A Catholic charity nonprofit does not often have any chance to brag one way or the other about what it does. But the Thrifty Sisters thrift store on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, at least wants shoppers to know one thing.

“We were the first Catholic thrift store in the area!” a worker said with a laugh during a recent visit. “Anyone else is just a copycat!” 

Thrifty Sisters is one of two nonprofit efforts in the Diocese of Richmond showcasing a relatively rare model of Catholic charity: Along with the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, the two shops are using the familiar economy of thrifting and putting it to work for God. 

Thrifty Sisters opened in 2012. It was founded after the example of St. Jeanne Jugan, the 19th-century French Catholic nun whose service to the impoverished and the infirm in Brittany launched the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1839.

The shop was “founded with the intent of directly supporting the elderly in Richmond who otherwise do not have the financial means to affordable assisted living care,” the store says. 

The shop initially directed its proceeds to the local St. Joseph’s Home, an elderly care facility run by the Little Sisters in nearby Henrico County. The sisters had some form of the care center since 1877; they announced in 2021 that they were selling the facility to a North Carolina-based senior living company.

The exterior of Thrifty Sisters in Henrico County, Virginia, featuring the store's distinct sign. Photo credit: Daniel Payne / CNA
The exterior of Thrifty Sisters in Henrico County, Virginia, featuring the store's distinct sign. Photo credit: Daniel Payne / CNA

Thrifty Sisters ultimately selected as its new charitable beneficiary the Saint Francis Manchester assisted living facility. Founded in the early 1970s as a social ministry of the Diocese of Richmond, the facility lists Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout as its board chairman. 

Bruce Slough, the executive director of Saint Francis, said at the thrift store’s 10th anniversary observance earlier this year that Thrifty Sisters was a “committed partner” that in the span of its brief partnership had already “bridged the annual funding gap for at least 15 of our residents.”

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Thrifty Sisters says on its website that after its launch it “quickly became one of the most popular thrift shops in the Richmond area.” The store attributes its success to “support from shoppers, donors, and volunteers from throughout Central Virginia.”

The store itself is, by thrift store standards, modestly upscale: Carefully curated and organized, it offers a broad selection of clothing, home goods, books, and other standard thrift fare. 

Deals are not hard to come by: A recent visit netted a 9-inch Favorite Piqua Ware cast iron skillet in good condition at a great price, a choice find for any thrifter. 

‘First responders for emergency needs’

Located just a short drive away in the Bon Air neighborhood of Chesterfield County, the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store is the latest effort of the Richmond Diocese’s St. Vincent de Paul council to raise funds for the poor within the diocese’s 33,000 square miles. 

Founded in 1833 — within just a few years of the Little Sisters of the Poor — the St. Vincent de Paul Society is a voluntary Catholic organization in which participants “seek personal holiness through service to those in need and in defense of social justice.”

Countless “conferences” of the society have been established around the world; often working across entire dioceses, the organization frequently coordinates at the parish level to direct volunteers, funding, donations, and other charitable activities toward local needy recipients. 

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Dan Kearns, the executive director of the Richmond council, told CNA the council worked “for the better part of a year” to open the facility. 

The society, Kearns said, addresses “basic needs” among the needy, those who “can’t pay their electric bill, their water bill, their rent; they don’t have food.”

“We’re kind of first responders for emergency needs,” Kearns said. “We send out home visitors. What makes us different is we do home visits rather than have them come to an office. We go to them.”

The interior of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Daniel Payne / CNA
The interior of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Daniel Payne / CNA

Kearns said there are several hundred St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Stores around the country; the Bon Air store is the first one in the Diocese of Richmond. It arose after the Richmond council began collecting furniture and people started encouraging the group to launch an organized retail effort. 

“People kept saying, ‘You should start a thrift store!’” Kearns said. “I said, ‘I don’t really wanna,’” he added with a laugh. 

“We started doing some research,” he said. “We talked to some other people who started doing St. Vincents across the country.” The store came together in rapid time, going from a tentative vision to open for business in less than a year. In April, prior to its official launch, Bishop Knestout blessed the store and its charitable mission.  

The store has just two employees — Kearns himself as well as manager Kim Domingo. Its day-to-day staffing needs are taken care of by approximately 60 volunteers.

After just a few months, Kearns said the store has succeeded beyond expectations. 

“Your first year in business, you always think it’s going to struggle,” he said. “We’ve had just the opposite. We’ve been well above our goals and projections.” 

“Every metric has gone up,” he said. “Our sales have gone up. Our customers have gone up. The donations have been quality. The customer base is diverse.”

“It’s only four months in but we’re projecting a very healthy ‘profit’ for Year One,” he said, “so much so that we’re thinking, what does the future look like? Is there a place for future stores down the road?”

Like Thrifty Sisters, the St. Vincent de Paul store is well-stocked, with high-quality merchandise at good prices. A recent purchase included a high-quality “rocket stove,” an ultra-efficient outdoor cooker that uses small pieces of wood to generate intense heat. It’s the perfect way to cook a camping breakfast — perhaps atop a newly purchased cast iron skillet. 

Kearns said shoppers can feel good knowing that their purchases are going to help the needy in the community.

Proceeds, he said, are “going to our mission. It’s the faith development of our members through service to those in need. You’re going to help a kid get a bed, or a family who’s homeless get fed. That’s what we do.”