MADAWASKA — Despite being temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee St. Onge, manager of the St. Thomas Aquinas Gift Shop in Madawaska, is getting creative in trying to bring Maine Catholics closer to Jesus.
“We are closed, but if anybody needs anything from the store, they can call me and I can arrange a way to get it to them,” said Lee. “People can call anytime at 207-728-4346. I will also deliver to anyone within a reasonable distance.”
The gift shop is a treasure trove of crucifixes, statues, rosaries, prayer cards, candles, anniversary gifts, books for all ages, CDs, toys, and much more. Weekly specials are listed on the shop’s website (sjvcatholics.org/st-thomas-aquinas-gift-shop).
“Our parish and world need a lot of prayers right now, and we sell beautiful rosaries and instruction booklets for just two to three dollars,” said Lee. We also have many different types of gifts for first Eucharist and confirmation.”
All proceeds from the gift shop go to St. Thomas Aquinas Church. Since its doors opened nearly 30 years ago, parishioners and residents have come to love the quaint gift shop, located in the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church on 337 St. Thomas Street.
“None of us are compensated in any way for the work performed at or for the gift shop,” said Lee. “Our church is in dire need of repairs and anything we can do to help in this cause is our reward for the efforts put in. It could well be called a full-time job. However, since it is Jesus’ store, I am very pleased to be able to say that I love my job!”
The store opened in 1992 under the leadership of parishioner Janet Brown. In 1997, due to health reasons, Janet turned over the shop’s operations to parishioner Muriel Raymond. Sadly, in the early 2000s, Muriel passed away and the shop was suddenly without an obvious candidate to take over its oversight.
In 2004, after seeing a notice in the church bulletin asking for someone to step in, Lee volunteered to give it her best shot and has led the way ever since. It has not been without challenges.
“In 2005, because of problems in the basement of the church, we had to find another location for the shop or close it down,” she said. “Since I had not taken over the place to close it down, I asked my neighbor, who at the time had some empty space in the front of his building, if we could possibly move in there for an undetermined amount of time. He agreed thinking that it might help him sell the building which had been for sale for a few years.”
The gift shop was moved in September and stayed in its new home for seven months until the house was sold.
“At that time, we moved it back to the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church since the problem there had been rectified,” said Lee. “Prior to this time, the gift shop had been in a very small space but when we returned, we got the rights to a full room. It was wonderful!”
Volunteers came together and used their individual talents to paint the walls, move the items, and even build tables thanks to a donation of wood from a local hardware store.
“The following week, we were open for business,” said Lee. “Praise the Lord!”
Many credit Lee and the volunteers over the years for their dedication in making this labor of love a continued success.
“Lee’s own spirituality is reflected in her service to others and her long dedication to the gift shop,” said Fr. James Plourde, pastor of Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Parish of which St. Thomas Aquinas Church in a part. “She keeps the gift shop fully stocked to meet the needs of various people throughout the St. John Valley. She never hesitates to make a special trip to the gift shop, when it is closed, to pick up a special request for someone in need of items for themselves or for someone else.”
Her devout faith has made Lee the perfect steward for the shop.
“The gift shop offers multiple items for those who are looking for spiritual tools to help their journey of faith,” said Fr. Plourde. “Lee’s choice of relevant Catholic reading material reflects her own sensitivity to the needs of her customers. We are so grateful to her.”
To the surprise of nobody who knows her, Lee is quick to send any praise elsewhere, even during the trying times of the pandemic.
“I get to spend time with my friend Jesus, working with Him and for Him! When I order the products to be sold, I always ask Him to help me in selecting the merchandise because our goal is ‘To supply people with the right tools to bring them closer to Jesus.’”