Meet the patron saint of real estate

The Star-Ledger, August 19th, 2005

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 2005

Date: 2005/08/19 Friday Page: 055 Section: BUSINESS Edition: FINAL Size: 1055 words

Home sellers are putting their faith in St. Joseph

By SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

By At the Saint Jude Shop on West Main Street in Somerville, the shelves are stocked with Catholic supplies such as rosaries, communion dresses, Bibles, gifts and crucifixes.

But one of the hottest-selling items - particularly these days with so many "For Sale" signs planted on suburban lawns - are the 4-inch statues of St. Joseph. That is because St. Joseph, in addition to being venerated as the chaste husband of the Virgin Mary and the earthly father of Jesus, is also revered in many circles for his uncanny ability to sell real estate in a pinch.

To uncork St. Joseph's selling magic, the statue is typically stuffed inside a protective canvas bag and buried headfirst in the front lawn near the For Sale sign. Once the home is sold, the statue must be exhumed and displayed prominently in a person's next home.

Diehard practitioners of all religious denominations swear St. Joseph has the Midas touch when it comes to selling homes, and given the wondrous mystery of faith, few would dispute their claims.

To simplify the home-selling ritual, Saint Jude Shop and other Catholic supply stores sell pre-packaged St. Joseph kits for $7 to $9. The kits typically come with a standard four-inch plastic statue, a burial bag, prayers and instructions.

Lately, whenever a shipment of kits arrives, they sell out in a week or so, says Maria Zach, an employee at Saint Jude Shop.

"We sell 15 to 20 of them a week," Zach says.

Although the real-estate boom of the past five years still appears to be going strong, sales of existing homes in New Jersey dipped a slight 0.6 percent April through June, as prices continued to soar, according to a quarterly report released by the National Association of Realtors this week.

Recently, Bridgewater resident Kathleen Mlaeski, 50, decided to bury a St. Joseph statue to sell her home on Copper Hill Road. She ordered an "Underground Real Estate Agent Kit," from stjosephstatue.com, a Web site that sells the statues for $9.95.

After planting St. Joseph upside down in her front yard, Mlaeski says she got two offers on her home, but turned both down. Now in the dead heat of August, the real estate market is sluggish, but Mlaeski hasn't lost faith.

"I don't consider myself religious, but I consider myself highly spiritual," she says. "House sales in August are slow but, see, the statue sent The Star-Ledger to me to get a little publicity. So it's working."

Mlaeski got the idea of planting St. Joseph from her older sister, Ceil Robinson, 56, who lives just around the corner. She has been burying St. Joseph statues in her yard since 1988 as a way to sell her homes and they have worked wonders, she says.

Robinson's first statue was made of plaster and after she sold her home, she dug it up - a mandatory part of the ritual - and its head broke off.

"I thought, "Oh no, something terrible is going to happen. He's beheaded. This is a bad omen,'" says Robinson, who works as a dental hygienist.

Sure enough, Robinson says she was unhappy in her next home in Belle Mead and only stayed there for two years. The next time around, she used a plastic statue. The statues are displayed in a safe place "of honor" in her kitchen in Bridgewater.

The man who founded Modesto, Calif.-based stjosephstatue.com is 54-year-old Phil Cates, a mortgage broker by trade and a Lutheran by faith. He says he thinks the surge in sales - he has seen a 50 percent increase compared with last year in orders for St. Joseph statues - is an early indicator of cracks in the residential real estate market.

"People who are having a harder time selling their home are resorting to the statue," he says. "It is an indicator of what's out there."

The tradition of burying the statue dates back to the 1700s when nuns seeking land to establish or expand a convent, would bury medals of St. Joseph and ask for his blessing, according to the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Today, the ritual has expanded well beyond the Catholic faith. Cates says 50 percent of his customers are non-Catholic.

"We refer to him as a nondenominational saint," Cates says. "This cuts across all boundaries of religion."

Since putting up his Web site in 1996, Cates has gotten orders from all around the country - although the ritual appears to be more popular in some states than others. New Jersey is a "high demand state," he says, as well as Colorado and Texas.

Cates sells 4-inch, 6-inch and 8-inch statues and says he plans to debut a 24-inch statue in September.

"Realtors who are selling larger properties felt it would be more advantageous to bury larger statues," Cates says.

Still, not everyone is a fan of the practice.

Thomas Farrell, 40, the owner of "Our Daily Bread," a Catholic supply store in Sayville, N.Y., says he frowns upon the practice because he thinks it has crossed into the realm of mysticism and superstition. Farrell says he is devoted to his faith and often counsels shoppers to simply recite a short, heartfelt prayer requesting St. Joseph's intercession to sell their homes.

But nobody listens.

During the first quarter of this year, Farrell says he sold just two statues. Then, during the first week of May, 22 statues flew out the door. Then, when school let out in late June, he sold another 40 of them.

So far this year, he says he has sold five times as many statues compared with last year.

He generally keeps them in a basket next to household blessing gifts and plaques, but Farrell says he could "hide them under the counter and still sell them."

He is sold out of 4-inch statues and recently put up a sign on his shop window to stop people from inquiring about them until the next shipment arrives. Christine Cannon, a public-relations manager in New York, says she recently bought a 4-inch statue for $3.95 from Farrell's store after listing her home in February and finding no takers.

"Literally, the day I planted it, within half an hour, we got a call for a showing," says Cannon, 37. In July, she sold her home and will be closing this month.

"I couldn't believe it," she says. "I guess St. Joseph did come through."

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