They organized half a century ago in church parishes and union halls, school districts and corporate offices.

And now, at a time when banks are failing in record numbers and insolvent savings and loans may need a $100 billion-plus bailout, the nation's credit unions are navigating a steady turnabout.Liquidations have dropped dramatically since the early 1980s. And the fund that covers credit union deposits has more in reserve - in proportion to the savings it guarantees - than the other two federal funds insuring savings.

Credit unions, which many consumers think of as banks, are actually not-for-profit financial cooperatives. "They're not in the dog-eat-dog business of competition that you see a lot of the financial institutions in," said Duane Welsh, general counsel for the National Deposit Insurance Corp., a private insurance fund that guarantees credit union deposits. "There's still that 1930s philosophy of `Let's help one another.' "

Originally, credit unions were organized to help fellow employees or parishioners obtain car loans or signature loans the banks refused to offer. Today they provide a myriad of banking services - checking accounts (called Share Draft Accounts), automated banking, safe deposit boxes, Individual Retirement Accounts and home mortgage loans.

And while they may harken back to another era, the nation's credit unions have had to weather some very modern problems.

During the recession of the early 1980s - when factories closed, millions were laid off and many states began losing manufacturing jobs to the service sector - occupational-oriented credit unions were devastated.

In 1981 alone, 251 federally insured credit unions were liquidated, and another 98 were forced to merge with other institutions, said Cherie Umbel of the National Credit Union Administration. In that year, the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund - the federal insurance for credit unions - was forced to pay out $78.64 million so depositors wouldn't lose money.

To help the institutions weather such economic downturns, rules governing credit unions were relaxed so they could diversify depositor bases.