Tag Archives: Brian Fraga

Supplying an army of faith

MIKE COTTER’s church goods business fills an enormous need for faithful Catholics . . .

by Brian Fraga

Growing up in Southern California, Mike Cotter and his siblings often helped out around the family business, Cotter Church Supplies, Inc.

The Cotter children helped assemble First Communion kits and prepared palm branches for churches to distribute on Palm Sunday. They also served customers, cleaned up and did routine chores around the store.

“I suppose I’ve grown up with the business,” said Mike Cotter, 58, president of Cotter Church Supplies, the largest religious goods store chain in California with five locations, including a new store in San Francisco.

Family business

cover-june15Simply known as “Cotters” to most customers, the stores sell thousands of Catholic-related items, including hundreds of different kinds of rosaries, Italian-made saint statues, books, prayer cards, artwork, chalices, church furniture, altar linens and vestments.

“We sell to customers who come into the store. We sell on the phone. We go out and make sales calls to churches. Sometimes we make trips to Northern and Central California to visit customers,” said Mike, a member of Legatus’ South Bay of Los Angeles Chapter.

Mike said Legatus, which he and his wife Colleen joined in 2010, helps keep him focused on the religious dimension of his business.

“Legatus reminds me, ‘Hey, this is not just an ordinary business,’” he explained. “The danger working in a business like ours is becoming numb to our faith since we are exposed to it every day.”

Mike and his two brothers, Patrick and Tim, are equal partners in the business their father, Ted Cotter, started when he immigrated to Los Angeles from Ireland in 1948. Ted Cotter opened his first store in a rented room in a Long Beach house.

“My dad was single and looking for something to do,” Mike explained. “At the time, my dad’s brother, who was a priest, was at the cathedral and gave him the idea to start a religious goods store.

“Every time my dad would pass by the front door of a church, he would make the sign of the cross. That was a habit he developed in Ireland,” he said, adding that his father actually had two brothers who were priests. Mike’s late mother also had two brothers who were Franciscan priests in the Midwest.

“My parents were very well suited to go into this sort of endeavor,” he said.

Throughout the 1950s, Ted Cotter expanded the business and twice moved to larger locations in Long Beach. As Southern California’s population boomed in the 1950s and ’60s, Cotter Church Supplies grew into a thriving enterprise.

“Los Angeles was growing fairly quickly at that time,” Mike said. “My father was able to benefit by the new churches that were being built and the growing population in the area. He ramped up his business and got into catalogue sales a little bit more. He did several different things to become the largest religious goods dealer in the area.”

Business as a ministry

Mike, Tim and Patrick Cotter pose in front of prints they sell at their Los Angeles headquarters.

Mike, Tim and Patrick Cotter pose in front
of prints they sell at their Los Angeles

Cotters went through a difficult time after the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. Fewer Catholics were purchasing devotional items, and many of them stopped buying missals when priests started celebrating the Mass in English. Sales to churches also dropped as many of them removed communion rails, saint statues and other traditional items. A nearby competitor in Los Angeles, C.F. Horan & Co., went bankrupt.

“This business is quite static; it doesn’t change a lot,” Mike said. “A lot of the product is the same thing many years over and over. That’s why the Vatican II upheaval was such a shock. It was a change many people weren’t prepared for.”

Still, the Cotters’ business recovered and resumed its growth. They even took over the former C.F. Horan building in Los Angeles while retaining the Long Beach store.

Mike joined the company in 1982 shortly after finishing graduate school. Brothers Tim and Patrick also joined the business and began to modernize its operations. In 1988, they remodeled the main office in LA and installed computer systems to run the daily operation. Catalog sales expanded the business’ sales territory beyond Southern California while the Internet provided new sales opportunities.

“The introduction of the Internet has had a major impact,” said Mike. “A lot of the product we sell isn’t the easiest to find. You just can’t walk into any shop and find a rosary.”

Mike’s brother Tim, 62, specializes in the accounting and IT operations, while Patrick, 53, helps handle sales and marketing. Tim said the daily practical transactions have helped him gain insights into how other Catholics approach the faith.

“When chalices are brought in for refinishing, I can see how much care and respect has been given them,” he said.

