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Shirley Hosler: ‘To the least of these my brethren’

March 4, 2009
By YVONA?FAST, Special to the Enterprise

When asked, "Where'd you get that sweater?" People often answer would often be, "At Shirley's."

For many years, Shirley's, otherwise known as the St. Bernard's Thrift Shop, was the chief place to buy used clothing in Saranac Lake.

Although the St. Bernard's Thrift Shop closed two years ago, Shirley Hosler is still in the business of giving.

Article Photos

Shirley Hosler
(Photo — Yvona Fast)

"People donate things for me to give out," she explained, showing me her book full of the names of people who have done just that. "I get calls from people who need help."

Indeed, her porch is crammed with boxes full of things people have given her to pass on to others in need.

Born to a large, poor family in Tupper Lake in 1936, Shirley had a difficult childhood. She begins her story as follows: "When I was eight, a social worker came to my home and took me away from my mom and dad. I never saw my parents again."

Shirley said she was brought to an orphanage in Syracuse.

"I was a prisoner there," she said. "I cried a lot. I never knew why they took me away. I knew I wasn't bad. When I was 11, they told me my parents had both died, but I didn't find out how they died until I was 16. My father shot my mother and then shot himself. He was 40, my mom in her 30s. He couldn't stand the pain of losing his kids, and he was depressed."

Many years later, Clarence, a family friend, called Shirley at the thrift shop where she worked and gave her a bunch of papers. Among them were the suicide notes from her father.

"It made me cry," she said. "For years, I didn't know if my parents loved me. But here it said my mom and dad loved us all very much. It read, 'I'm taking Betty with me. Kiss the children for me and tell them I love them. I'm sorry I can't be around when you get older, but someday we will be together. Help each other. Stick together.'

"My mom and dad went through so much hardship. Now they are watching from heaven, and they are very proud of me."

Shirley said she was abused at the institution she lived at.

"For punishment, they would put us on a big table and wrap us in sheets: 13 wet sheets, and 13 blankets on top of them, wrapped up like a dummy, leaving you there three hours. It got very hot underneath all those blankets. Many kids died in those sheets. My sister still has a scar from when they threw boiling water on her. I think the state owes me money for the abuse."

When Shirley became an adult, she went to live with her aunt in Tupper Lake. From 1959 to 1961, she worked in Ray Brook at the veteran's hospital and the Tuberculosis hospital. On Jan. 17, 1962, she began working for Mike and Sandy's restaurant in Saranac Lake, where the Waterhole is now.

"I was 25," she said. "She took me in like I was her daughter. Everyone was nice and pleasant; everyone got along. I worked for them, shoveling, shopping, running errands, washing dishes, cleaning inside and out. She was very good to me. She died at 93 years old."

In 1969, Shirley met Father Butler.

"He cared about people," she said. "He wanted to open a thrift shop and was looking for someone to work, but couldn't find anyone. It was a small shop across from Newberry's then. I said I never had any experience like that, I never had an education. He said 'Well, would you like to try it?' I said 'Yeah, why not?' That was the beginning."

Soon clothes started coming in, and Shirley started taking care of them. It became her life's work. She worked there for 38 years. She also sent clothes to the needy in New York City and overseas.

Three years after they opened the St. Bernard's Thrift Shop, Father Butler went to Spain. The shop grew and moved to bigger quarters on upper Broadway, and later to the Knights of Columbus building on Bloomingdale Avenue, where Shirley and her shop became a local fixture.

Shirley managed the thrift shop until she was forced to retire two years ago.

"They said I was too old to work, and 'We don't need you any more.' Maybe they don't need me, but the people need me. I love Saranac Lake. I love the mountains, I love the people. There's a mother with a three-month-old infant who got evicted from her place of residence. She needs me. I miss the folks that used to come in to the store: groups from St. Joe's Rehab, college students from NCCC and Paul Smith's, moms with young children. They need me. I have a homeless cat I take care of; I call her Angel - and two house cats, Faith and Hope."

Now in her 70s, Shirley is still known for her caring ways. She spends her time helping the poor. "We have to help each other," she said. "There are so many people who have gone through so much hurt and pain. There are people sleeping in the woods. Pain will never go away; it's always there. We have to trust in God and know that one day it'll be all over."

She visits patients at hospitals and nursing homes, hoping to brightening their days with small gifts. She has been a regular visitor at the nursing homes in Malone, Tupper Lake and Lake Placid's Uihlein for 40 years.

"I bring them gifts: robes, chocolates, sweaters, socks, shirts, underwear, bedroom slippers things they need. One year I gave everyone a quilt," she said.

She has been known to dress for the occasion - in an bunny outfit at Easter time, for example.

This woman who lost her own family as a little girl, now said she gets joy by helping families reunite. She tried to help a Russian woman find her long-lost sister. Lately, she has been helping the family of London Ruby Call raise money for medical treatment that is only available in China. She also volunteers with the Have a Heart Adopt a Soldier program, run by John and Gladys Walker in Malone, collecting any non-monetary donations like boxes of potato chips donated by Price Chopper.

"That's what the world is about, reaching out,"?she said. "I love to do it. Jesus said, 'Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Mt. 25:40) It would be a better world if more people helped each other instead of making others sink.

"There are so many poor people, so many needs, and so many empty buildings in this area."

Her dream is to have a family center from which she could help other people.

"It would not be a store, but a place for people to connect and receive help that they need: food, clothes, a listening ear there are so many needs."

Based on an interview with Shirley Hosler. Yvona Fast can be reached at



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