When sales fall, they call St. Joe
By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff* |* August 20, 2006
Donald Ward Cranley doesn’t need to look at the latest economic indicators to know how the real estate market is faring. He just checks the inventory in his shop, Ward’s Gifts, on High Street in Medford.
If sales of the beige, 5-inch St. Joseph statues are slow, it means the real estate market is strong. If sales are brisk, the market is weak. Lately, all signs point to a real estate meltdown: He’s selling 300 statues a month.
‘‘We can’t keep them in stock,’’ he said. ‘‘Everybody comes in here looking for them. Realtors are buying a dozen at a time.’’
St. Joseph statues have long been used by sellers to help move property. Tradition has it that if you bury a statue upside down and facing the property you are trying to sell, St. Joseph will direct a buyer your way.
When the market was hot a couple of years ago and bidding wars among buyers were the order of the day, Cranley was happy to sell a couple of statues a week. x No longer. So far this year, as housing sales have dropped, they have been his most popular item, outstripping all the other saints combined — not to mention Jesus and Mary. They’ve even earned a prominent place in the store’s window display.
It’s the same story across the country. Statue sales are up 25 percent, according to Roman Inc. in Illinois, the manufacturer from which Cranley purchases his inventory. And sales have doubled over last year’s at stjosephstatue.com, a firm out of Modesto, Calif.
‘‘About a quarter of my sales are in Florida right now,’’ said Phil Cates, owner of stjosephstatue.com. ‘‘The [real estate] market is getting killed there.’’
The tradition of burying St. Joseph statues started about 500 years ago in Europe, according to Cates. An order of nuns, needing more land for a convent, buried their St. Joseph medals in the ground. They got the land, and word spread. The medals eventually turned into statues, and Joseph, a carpenter, who with Jesus and Mary makes up the Holy Family, became the unofficial saint of real estate.
Word of St. Joseph has spread among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Today the statues can be bought in little kits. Some include tiny shovels for burial and personalized burial bags with the names of realtors or mortgage lenders printed on them. Almost all have instructions — some cheeky, some sincere.
In Lowell, at the St. Joseph the Worker Shrine gift shop, the statues are sold separately and in kits — though last week the singles had sold out. The kits include a printed card with ‘‘myths’’ and ‘‘truth.’’ Myth: The importance of the depth and direction of burial. Truth: ‘‘The power of St. Joseph is in the prayers and devotion to him. You can also increase your chance of selling your home by making sure it is good condition and by asking a realistic price.’’
The church takes no formal position on the statues — ‘‘It is not official church practice,’’ said Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston. ‘‘It is more of a personal tradition for some people.’’
But Angele Fillion, a clerk at the St. Joseph the Worker Shrine, calls the practice akin to voodoo.
‘‘It’s not the statue, it’s the faith that makes it work,’’ said Fillion, who said she frequently has to restrain herself from coming on too strong about the importance of prayer to troubled homeowners who enter the shop looking for the statues — and little else.
‘‘I can tell who they are the minute they walk in the door,’’ she said. ‘‘They look a little embarrassed.’’
But they do come in. Marilyn Zajac, a real estate agent with Prudential Loughran and Associates in Dracut, said she buys a dozen at a time from the gift shop.
‘‘I truly believe in him,’’ she said. ‘‘You ask for his guidance and he will be there for you.’’ She only buries a St. Joseph statue when a house is really stuck on the market. It’s happened five times in three years, she said. All the homes have sold.
About half of the agents in Zajac’s office use the statues. Some sellers are a bit reluctant to embrace the tradition, but if the market gets soft enough and houses sit for long enough, most eventually come around, Zajac said.
That is the case with more and more properties. In Massachusetts, sales of single-family homes fell 11 percent in the second quarter of the year, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, foreclosures are spiking, interest rates are rising, and thousands of homeowners and property speculators are sitting on land they can’t afford and need to unload.
The result? Desperation.
‘‘I’ve had grown men come in here with tears in their eyes,’’ Fillion said. ‘‘I try to use it as a teachable moment about faith.’’
She estimates that about half of the customers are willing to take a few minutes to listen to her. The rest, well, they’ve got other things on their minds.
Meanwhile, the gift shop has sold about a thousand statues since last year, said manager Denise Barbin, who estimates that sales have doubled since the market began to soften last year. Barbin produced order sheets showing she has been getting 144 of the St. Joseph kits every couple of months since last June. These did not include orders for single statues of the saint, she said.
Some of the people who come in looking for those small $2 statues accidentally grab a statue of the bald St. Anthony, which sit in a bin next to St. Joseph. They have to be gently told they’ve got the wrong saint.
Fillion said: ‘‘I tell them St. Joseph is the one with the full head of hair.’’