Patrick said that while growing up, he and his siblings were always expected to be on good behavior since many priests and others knew they were from the “church supply place.”

“Being a Cotter, everybody knew who you were,” explained Patrick, who says the family business is a genuine ministry.

“It is a business, but dealing with the customers and the priests is just very fulfilling as well — and it does strengthen my faith,” Patrick said. “It makes running the business easier if you treat it like a ministry. I love coming to work every day.”

Filling a need

Mike said the business also reminds him that there is a “whole army of people” — catechists, secretaries, volunteers and lay ministers, among others — that keeps the Church functioning. And, he says, the items customers purchase have shown him the diverse ways that Catholics approach the spiritual life.

“A lot of people are focused on the cerebral types of things and they look for inspiration from books,” he said. “Others have a little different approach to their religion and they get inspiration from religious articles, statues, that type of thing. It’s interesting to see how our Church is flexible enough to allow people to experience their religion on different planes. You realize one is not better than the other.”

Mike says his involvement with Legatus has also exposed him to sophisticated discussions about the Catholic faith and fellowship with like-minded business leaders.

“Being able to go out and have an evening where you talk about the faith, not in a standard church setting, but in a setting where we can really stretch our understanding of our faith and be stimulated by conversation and really worthwhile lectures; it’s really been tremendous and something we enjoy going to,” said Mike, who has been married to Colleen for 20 years. They have two children, ages 17 and 19.

“They’re a very devout family,” said Monsignor David A. Sork, who is Mike’s pastor at St. John Fisher Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Monsignor Sork, who is also the chaplain of Legatus’ South Bay of Los Angeles Chapter, said Cotter played an important role as a member of the parish committee for arts and environment in building the parish church.

Mike Cotter said he and his brothers, who also have children in high school and college, are not sure whether the next generation will step in to continue running the family business, which he said has been a blessing to operate.

“It’s kept us employed. It’s been a pleasant place to work,” Mike said, “and I hope it’s been a benefit to the Church all these years.”

BRIAN FRAGA is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.

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Religious liberty on the line

Legate CHARLES LiMANDRI leads a landmark David-versus-Goliath case in New Jersey . . .

Charles LiMandri

Charles LiMandri

by Brian Fraga

This summer, a jury in New Jersey will hear arguments in Ferguson v. JONAH, which promises to be one of the most important religious liberty cases in years.

In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is using New Jersey’s state Consumer Fraud Act against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a religious nonprofit that works with and helps people who are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction to find counseling.

Assisted by the SPLC, four former JONAH clients and their mothers are suing the nonprofit, partially on grounds that JONAH commits consumer fraud by claiming that people can overcome same-sex desires and that homosexual behavior itself is disordered.

Charles LiMandri, president and chief counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, is defending JONAH. A member of Legatus’ San Diego Chapter, LiMandri spoke with Legatus magazine about the upcoming trial — and the possible ramifications for Catholics who hold fast to Church teachings on same-sex behavior.

When and where will the trial be held?

The trial is scheduled to begin June 1 in Jersey City, N.J. Because this is such an important and controversial case, the judge is going to have us show up on May 29 to start selecting a jury.

What is this trial about? What is at stake?

Basically what we have is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is probably the most extreme liberal group in the country, filing a lawsuit that they themselves call a first of its kind in the history of the United States. And indeed it is.

They think they can get a judicial ruling to silence organized religion and say that God is wrong on homosexuality. It’s the first case of its kind where they’ve gone after people for having an opposing worldview because they believe that worldview to be oppressive and hurtful.

The SPLC’s lawsuit violates the basic right to self-determination and it sets the stage for outlawing counseling that the Left does not like, including counseling by the clergy. We have to stop them here, or we are going to be fighting them all over the country. They are poised to take this nationwide.

How do you plan to argue this case?

A major theme for us, which we believe is going to resonate even with liberals, is that this is case all about the right to self-determination, free choice and free will. The other side is trying to stop people who have any opposition to homosexual behavior. The position of the Southern Poverty Law Center now is to declare that nobody should have the right to say that.

The Consumer Fraud Act has never been used to further an ideological viewpoint. It was written to stop the sale of fraudulent consumer products or fraudulent services.

