Dedicated volunteers saluted as the ‘little shop on Washington Avenue’ closes its doors

October 28, 2014

HOUSTON — St. Theresa Little Flower Thrift Shop recently closed its doors after 43 years of helping countless individuals and social agencies provide assistance to Houston’s needy. During all of that time, the shop’s dedicated volunteer base offered dignity and care to anyone crossing its threshold. 

Earlier this month, an appreciation dinner was held to pay tribute to the thrift shop volunteers and supporters, many of which formed lasting bonds and friendships along the way. Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza and Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz attended the event, but the evening belonged to the volunteers — those present and deceased — for making such a positive impact on the community.

“I just want to say I’m so thankful to be here with this wonderful group,” said Terry Espinosa, a volunteer at Little Flower for 14 years. “The Thrift Shop has meant a lot to all of us and we are sorry to see it go. But I see that God gave us the greatest gift of all — love and friendship. And that is what I am most thankful for, because we helped the community as one big, happy family.”

In 1971, the thrift shop founder Catherine Swilley was first approached by Father John McCarthey about starting the first parish social service ministry in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. It quickly took off and its success proved to be a local model for other outreach endeavors throughout the city. Bishop McCarthy of Austin, now retired, was unable to attend the dinner.

At the gathering, Swilley said she has mixed emotions about the thrift shop’s closing but expressed nothing but pride and joy for the work of the volunteers.

“(The thrift shop) has served such a wonderful service to the community and for the volunteers, it was a very fulfilling opportunity,” Swilley said. “I want to thank all of the volunteers, we cannot do enough to thank you for your many, many years of service. I look out at everyone here today and so many who are not here... We need to remember all of them, especially Olive.”

A retired systems analyst, Olive Gaudet originally came to Swilley “looking for something to do” shortly after the thrift shop was founded. As the manager, Gaudet went on to work tirelessly with her group of volunteers to operate the thrift shop — Little Flower twice outgrew its home before moving a third and final time to the location at 5334 Washington Ave.

“She did such a marvelous job of organizing,” Swilley said of Gaudet. “All I did was make arrangements and she took off like a rocket.”

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, an active supporter of the thrift shop over the years who had helped facilitate the purchase of the property of the thrift’s shop second location, remembers Gaudet as being a very special presence for Houston — “the Mother Teresa of our city.”

Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Fiorenza distributed service awards to the volunteers present for the dinner. Leading the list were Mary Molina, the shop’s first volunteer, and Elle Hemphill and Ginny Mahoney, who each volunteered for 40 years. Molina remained active until the closing, serving as president of the shop’s Board of Directors as well as training numerous volunteers. Hemphill and Mahoney were influential in growing the resale shop. As members of St. Cecilia Church, they found Little Flower when looking for a place to donate items collected at their church. 

Joan Cahill, a volunteer for 33 years, was grateful for the recent “family gathering” with those involved in making the Little Flower Thrift Shop such a remarkable place and expereince.

“It was good we have this one last meeting together to share memories of Olive and many others who once worked at the little shop on Washington Avenue,” she said.

Sister Maureen O’Connell, O.P., Angela House director, addressed the volunteers attending the dinner on behalf of the 100-plus agencies and ministries the thrift shop has assisted during its run. Angela House is a transitional housing program for women returning to the community from incarceration.

“For the people who went to the Little Flower, they came to a place where people treated them with dignity, treated them with care and concern and the love and the message that the Gospel has always given,” Sister O’Connell said. “This is about the people in this room who have never once wavered in their belief of the Gospel, never once wavered in their trust and their belief that when we help the least among us, we are helping one another.”