Women’s History Month this year finds me pondering the death of an old friend back in early February. When I first saw her obituary, it struck me as a second major loss for my hometown in a very short time. You see, fire in mid-January destroyed much of the school I attended through ten grades. I was raised in Champlain, north of Plattsburgh and just a mile from the Canadian border. During those growing-up years it was a typical village, where most of us knew most of us in one way or another. For a century, St. Mary’s Academy was the heart and soul of the community. The fire’s toll was felt by many.
Just two weeks after the blaze came the death at age 90 of Rita LaBombard. Unlike the school fire, her passing received little media coverage other than an obituary of a few paragraphs. Yet her life may have affected in a positive way just as many people as the school did in 106 years. What she accomplished through a lifetime of giving really is amazing.
Rita, who was raised in a devout Catholic household, lost her father when she was four years old. Her mother eventually remarried, and Rita’s stepfather, Jim Nichols, set the tone for the household: open, friendly, and welcoming, where all visitors were told to have a seat and enjoy some good food. That atmosphere, combined with a strong religious faith, had a deep impact on Rita.
When health issues forced Jim to give up the family farm, they found only one viable option at the time, a home on Oak Street in Champlain, where each of them would spend the rest of their lives. At that time, Rita learned that the Ogdensburg diocese, encompassing New York’s northern counties, had no center for collecting religious articles and shipping them to foreign missions. With permission, she undertook the task with great zeal. Boxes were placed in the back of St. Mary’s Church, and donors were generous.
A few repaired rosaries and some old missals constituted her first shipment. With the support of her parents, Rita used a corner of the home’s large porch to conduct the business of repairing items and packing shipments. Items flowed in faster than she could work, and by late 1956, it was clear that help was needed. A call went out to six of Rita’s friends and a meeting was arranged.
On January 3, 1957, the group officially formed St. Mary’s Mission Center, with Rita as director. By January 10, six cartons totaling 66 pounds had been shipped to Leribe and Basutoland (today’s Lesotho), both in South Africa. The contents were medals, prayer books, rosaries, and other items.
To further boost donations, locals were asked to save spring-cleaning items that were normally discarded (sent to the dump), and instead bring them to the Mission Center. The response was excellent, and by year’s end, 1655 pounds of items had been shipped. Bake sales and other fundraisers were held to supplement the cash donations that covered shipping costs.
At the urging of missionaries on the receiving end, costume jewelry was added to the items collected. Religious articles, they said, were given to natives as rewards or to inspire faith, while the jewelry was used for barter.
In the first three years, more than two tons of goods were shipped. The appreciative recipients overseas made their needs known, particularly for clothing. Soon the Mission Center was seeking donations of fabric that volunteers transformed into outfits for children, many of whom were very poor and had little or nothing to wear. The effort mushroomed as people began donating boxes and bags of used clothing in large quantities. The more Rita asked for, the more they gave.
The response was literally overwhelming in one regard: the porch floor buckled, forcing them to scatter the living room furniture throughout the Nichols house and move the clothing donations inside. It wasn’t long before the entire house was filled with donated items.
By the mid-1960s, though religious articles were still being shipped, the Mission Center began focusing on more practical needs, like clothing. By the end of 1963 (year seven), the center had shipped more than 15,000 pounds, much of it wearable goods.
LaBombard was also busy establishing satellite groups in nearby towns, delivering lectures on the Mission Center’s work and encouraging people to volunteer. This resulted in many gatherings similar to quilting bees, where groups of women made new clothes, repaired donated clothing items, and sewed bandages for lepers. All items were delivered to the Champlain location, where they were stored until overseas shipments were sent, usually twice a year. Destinations included East Pakistan, Peru, Native-American settlements in Montana, and several locations in Africa.
People seemed eager whenever Rita expressed the need for more volunteers. Those who couldn’t sew or mend items instead donated money or materials. Some washed, ironed, and folded clothes before packing them in boxes. Others made labels, stenciled boxes, moved materials to the storage barn, or loaded trucks. There was so much to be done, and all without pay. The work itself was its own reward.
Storage space was always at a premium. Requests were ongoing for clothing (new, used, or damaged), and for supplies such as beads, buttons, fabric, jewelry, needles, pins, ribbons, and even used greeting cards. Everything had to be warehoused to maintain order.
LaBombard was a tireless worker and organizer, always looking for help. By the same token, she provided an outlet for those wishing to perform charitable deeds. Companies joined in as well, which was of particular value when management jobs were filled by locals. With the authority to delegate resources, they provided low-cost or even free services to the Mission Center. Trucking firms carried loads to New York City at reduced rates. Other businesses provided free items, or the services of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. It was an extended community effort to give—a community that ranged across three counties, plus southern Quebec and western Vermont.
The results were remarkable. In mid-January 1965, it was announced that a seven-ton shipment of crated materials sent at year’s end had recently arrived in Latin America. The largest business in Champlain, Sheridan (maker of machines that printed many top magazines) had donated supplies and labor for building the wooden crates and packing everything. One man handled the paperwork, while another made shipping arrangements. A trucking company then hauled everything to New York City, free of charge.
For poorly clothed children living in very cold areas, an additional shipment of 640 pounds of heavy clothing was made, with another planned for the near future. A Saranac woman donated nearly 50 hand-made quilts. A group from Malone provided clothing that included 50 pairs of slippers. The town’s large manufacturer, Ayerst Pharmaceuticals, donated $1000 worth of drugs. And people just kept on giving.
By the end of July, three more tons of supplies had reached the missionaries in Peru, where there was much poverty. In November, another five tons followed, including nearly $2000 worth of medicines, mostly vitamins, from Ayerst, which developed an internal program to donate supplies for each shipment. By year’s end, 15½ tons of goods had been shipped to Peru.
Part 2: Helping on a massive scale.
Photos: Rita LaBombard (MB Clark Funeral Home)