We believe we can and will win this one as long as we don’t get our hands tied by unfair court rulings. As we stand, I’m confident we have a winning case because we have the truth on our side, and the party with the truth on their side, in my experience, will win 80% of the time.

What are the religious liberty implications? What could be the impact of this case?

The SPLC lawsuit is a direct attack on religious liberty. The SPLC has targeted on its website 70 other organizations — including Catholic, Evangelical and Mormon organizations — and they are soliciting people to sue these organizations now if they win the case. I predict $100 million in legal fees will be generated by people suing these organizations.

It’s a very important case in terms of the direction of our society. They’re going to trumpet the case as though it’s at the U.S. Supreme Court and, who knows, the case could end up there. The case will almost certainly go up on appeal. It’s going to end up making some kind of law at the appellate level.

Whoever wins at the trial court level is going to have a tremendous platform to trumpet to the rest of the world either a major victory or a major defeat because the issues are so very important.

With an endowment of more than $300 million, the Southern Poverty Law Center is well-funded and well-staffed with attorneys. How much of a factor has their financial strength been in bringing the case to trial?

We can’t compete with their money. Producing thousands of documents and conducting 40 depositions in 12 states is expensive. It’s been a huge undertaking for us to take this to trial.

It really is a David-versus-Goliath situation. I’m basically going month-to-month, bringing this case to trial by the grace of God through donations. Money is a big issue for us with volunteer attorneys and people working for the bare minimum. I’m talking close to minimum wage. But I have attorneys helping me out because they realize how important this is.

BRIAN FRAGA is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.

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Taking root in the land of Lincoln

Legatus charters its third chapter in Illinois and the first in the Diocese of Joliet . . .

Three months after its first meeting last fall, the Legatus chapter in DuPage County, Ill., exceeded the 20-member-couples threshold for chartering.

The chapter went on to charter on Feb. 20 with 29 member-couples, and its officers see no reason why they cannot double their membership by year’s end and experience more growth in 2016.



Jeff and Nanci Hyman pose with Bishop Conlon

“Growing the chapter is easy to do if we focus on reaching out to like-minded people who want to take this journey with us,” said chapter president Jeffrey L. Hyman. “I think all of us know two couples like that.”

Paul Green credited his chapter’s vibrancy to Hyman’s leadership as well as the “great events” and speakers that Legatus officials have lined up.

“Quite frankly, that has made it pretty easy to attract people, to get them coming to meetings,” said Green, the chapter’s treasurer. “I think we’re in a good spot.

We have a dense population of good Catholic people to draw from.”

The DuPage County Chapter is Legatus’ third chartered chapter in Illinois, joining the chapters in Chicago and Peoria. A new chapter in Rockford, Ill., is in formation and moving towards becoming fully chartered.

DuPage County is also the first Legatus chapter in the Diocese of Joliet. Bishop R. Daniel Conlon was a driving force for establishing the chapter, and he celebrated its chartering Mass at Notre Dame Church in Clarendon Hills, Ill.

He said he was “pleased to announce” the new chapter.


Members of Legatus’ DuPage County Chapter

“The mission of Legatus closely aligns with the Diocese of Joliet,” Bishop Conlon said. “To study, live and spread the Catholic faith in our business, professional and personal lives.”

Bishop Conlon also said he’s urging anyone with interest to learn more about Legatus. “I am hoping this is the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship and partnership.”

Nancy Haskell, Legatus’ Great Lakes Region director, also sees “a lot of growth” ahead for Legatus in DuPage County. “It quickly went from one member to 29,” she said. “I really feel this is just the beginning. It’s exciting to see.”

Chapter origins

Hyman, 51, senior vice president of Ultra High Net Worth Client Solutions at Merrill Lynch in Chicago, said Haskell told him about Legatus’ history and mission. When she mentioned Legatus founder Tom Monaghan, Hyman said it piqued his interest since he and his wife had known Monaghan when they lived in Michigan.

As they learned more about Legatus, Hyman said he and his wife Nanci began to see membership as a great opportunity. They approached several other couples whom they thought would be interested in starting a new chapter.

“Before you knew it, we had our inaugural meeting on Sept. 30,” Hyman said. “It was a success from there. We spoke to people we knew and other potential members who in turn told other people, and it really took off.”

