.

They were treated as immigrants, when in fact they were all U.S. nationals, having been given that designation following the Spanish American War. The Philippines was a territory until it received its independence in 1946. (Photo at left Courtesy of Countries and Their Cultures Encyclopedia).

Editor’s Note: L.J. Esterman became a Benedictine Priest at the age of 77 after his wife died. After Fr. Esterman died, the Society created a special fund in his name to support conferences. Called the Esterman Fund, it is a special needs fund set up by the Council in 1951 with money donated by the L. J. and Agnes Esterman Charity Fund. 

Two trustees, who over the years have helped the original donation grow substantially, have managed the fund. The fund was recently incorporated into the financial assets of the Council and is administered by the management team.

St. Vincent de Paul Pioneers Medical & Dental Clinics

Reverend James Gordon Stafford was the first Spiritual Director for the Council in the early 1920s. At a St. Vincent de Paul picnic, a young student got a strawberry seed caught between his teeth. He complained to Rev. Stafford, who sent him to a dentist.

As the story goes, the young student needed loads of dental work. Soon after that, on July 17, 1923, the Society opened a dental clinic in several rooms of the basement of the Our Lady of Good Help Church. By 1935, the clinic was seeing over 1,700 patients per year!

Origins of the First St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Stores

The founders of St. Vincent de Paul were very much attracted to biblical scriptures that instruct parishioners to “clothe the naked.” In 1845, the Society created a Keeper of the Wardrobe function for its volunteer groups.

They said, “The keeper of the wardrobe collects clothes for the poor and keeps an account of them. The wardrobe should be an object of the most particular care on the part of the conferences, for the poor are as often in want of clothes as of food.”

In 1911, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania society opened what it called a “salvage bureau to become a storage and collection repository for cloth9ing and other items. Nevertheless, it appears we were not first with the idea of “thrift.”

The Salvation Army launched what it called the “salvage brigade” in 1897 A Methodist minister designed the first Goodwill, in Boston in 1902. This store hired disabled and poor neighbors and did various kinds of repairs. All thrift stores had the term “salvage” in their formal names back in those days. In Seattle, the St. Vincent de Paul stores were called the “Salvage Bureau.”

The Society launched its first thrift store, after being open for a month in the basement of the Our Lady of Good Help Catholic Church, at the corner of First and Battery on April 1, 1926. (Photo at left Courtesy of PEMC Webster & Stevens Collection. Museum of History & Industry.

At one point in time in the 1930s and 1940s, St. Vincent de Paul had a fleet of over 30 trucks picking up items all over Western Washington for thrift store sales in Seattle and King County.

A Decade of Giving & Serving Ends in 1931!

When 1931 ended and the annual reports were filed, the Society learned it now had 225 volunteers doing all kinds of good works at 25 Parish volunteer conferences. The Society’s corporate connections were beginning to be more involved with Sears donating clothing and other businesses donating meat, ice, vegetables, canned goods, and toiletries.

During the depression, the society formed a Hospital Visitation Committee to arrange Vincentian visits to patients in hospitals in Seattle.

The approach was to have each conference be assigned to making visits to patients in the King County Hospital initially and then eventually to other hospitals as well. They were averaging 115 visits per Sunday, brining small items such as fruit, tobacco, and toiletries on the visits.

In the Society’s first decade of work, it was natural that most of the people they were helping were of the Catholic faith. However, as they broadened their scope of work and as awareness of the society continued to grow, the numbers who they served began to change. (The photo at left is of the King County Hospital in the 1930s, courtesy Wikipedia Commons).

By the end of World War II, approximately 80 percent of the people St. Vincent de Paul was serving were non-Catholic!

Salvage Bureau Starts to Decline

From 1926 through 2011, SVdP thrift stores, the old Salvage Bureau, were the mainstay of revenue sources for the organization. Always posting the most income, store revenues began to decline in 2012 and have continued to decline throughout the decade of 2010 through 2019. There was actually a time in the 1940s when we had more stores than many of the retail chains had in the Seattle market.

In 1941, we had a fleet of 16 trucks out on the road. We took deliveries of furniture and household items from as far away as Ellensburg in Eastern Washington. We ran a huge Salvage Bureau Operation at South Lake Union for many years. (See Salvage Bureau Photo on left Courtesy of the Seattle Times).

However, despite the improvement of the economy since the Great Recession in 2008-2009, and with the rise of online-based retailers, thrift store revenue has continued to decline. For example, at the height of their profitability, the stores brought in profit anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million. Recently, that number has decreased to between $100,000 and $200,000. In addition, in both 2014 and 2016, the stores posted losses.

Helpline & Food Bank Grow Substantially in 2008-2009

In 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, the Helpline received 49,000 calls, a 53 percent increase from the year before. Similarly, the Council Food Bank patronage increased and requests for assistance from the Council’s Esterman Fund (money intended to be reserved for special needs that exceed the resources of a conference and which cannot be funded by other charitable agencies) likewise grew.

