Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book Review - Comme D'Or: The First Fifty Years of Holy Rosary Credit Union by Michael Behrendt

At the end of my recent trip to America's Credit Union Museum in Manchester, NH, museum director Peggy Powell gave me a copy of the Michael Behrendt's recently published book Comme D'Or: The First Fifty Years of Holy RosaryCredit Union. According to Ms. Powell, the book is representative of a new trend in the historiography of credit unions. For the past few decades, when written about at all, the primary focus of credit union history has been at the level of the national and state-level movement institutions. More recently, however, Ms. Powell has encountered a number of folks working on detailed histories of individual institutions, of which Comme D'Or is an excellent example.

Self-published by Holy Rosary Credit Union of Rochester, NH to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, Comme D'Or is accessibly written and structured in a way that reveals it's author's solid understanding of the nature of the credit union model. At a time when uncertainty about the nature of the difference between banks and credit unions is far too common, it would be quite easy for a writer coming from outside the movement to write the history of a credit union as if it were that of a bank, with the economic story taking center stage.

Fortunately, Michael Behrendt doesn't fall into this trap. The city planner of Rochester, NH by profession with a book about that city's architectural history already under his belt, Behrendt brings an enormous depth of knowledge about, and appreciation for, the social and cultural history of Rochester to Comme D'Or. As a result, while the economic aspects of Holy Rosary Credit Union's development are not neglected, people and community are (very appropriately) at the core of the narrative.

This is exemplified by the subject of the book's second chapter. After the obligatory back-story of the credit union movement as a whole, Behrendt doesn't immediately proceed to a discussion of the establishment of Holy Rosary. Instead, he takes readers on a thought-provoking detour through the development of the Catholic French-Canadian immigrant community that founded the credit union. By weaving together the macro-level trends of the mass migration of rural French Canadians to New England mill-towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with thumbnail biographical sketches of key personalities in Rochester's Franco-American community, Behrendt provides his readers with a solid sense of the social, cultural, and economic environment of which Holy Rosary was a product.

Such rich context serves to appreciably deepen Behrendt's subsequent discussion of the establishment and development of the credit union by it helping readers to viscerally "get" how the early credit union model humanized debt and credit. Due to the present financial and political hegemony of the corporate banking system, our contemporary culture tends to normalize the idea that debt, as a relationship between an individual and an institution, is something inherently impersonal. Whether or not one receives a loan is a statistical decision based on income rate, debt load, and credit scores, and the decision to declare bankruptcy or walk away from an"underwater" mortgage is thus not perceived to be a moral one.

However, instead of embodying this model of two rationally calculating actors acting in their own narrow best interest, Behrendt effectively demonstrates how the granting of credit at Holy Rosary was deeply embedded within the fabric of its community. While objective financial measures were not ignored, a theme that emerges again and again is how much influence one's reputation had on the decision of the credit committee. Indeed, this dynamic is reflected in the book's title; "Comme D'Or" (which roughly translates to "good as gold") was what long-time credit committee chairman Maurice Sanfacon would exclaim when he encountered a loan application from someone he deemed trustworthy.1

The flip side of this dynamic was that, since personal honor was often all that stood as collateral, members felt deep loyalty to the organization. According to Behrendt, although "many struggled when the shoe-shops [which were major local employers] closed, but paying back the credit union was often a person's highest priority. Jim Brock, says that members do not want to let the credit union down. They know they can talk to someone if they are having a hard time."2 In fact, this implicit social contract that members would pay their debts to the best of their ability while the credit union would do its best to accommodate member facing hard times meant that it was more than twenty years before the credit union attempted its first repossession. Amusingly, the seizure of a delinquent member's wrecker truck in the 1980s caused such a stink (since it was seen as a violation of this understanding) that the credit union returned it the very next day and didn't attempt a repossession for the remainder of the collections officer's tenure.3

Inherently, reputation and honor are characteristics of specific human relationships. While it is possible to have generalizing discussions of their functions using concepts like ["social capital,"] such abstractions can, at best, be only orienting since, in the real world, the full meaning of honor and reputation is always embedded in the full complexity of relationships between actual human beings. As such, to understand the development of an organization rooted in the social life of its members, it is vital to cultivate an understanding of those members' community life far beyond the boundaries of the institution itself.

Happily, Behrendt achieves just that, not only through his extensive introduction to the credit union's socio-cultural background and micro-biographies of key personalities, but also by drawing heavily on oral history sources to tease out revealing moments that highlight the complexity of the credit union's relationship to its larger community. Though there are many anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, one that particularly caught my interest because of the way it underscores the credit union's French Canadian heritage and the small but meaningful ways it intervened positively in the lives of its members concerns an elderly woman who "came in every year to borrow $20. Nobody asked what the loan was for, but [Tom Bergeron] believes it was to play Beano (the French-Canadian equivalent of Bingo) at the Rochester Fair. Three cards cost a quarter; so, even after covering admission, she could get in a lot of Beano. The woman came into the office religiously every month to pay down her loan, until submitting another application the following fall."4 By paying such careful heed to the specific, human moments in the life of the credit union, Comme D'Or succeeds in distilling the fundamental character of a fascinating institution's early years.

Given his appreciation of the social character Holy Rosary's origins, Behrendt concludes his book with a very insightful discussion of way in which the credit union has attempted to navigate the challenge (which the whole credit union movement has been wrestling with for decades) of growing while maintaining a sense of community. Mixing quotes from social capital theorist Robert Putnam with insights into the present state of the credit union from contemporary volunteers and staff, it the discussion is deep treatment of the issue that contributes meaningfully to the ongoing conversation concerning credit union identity.

Overall, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) its unorthodox structure and source material, Comme D'Or is one of the best credit union histories I've encountered. Its sympathetic and in-depth treatment of the people involved in the organization make it a must-read for anyone thinking about undertaking a similar project for their own credit union. As for the more academically-minded, the pop-history tone can sometimes come off as a bit too fluffy, but it is more than made up for by (1) the sophisticated treatment of identity issues and (2) the discussion of the Franco-American influence on the credit union. Though French Canadians get a nod in the traditional credit union narrative, their influence seems to suddenly end once Desjardins transfers the credit union idea to Filene. Hopefully, this book will be but the first installment in a larger project of describing the influence of Quebec on the American credit unionism post-1910. In sum, Comme D'Or absolutely deserves a place of pride on any credit union history nerd's book-shelf!


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