Among the first couples the Hymans reached out to last summer were Paul and Sherry Green. Paul Green, the tax market leader for Ernst & Young’s Chicago tax practice, said Hyman told him that he felt called to start a Legatus chapter — and that he wanted to know if Green would help him.

“I had never heard of Legatus,” Green said. “I didn’t know anything about it. My wife and I looked at it, and we thought it was something she and I could do together. As business leaders focused on the Catholic faith, Legatus was very appealing.”

The chapter’s first meeting featured Fr. Leo Patalinghug, founder of the Grace Before Meals apostolate. Father Leo spoke and cooked a meal.

“My wife couldn’t stop talking about how great it was,” Green said. “It’s been a phenomenal experience being a charter member on the board, building this chapter with Jeff.”

Hyman added: “How many date nights do you have when you can go out and break bread with people who are like you, who are on their journey in faith and care to be leaders in their particular organization and in the community? That to me was the most attractive thing about Legatus.”

Chartering event

Paul and Sherry Green pose with Bishop Conlon

Paul and Sherry Green pose with Bishop Conlon

The chartering Mass was also memorable. Bishop Conlon, the main celebrant, was joined by Fr. Steven Borello, the chapter’s chaplain, and Fr. Francis “Rocky” Hoffman, the executive director of Relevant Radio.

“Bishop Conlon must have to say no to 80% of stuff he’s asked to do, so to have him there sent the message that this was an important thing to him,” Hyman said.

The reception was held at the Butterfield Country Club in Oak Brook, Ill. That location is significant in that Catholics founded it in 1920 because they were not allowed to join an existing country club, according to a 1997 article in the Chicago Tribune.

Mike Caspino, a member of Legatus’ Orange Canyons Chapter in California, was the evening’s keynote speaker. Caspino was one of two attorneys last year who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to stop a satanic group from holding a black mass with a stolen consecrated host. (Click here for a related link.)

Hyman said the talk was “powerful” in explaining how Legatus had helped Caspino discern a call to leave his law practice and serve the Church more effectively. Caspino also recounted how he had experienced resistance from forces that he attributed to the devil.

“He just blew everyone away,” Hyman said. “It was emotional and had a very strong impact.”

Now that the “training wheels are off,” he said, his chapter is focused on growing membership and organizing activities. “Legatus is a great opportunity to meet monthly with like-minded leaders that have the same goal in mind — and that goal is to grow in faith and get to heaven.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Massachusetts-based writer.

What glass ceiling?

Legatus’ female executives are helping break new ground as savvy business leaders . . .

cover-march15When Joseph Illig founded his construction company in 1919, he probably never imagined that his granddaughter would one day run the family business.

“I’m sure he never thought that. In those days, it wasn’t even fathomed. Now it’s the grandsons and granddaughters that are taking over,” said Rita Liebelt, Illig’s granddaughter and the current president of Ilig Construction, a Los Angeles-based general contractor that is still family-owned.

Liebelt, a member of Legatus’ Pasadena Chapter and former Legatus board member, said she sees a “natural progression” with more women owning businesses and assuming leadership roles in the boardroom.

“Women are breaking that glass ceiling; more are becoming CEOs and presidents,” Liebelt said. “There’s a still long way to go. The percentage of women on corporate boards may still not be very high, but it’s improving.”

Changing demographic


Rita Liebelt

Female executives comprise one of the fastest growing demographics in the workplace and in Legatus. Whereas there were only about a dozen female executive members 10 years ago, today there are more than 150 women among Legatus’ 2,400 executive members.

More than 9.1 million firms in the U.S., employing nearly 7.9 million people and generating $1.4 trillion in sales as of 2014, are now owned by women, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners. However, statistics also show that women executive are still a minority on corporate boards of directors.

Today 24 female CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies — more than at any point since Fortune started tracking executive gender in 1998 when only one woman made the cut.

“I think much of the data suggests the role of women in business, in terms of numbers, hasn’t moved dramatically in the past decade, and you get into why is that? It’s a complex and nuanced issue,” said Sarah Elk, a partner in the consulting firm Bain & Company’s Chicago office and a member of Legatus’ newly chartered DuPage County Chapter in Illinois.

