St. Mary’s Mission Center in Champlain was named as the clearing center for Catholic charities in the entire Ogdensburg diocese. But it’s important to note that although manager Rita LaBombard was Catholic and worked closely with many Catholic charities, St. Mary’s was an independent, non-denominational entity from the start. Volunteers from several faiths had long been lending a hand.
Civic organizations also chipped in with materials and labor. Private citizens purchased materials, made clothing, and donated it all to the center. Children folded clothes, sewed buttons, and moved boxes. And always among the volunteers was Rita’s mother, Delia, nearly 80 and still washing, ironing, and mending clothes several hours a day. It seems Rita came by her work ethic honestly.
It was a huge, ongoing community effort, one in which most donors would never have any personal contact with the recipients of their good deeds. However, missionaries from many of those foreign posts visited Champlain at different times to thank Rita and the volunteers for work that had changed the lives of orphans, widows, the poor, and the sick by the thousands.
But LaBombard didn’t rest on her laurels. With so much accomplished already, she reached higher, attaining growth that by early 1968 stretched her home and the storage barn to capacity. A board of directors was organized and immediately began studying the problem. A mobile home was purchased to house the offices and some of the work processes. At least for a while, Rita and her mother would no longer have to maneuver through narrow paths in their home, as they had done for years.
Among the most impressive accomplishments of the Mission Center was uniting a wide range of volunteers who worked together towards a common goal. Retired and elderly folks were often giving of their time, but young people always seemed to have other stuff to do. Under Rita’s guidance, young and old toiled in unison. Anywhere from a few to a dozen young people, accompanied by parents or as part of a school group, worked side-by-side with their elders. It was a genuine, feel-good atmosphere, based on how Rita lived her own life.
Besides organizing and running the center, she routinely cooked meals on holidays for people who would be alone, and even delivered to those unable to get out on their own. There seemed no end to her goodness. Seldom mentioned in any media stories about her is that for most of her life, Rita was also employed by area rectories to earn personal income. It’s hard to imagine how she found the time.
By mid-1968, 50 tons of various items had been provided during the past decade, usually in two major shipments annually. Among the operations that year were a sewing program, a rosary project, the knitting of bandages for lepers, and the collecting of clothing, medicines, and religious articles.
In 1969, LaBombard hosted an open house to show how the facility operated, and to thank volunteers. On hand to express their appreciation were many missionaries with local roots, including some who worked in Peru and South Africa. Despite her foundation as a deeply devout Catholic, Rita had long recognized that no single denomination held a monopoly on good people. “I am glad to have everyone a part of it,” she said. “It’s the heart that counts, not the faith.”
Besides providing materials to the diocesan missions overseas, St. Mary’s Mission Center also responded to international crises. On May 31, 1970, one of the most destructive earthquakes in modern history struck Peru. A month later, the center’s next shipment of 680 boxes was relabeled with “Peru Earthquake Emergency,” and sent on its way. It was all accomplished in record time thanks to the assistance of local businesses. Sheridan provided the materials needed for relabeling. The A&P and Grand Union stores supplied rollers to dramatically speed up the loading process, which was handled by a number of volunteers. A Plattsburgh priest arrived with a truck full of donated goods. Ayerst chipped in with $40,000 worth of medicinal supplies. Rita’s brainchild had grown and matured, helping tens of thousands during an international emergency.
Five months after the earthquake, one of the worst cyclones ever recorded struck East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). Combined with the effects of a tsunami, it is estimated that the storm killed nearly 500,000. Rita received word that North Country missionaries serving there had survived, which was important to the distribution of aid.
Twelve days later, the Mission Center responded by shipping 700 boxes totaling 12½ tons, all loaded within 30 minutes by Champlain’s firemen and several other volunteers. Another 100 boxes that didn’t fit on the truck followed soon after. LaBombard acknowledged the wonderful and speedy work of all in meeting the needs of two natural disasters just five months apart, separated by more than 11,000 miles.
In 1971, missionaries in South Africa began requesting food shipments in the form of mixes for cakes, Jell-O, and soups, along with bouillon cubes. The highest cost of supplying the missions was shipping, and mixes that could later be reconstituted with water were lighter to ship. Workers in Peru sought garden seeds to grow their own foods. As always, the Mission Center was there to meet those needs. By year’s end, a shipment of 13 tons was sent to Peru, which was still suffering from the earthquake’s effects.
By the end of 1973, St. Mary’s Mission Center had surpassed 100 tons of goods shipped, but there was no slowing down. On average, about 20 tons were shipped each year. Most of the clothing was now packed in fiber barrels of 35 gallons in size, courtesy of Ayerst in nearby Rouses Point, where incoming supplies of sugar and other benign materials arrived weekly. Instead of disposing of the empties through recycling, the company ensured each was free of product, after which they delivered as many empty barrels as the Mission Center could use—sometimes more than 100 at a time, all at the expense of the company.
In 1980, LaBombard began producing a newsletter to keep the network of volunteers and missionaries informed. Since North Country natives served at several foreign sites, the link between St. Mary’s and those missions was strong. Another bond existed because some of the foreign missions had long been operated by the Daughters of Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the same order that staffed St. Mary’s Academy. At times, nuns who taught at the school left to serve in Peru, South Africa, and Pakistan.
Around 1980, changes came to the Mission Center even as previous functions remained intact. Rita LaBombard’s compassion and willingness to help people in need were valuable to those struggling with daily life. The homeless and the hungry found their way to the center, and just like her stepfather had done, Rita turned no one away. Vagrants and troubled individuals showed up as well, sometimes on their own, and sometimes through law-enforcement officers. In addition, volunteers often asked to board with LaBombard while helping with the center’s work.
Through the goodness of her heart, Rita couldn’t say no to any of them. In early 1983, so many arrived that several spent nights in sleeping bags on the floor. Once again, the center was faced with the issue of too little space, which this time gave birth to “Project Sleep.”
The facility was assessed, and the partially heated barn was deemed a viable solution. Requests went out for electricians and others to make the barn space livable, and cots were sought to accommodate those who slept overnight. At $15,000, the cost was steep, but Rita pushed ahead with faith that donors would come through. In her experience, they always did.
The conclusion: After battling adversity, her legacy lives on.
Photos: Headline covering a 1967 shipment to Peru in South America (North Countryman)