Catholic Clergy's Clothes Industry a Bit Threadbare

Bloomberg News

Encircling the Gothic church where Inquisition trials were held in Rome four centuries ago is the Catholic clergy's very own garment district.

Here popes get their button-down cassocks, cardinals their crimson birettas and nuns their gray habits. Items, costing a few dozen to a few thousand euros, hang in windows decked with chalices and candlesticks. But Christmas sales aren't what they used to be.

The ranks of the priesthood are diminishing. The number of American priests has fallen 20% since 1965 to 45,000, according to the index of leading Catholic indicators by Kenneth C. Jones. Vestment sales to U.S. clergy have declined as church contributions dropped and the dollar tumbled to a record low versus the euro, reducing revenue from overseas sales.

"This is not a booming market," said Mathias Slabbinck, chief executive of a century-old Belgian company whose vestments are sold in shops in Rome and around the world. "I wouldn't recommend anybody get into it. Church attendance might be up one day, but we cannot simply hope that will happen. We have to have a plan."

Slabbinck, 36, said his company, which bears his family name, received orders from parishes such as St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Charlotte, N.C.

Yet U.S. churches now draw lower contributions from parishioners, he said, after lawsuits by victims of sexual abuse resulted in costly legal settlements. The archdiocese of Boston is paying $84 million to settle 552 sexual-abuse lawsuits.

Some vestment makers are fighting the slump by branching out into home furnishings and uniforms.

The euro's 45% surge against the dollar since June 2001 has made euro-denominated vestments costlier for dollar-earning prelates. So Slabbinck, with a staff of 65 and 2002 sales of $9.14 million, is asking workshops that make its linen altar cloths to produce bed and table covers for interior decorators.

The maestro of ecclesiastical designers, across from the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, is Gammarelli, founded in 1797 under Pope Pius VI as tailors to the clergy, and run by the same family six generations later.

The three proprietors of the Gammarelli store make everything to measure, with a staff of a dozen working on site or at home and a two- to three-month average delivery lag. At peak times, such as when 17 of 30 newly ordained cardinals placed orders in October, the shop falls behind on other deliveries. The two brothers and their nephew also serve priests who can afford a 33-button couture cassock.

The pope too places an occasional order. "The Holy Father doesn't have great needs: a cassock a year, no more," said Filippo Gammarelli, 62.

Matching slippers for the pope and his cardinals sometimes are made by shoemaker Danilo Mancini, 30, who works out of a one-room shop in the cobbled Vicolo della Volpe, or "Fox Alley." For every pair of pointy lame mules made for the vestments, Mancini asks Gammarelli for as much as $373.

On the other side of the Minerva church is Barbiconi, another family-run business, specializing in ready-to-wear apparel: clerical shirts, chasubles, habits, cardigans, shoes, undergarments. Stacked against the walls are packages ready for mailing to priests across the world.

Manager Gabriele Masserotti Benvenuti, 28, said a lot of profit-seeking entrepreneurs piled into the vestment trade during the 2000 Jubilee celebration of the anniversary of Jesus' birth, and now have trouble keeping afloat after the Italian economy slipped into recession. "The economic downturn is being felt everywhere," he said, standing near racks of chasubles priced from $100 to $1,500.

On the other side of the store, past a wall encasement displaying no-frills beige brassieres and girdles, is the ladies' section. Marina Masserotti, who heads the section, said nuns like lasting, quality items. "The style never changes, unfortunately."

Rival garment maker Desta is diversifying. The company was founded in 1982 by Maria Teresa Desta. The one-woman workshop is now a conglomerate that makes liturgical wines and accessories and wooden church furniture. The company doesn't disclose sales.

"Elaborate vestments don't sell anymore," she said. "Priests think twice before spending money."

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