Beloved St. Vincent de Paul Store manager may be gone,
but not forgotten

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — For at least the last decade, if you happened to wander into the St. Vincent de Paul Store on Pleasant Street in Fall River, chances are you’d be warmly greeted by the personable and eager-to-please manager behind the counter, Michael Nicolan.

In recent years, the former restaurant owner and chef at Bishop Connolly High School had taken over the reins of the thrift outlet from his father, Leonard, and had managed to not only make in thrive, but also expand the operation to a second location on County Street in the city.

But everything changed in November, when Nicolan was sidelined after being diagnosed with a rapidly-progressing brain tumor that took his life, leaving his family and friends shocked and saddened.

“People still come in looking for him,” his father Leonard recently told The Anchor. “It hurts, but I’m glad to hear it.”

Since losing his 60-year-old son, the energetic Leonard Nicolan has tried to keep things status quo at the two stores, which hasn’t been easy.

“His dedication was amazing — and it’s not because he’s my son,” Nicolan said. “I don’t plan on staying here; I’m 83 years old. I want to keep busy, but I’m looking to find someone to take over.”

In the meantime, Nicolan is back at his old post, trying to fill the large shoes that had been so comfortably occupied by his son all these years.

“I started the store many years ago, when I became district president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society,” Nicolan said. “Originally Notre Dame Parish (owned it).”

When the day-to-day operations and overhead became too much for the parish to handle, then-pastor Father Richard Beaulieu turned it over to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“We were going to rent it with an option to buy,” Nicolan said. “Father Beaulieu gave us minimum rent and then he gave us a $2,000 donation to get started, which was fantastic. We now own this building and not too far down the road we’re going to own the other building as well.”

Having owned and operated his own cleaning business for many years, Nicolan felt he wanted to step back and enjoy his retirement. It was around this same time that Michael first approached him about working at the store.

“At the time, Michael was already disgusted with what he was doing, and he asked me what I thought about him taking over here,” Nicolan said. “I told him, there wasn’t much to offer him — there were no benefits — but if it was an experience he wanted to have, he had my blessing.”

Noting that his whole family had always had a hand in helping the St. Vincent de Paul Society in one way or another, Nicolan thought it felt right for his son to take over.

“He went before the board and they (approved) him taking over as store manager right away, then I stepped aside,” he said. “With Michael, St. Vincent de Paul realized they were getting someone who was going to drive this place. I’ll never be able to fill his shoes. Michael was always very conservative with heat, with electricity, with expenses. The heat would be set at 63 and if you weren’t using a room, he made sure the lights were off.”

Although he studied culinary arts and worked as a school chef before owning and operating the former Sutherland’s Restaurant in Tiverton, R.I., Nicolan thinks Michael became disenchanted with the long hours and daily grind.

“That was a lot of work and he decided to get rid of it,” he said. “It was too much work — he wasn’t seeing his kids, he wasn’t seeing his family, there were lots of hours.”

Not only did the St. Vincent de Paul Store offer Michael a chance to do something different, Nicolan said he immediately took to the work and really seemed to relish it.

“He wanted a chance and he really loved doing this work,” Nicolan said. “I would sometimes get frustrated and he would always tell me: ‘You know what, dad, I don’t let things bother me.’ He told me that when his mom died, he learned a lot. He learned how to deal with the public.”

Instead of sitting back and waiting for donations, Michael took a more proactive approach and began soliciting donations from local businesses.

“That’s how we got donations from Cardi’s Furniture,” Nicolan said. “Our success to this day is based on the background he built here. We used to get stuff from J.C. Penney, and from A.J. Wright — we used to get truckloads delivered everyday. Michael had a lot of drive in him to do this. I used to ask him if he missed and wanted to go back to cooking, and he would tell me: ‘No, I really enjoy it here, dad.’”

Nicolan said his son’s knack for dealing with people and his innate sense of compassion were traits he obviously inherited from his late mother, Jeanne.

“I was self-employed, I had my own cleaning service, but I never had any money in the bank,” he said. “When my wife died, you should have seen all the people coming to my home saying: ‘Oh, I had a tough time and your wife gave me $100,’ or ‘your wife paid my heating bill.’ So I remember telling Michael, no wonder I don’t have any money in the bank. My bills were all paid, but I never questioned her. She took care of the money.

“He had to have gotten that from his mother. It’s not that I didn’t do that, but she was overly generous. I think it’s a family thing and I think it goes back to my parents. They had nothing and they would do without. So when I started my own business, I always said if I was successful enough to live a decent life, I would try to help someone else. And that’s why I came here. I think Michael saw that and wanted to carry on that tradition.”

Nicolan described his son as someone who was always full of life and energy, which is why friends and family began to notice something was wrong in the days and weeks leading up to his untimely passing.

“He was always jolly and laughing, and yet he was quiet for some reason,” he said. “My daughter who was volunteering here told me: ‘There’s something wrong with Michael. It doesn’t seem like him.’”

After convincing him to leave work to go for a checkup at the hospital, an MRI and CatScan would reveal that he had a fast-progressing brain tumor. Within a week Michael would be shuttled back and forth to Boston awaiting surgery. 

But two days before his scheduled procedure, things took a turn for the worse.

“I was working here and I got a call in the morning from my daughter-in-law saying Michael was in an ambulance and they were taking him to the hospital,” Nicolan said. “I could tell something wasn’t right. When I got there he was in the ambulance and I believe he passed away there. By the time we got to the hospital it was too late.”

As if he didn’t already have enough to deal with, Nicolan immediately stepped in to make sure the St. Vincent de Paul Stores remained open and running.

“All of sudden, this thing happened to him very quickly,” he said. “We didn’t have anybody, so I had to step in. I don’t mind doing it, because it’s something I believe in.”

It’s clear that Nicolan’s dedication to the St. Vincent de Paul Stores serves as both a way to deal with his grief and to honor his son.

“The direction he was going is the direction we’re going to keep going,” he said. “We want to keep the stores functioning and keep them running because there are a lot of people out there who need our help.”

On this particular weekday, Nicolan is juggling about a half-dozen different things — from pricing out refurbished furniture and used clothing to answering questions from volunteers.

He pauses for a moment at the front counter to point out a photograph of Michael on the wall smiling down at him.

“One of our board members, the treasurer, suggested putting up that picture of Michael behind the cash register,” Nicolan said. “I wasn’t going to suggest it, but I was happy they did it.”

For the first time during the interview, the realization that Michael is gone seems to set in.

“I can talk about him at times, but sometimes I have to stop because it gets to me,” he said, finally. “Life is life and we’re all going to die, but I just felt his life could have gone so much further. Is the store lost without him? I’d have to say absolutely. Is the store going to move on? Yes, because that’s what he would want.”

© 2020 The Anchor  †  887 Highland Avenue  †  Fall River, Massachusetts 02720