The Council Food Bank became part of the organization on January 15, 2001, when St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle King County merged with the Georgetown Service Center, the organization managing what was then the Georgetown Food Bank.

Terms of the merger included management of the food bank becoming the responsibility of St. Vincent de Paul at its current address at 5950 Fourth Avenue South in Seattle.

The operation of the food bank was also modified. Instead of distributing pre-packaged bags of groceries regardless of patrons’ needs or preferences, the staff began accommodating patron requests. Now neighbors could select from available items, making the delivery of services more personalized and responsive to client needs. Over time, the food bank evolved to be a robust community center offering selections of food rather than food baskets, free clothing, free books, health assessments and other services.

Andre de Klaver Hired to Strengthen Store Operations

The dire financial and operational situation from 1995 to 2007 forced a reexamination of how the Society conducted its ministries and managed its internal affairs.

Andre de Klaver, a former JC Penney executive, was hired in 2007, and made major contributions toward making the organization healthy again. One Board member said de Klaver “managed the financial picture very well, expanded ETC ETC.”

The operation of the stores was the first target for de Klaver’s restructuring and reform plan.

He closed three underperforming stories in White Center, Carnation, and Rainier Valley. At the end of 2009, the Council had survived an extended period of financial struggle, proving that resilience, adaptation and renewal could work, even in very difficult times.

Store sales climbed back to over $4.3 million in 2010 and net income from store operations hit $1 million. Additionally, revised retail operations systems and procedures were implemented in the stores.

By 2011, the Council had closed more stores with only five now operating in Seattle, Burien, Kenmore, Kent, and Renton. Personnel with retail experience were placed in managerial positions, employee training was improved, and benefits augmented.

The Great Recession--2008--2009

In 2008 and 2009, King County’s economy suffered a major setback as part of the global financial crisis known as the “Great Recession.”

At the beginning of 2010, the King County unemployment rate rose to 9.5 percent, according to the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County. This had a ripple effect across the economy, affecting
homeowners. The Seattle Times reported that in some areas of South King County, the foreclosure rates held at 10 to 20 percent. The state of the economy affected the Society in the form of increased demand for services.

As an example, in 2009, the Helpline received 49,000 calls, a 53 percent increase from the year before. Similarly, the Council Food Bank patronage increased and requests for assistance from the Council’s Esterman Fund (money intended to be reserved for special needs that exceed the resources of a conference and which cannot be funded by other charitable agencies)
likewise grew.

The Society’s First Strategic Plan

The effects of the Great Recession made all businesses and organizations take stock and rethink operations. The Society was no different. It needed a fresh beginning and it decided a strategic plan was the right course of action. At the request of de Klaver, the Society tapped into its talent pool, and Board Members Pat Welch and John Morford led an initiative to create its first strategic plan. Both Board members had the requisite experience and credentials to lead this work.

Pat Welch, SVdP Board Member, and treasurer between 2009 and 2017 was chair of the Council Strategic Plan initiative. He had a distinguished career in private industry. Prior to joining the Council Board of Directors, Welch served as President of CIGNA Health Corporation. Welch had also worked in a number of other senior executive positions and most notably held an executive position for a number of years with Great Northern Annuity (GNA), a Weyerhaeuser subsidiary.

Morford was a professor and dean emeritus in the College of Education at Seattle University. He was elected president of Council in 2013. Morford taught leadership at Seattle University.

Jim Gauntt, Council President from 2009 to 2013, worked to assure that the plan was broad-based and included ideas and strategic directions from all sections of the society including Vincentians, staff, Board, and Council.

The Society’s first strategic plan, based on input from many Vincentians, called for strengthening conferences, improving public awareness, expanding donor bases, strengthening recruitment efforts, and encouraging the creation of more training programs and more.

One of the most significant changes was strengthening of the home visit and working with Vincentians on listening and other aspects of the visit. Council leadership also rethought its retail operations. The five remaining stores were repurposed.

This included a store on Aurora Avenue in Seattle, and stores in Burien, Kent, Kenmore, and Renton. The Strategic Plan called for remodeling of the Aurora store so that it could house a social services department. Further, the Council leadership scrutinized the fit of other revenue-generating retail operations to ensure their alignment with the overall mission of the Society.

SVdP Food Bank Named Kobayashi Center

The SVdP Georgetown Food Bank name was changed to the Kobayashi Center in 2013 in honor of America’s Oldest Living Vincentian Tom Kobayashi.

Shown here are (left), Jim Gauntt, Council President from 2009 to 2013, and Tom Kobayashi, (right).

The resolution noted that Mr. Kobayashi had served as a Vincentian in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Council of Seattle/King County for over seventy-five years. It went on to say that “his service exemplified the vocation of the Society’s members to follow Christ through service to those in need and to bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love through personal contact with those we serve.”

Mr. Kobayashi was one of six children that grew up knowing the sting of poverty. His own intimate connection to being poor instilled in him the desire to serve others for life in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.


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