For almost a century, Lagron-Miller Company has been meeting central Illinois’ religious supply needs (and a potential saint once worked there)
Since being formally incorporated by Naomi Lagron and Ida Miller, a rarity for two women in 1925, the eponymous purveyor of Christian books and other goods has built relationships with churches and churchgoers throughout central Illinois.
It’s those relationships that appeal to current Lagron-Miller Company owner David Gould.
“We’re filling a niche. People need it,” he said. “One of the most rewarding things is hearing those connections. There’s a lot of things here that bring (customers) back to a memory of their youth or a faith-driven feeling.”
Gould, the second-generation operator of the family-based business across from Northwoods Mall at 4517 N. Sterling Ave., added jokingly: “Nothing can bring back memories like a plaid (parochial school) jumper.”
If it’s religious, Lagron-Miller has it (or can get it)
Raised in the business his father acquired in the 1970s, when it was at its longtime Main Street location across from Campustown, Gould was exposed early to the vicissitudes of a family business.
“My mom worked alongside my dad for many years. Growing up in a family business you learned what a lot of work it is … I saw my dad up repairing a leaky roof and emptying garbage.”
The store offers retail items ranging from key rings and Bibles to handmade European art pieces and parochial-school uniforms. But there’s also a wholesale operation geared more to churches that need items as varied as candles, kneelers and incense.
Gould estimates that 70% of Lagron-Miller’s business is wholesale church supplies, with the remaining retail moving through the storefront and online sales.
“They are two separate entities run out of the same business,” he said. The company accomplishes that with up to 10 full-time workers.
Gould noted that a case of church candles may weigh more than 30 pounds and churches may order dozens of cases at a time. A pair of Lagron-Miller vans traverse the 26-county Diocese of Peoria a couple times a week making deliveries to churches and schools. They also track purchases so they know, through experience and history, when a church will probably need to reorder
“It’s been the go-to place for decades. … If they don’t have it, they know how to get it,” said Father Bill Miller, pastor of the Heart of Peoria Catholic Community and rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral. “I think it’s unique to that kind of business.”
‘The church is not going to go away’
Gould sees similarities between churches and his business, outside of the customer bases.
“(A church) is a work atmosphere that runs kind of like a family,” he said. “It’s been great dealing with customers who have a similar work flow and atmosphere.”
That extends to many of his suppliers, as well. “It’s such a family-oriented business niche and I think (that) contributes to the uniqueness.”
While Lagron-Miller has been seen as almost-exclusively Catholic, Gould emphasized that its product lines have ecumenical appeal.
“We deliver to a lot of Lutheran churches, Protestant churches,” he said. “We’ve tried to make this a welcoming place for all denominations.”
Church participation and membership have dramatically changed since 1925 and many smaller communities have seen longtime churches close or consolidate. Still, Gould sees the company continuing to fulfill its mission.
“We’re aware of (the changes) but we’re still rooted in the belief that the church is not going to go away,” he said. “People’s faith will always be something they fall back on.
“In times of celebration or in times of grief, we’re still going to be the place you can come and find something.”
Customer satisfaction, and a saint candidate to boot
Customers also appreciate the relationship.
One longtime customer told of having to pick up a school uniform for one grandchild while simultaneously caring for another, sick grandchild. She alerted Gould to the situation and he made a car-side delivery in the store’s parking lot to hand off the clothing.
“When I first moved here in ‘88. I would go there quite often,” said Kevin Zeeb, a deacon at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Morton. “It doesn’t matter who is working, they’re always kind, friendly, always smiling, compassionate … trying to minister in a little way.”
Zeeb mentioned the store’s ability to special order items, including artwork, provide gift-wrapping and hold items for pickup at a convenient time. He also remembered Gould and his father coming to the deacon training class to personally fit the group for albs and stoles.
“They try and help you in any way they can.”
Both Miller and Zeeb characterized the store as a destination spot and meeting place for clerics and laypeople coming from out of town.
Gould is the only family member still actively involved in the business. He sees his six daughters getting the same introduction to the family business he had.
“They’re familiar with helping out around here,” he said. “They like coming in and hanging out.”
While records are scarce, Lagron-Miller apparently operated for years before its formal incorporation. Famed central Illinois cleric Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who is a candidate for sainthood, worked at the store while in school.
“The diocese actually called us. In reviewing the paperwork in his cause for sainthood, there was reference to him working at Lagron-Miller,” Gould said.
Peoria’s largest hospital, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, has been a longtime customer, Gould said, with the store providing religious decor, artwork and chapel items to OSF hospitals.
“They come in and say ‘we want to put the same crucifix in every room in every hospital we own,” Gould said. “It’s fortunate to have customers coming to you saying ‘we want to make this place special, sacramental, spiritual.’ And we’re able to provide that.”