Sarah Elk

“I think it has nothing to do with a lack of qualified women, but I think it has a lot to do with how you break through, and there is not one easy answer as to why.”

Work-life balance

Luanne Zurlo, a visiting professor of finance at the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America, said the number of female executives varies quite a bit from industry to industry, and even firm to firm within industries.

Zurlo, a former Wall Street securities analyst with Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs, however said she expects opportunities to continue growing for female business professionals in the coming years — especially as a younger generation emerges that prioritizes balancing career with home and family life.

“I think creating that work-life balance and improving the ability for women to raise their children well — and to have successful careers in which they really move to the top — I think that is critical and very important,” Zurlo said. “But just as important is that we validate women who choose not to do that — women who choose to devote their energies for large parts of their lives to raising children.”

Luanne Zurlo

Several female executive members of Legatus discussed with us the challenges of balancing demanding professional careers with their roles as wives and mothers. Many of them said they had excellent support systems in their husbands and extended families. They also credit their Catholic faith with keeping them grounded and providing perspective in their unique vocations.

“Men and women complement each other; we both bring something to the table,” said Suzy Kelly, an At-Large Legatus member and chief executive officer of Jo-Kell, an electrical distribution, engineering and solutions company with locations in Virginia and Florida. “I look at that as such a great gift that God has given to both genders.”

Kelly, an elected city council member in Chesapeake, Va., also co-founded Catholic Passion Ministries, an apostolate devoted to deepening Catholics’ spiritual lives. Kelly, 59, has accomplished much in her professional and political careers while being married for 37 years and a mother of four grown children.

“Whether I’m with my family, the business or the city council, my faith is always there,” Kelly said. “I always make my decisions through the lens of my faith. I don’t separate it.”


Suzy Kelly


Elk agrees. Balancing work and family life is rarely easy for any active mother or father, she said.

“In any given day, week or month, there are always too many demands versus the time you have. You try to allocate your time as best you can to meet the needs of everybody,” said Elk, 38, who is married with three children, ages 4, 7 and 9. Elk added that she is less inclined than others to stereotype women executives as being more nurturing and empathetic than their male counterparts.

“I’ve definitely seen that, but I’ve also seen men with those same skills and characteristics,” Elk said. “I think all diversity is helpful. Whether it’s gender diversity or other forms, it will lead to better decision-making and outcomes for the company.”

“It’s hard to generalize that women bring a softer side to business,” said Kimberly Boudreaux, 37, executive director of Catholic Services of Acadiana in Louisiana. “Many times, I’m far from soft in my business practices.”


Kimberly Boudreaux

Boudreaux, a member of Legatus’ Lafayette-Acadiana Chapter, said she believes women professionals, especially those with families, are adept at multi-tasking. She also credits the Catholic Church for long recognizing that women have the capacity to be leaders.

“My career is a reflection of my faith,” explained Boudreaux, a married mother of three young daughters, ages 2, 4 and 7. “I believe we are all called to imitate the life of Christ, and for me, I have found that my life is most aligned with Christ when I among the poor and forgotten.”

New perspectives

Stephanie Anderson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, La., said women often bring different management styles and perspectives to the workplace.

“While women are very driven, results-oriented, and possess a strong work ethic, we also have characteristics that set us apart,” said Anderson, 52, a member of Legatus’ Baton Rouge Chapter.  “We’re very nurturing. We possess strong and effective communication skills. We’re very good at multi-tasking and establishing priorities.”


Stephanie Anderson

Married 25 years with three sons, Anderson said she begins every day with prayer, a special intention, and thinks of three things she is thankful for. On her computer screensaver at work, she has scripture verses and a popular quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi to “preach the gospel always, and when necessary, use words.”

“My faith helps keep me grounded and focused on what’s important in life,” Anderson explained. “I see work and business as additional avenues to living out my faith and being an example to others.”

Liebelt, the owner of Illig Construction in Los Angeles, also said the Catholic faith “permeates” her work. She said her grandfather, his brothers, and her father were all faith-filled businessmen. “Faith is who we are,” Liebelt said. “It’s how we live.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer.