Because it's a pain in the butt to find me on the Boston Globe website.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Crosses, crucifixes priced to go

Store for the soul, Sheehan's packs up earthly possessions
By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent | January 29, 2006

The Matthew F. Sheehan Co. always shunned holding sales, never put sexy swimsuits in the window, and featured product lines that were hopelessly dated -- 2,000 years old, give or take.

But for generations of Boston-area Catholics and, later on, Protestants, too, there was no place like it for that special First Communion gift, Italian-made crucifix, or King James Bible.

Sheehan's, Boston's largest religious goods store, turns 100 this year. But instead of basking in the milestone, its owners are closing its doors.

Done in by mail-order suppliers, increasingly high rent, and, to some degree, a loss of customers due to crises within the Catholic Church, Sheehan's will be closing its Chauncy Street storefront in early February, according to employees. (Sheehan's owner, James C. Dow, deferred all comment to his employees.)

After that, everything goes to a Roslindale warehouse, where Sheehan's will live on as an Internet retailer, the only way to match the competition, employees say.

Filene's has attracted the most attention as the next Downtown Crossing landmark preparing to fade into oblivion. But Sheehan's shelves will be missed just as much, faithful customers say.

''It's steeped in spirituality. I think that's why people feel so sad, because the other shops don't provide that," said Sheila Cavanaugh, a Fidelity Investments executive from Belmont, admiring hand-crafted nativity scenes from Italy and West Germany on a recent afternoon. ''I've been shopping here since I began working downtown. It's a place of refuge for me."

With its rich old wooden cases and walls of crucifixes, Sheehan's has always felt more like a small chapel than a store. The sales staff, most of whom have worked there for decades, are as familiar to customers as parish priests. Employee David O'Malley's white beard is so long, some say he looks like a prophet.

But Sheehan's was first a business, and its selection was enormous. Rosaries, statues, medals, altar clothes, crucifixes, plaques, candles, paintings, books, prayer cards, Bibles, and memorial cards were stacked at every turn. The basement served as a large reading room; archbishops and ministers from all over Boston trekked to Sheehan's to purchase their vestments, ordination gifts, and liturgical desk calendars.

Since the war began in Iraq, employees say the store has hardly been able to stock enough St. Christopher medals, the patron saint of travel, for the families of soldiers overseas.

''The convenience of dropping in and getting anything from a medal to clerical garments, a missal or a Mass book -- it was there. In the heart of Boston," said the Rev. Joseph Nolan, who teaches at Boston College. ''It was really something you took for granted would always be there."

Most of Sheehan's inventory was for the general public, with choices for both the well-heeled worshipper and the less fortunate soul. There were statues of the Virgin Mary that sold for $300 and some that sold for $3. Nativity scenes, used books, and simple items such as $1 prayer cards for deceased loved ones, were among their best sellers.

When Ginette Deus of Dorchester was a girl, she lost the first book her mother ever gave her -- ''The Dominican Missal" -- while on a bus ride to New York City. Sheehan's was where she found its replacement.

''That's probably why it stayed so long. It's ordinary people who are our customers," said employee Elena DiVito.

Founded in 1906 (though the store didn't open until 1907), Sheehan's has always been in Downtown Crossing, having moved to Chauncy Street in the 1920s. It prospered there, in the shadow of Jordan Marsh, serving the Catholic clergy and laity. After Vatican II, in the 1960s, Sheehan's expanded its line to include Protestant and ecumenical goods.

Still, change came about slowly at the store. Even as late as 1985, when DiVito began working at Sheehan's, she was required to wear a dress. ''And nobody laughed," she remembered. ''I used to come in here, and if I was laughing, people went, 'Shhh.' "

By the 1990s, things had mellowed: Flashy magenta, yellow, and baby-blue clergy shirts filled the window display, and customers listened to soft-rock music as they shopped.

But as Downtown Crossing became less of a shopping destination, Sheehan's sales began to suffer. In 2001, the store earned a headline in the Globe for holding its first clearance sale in 94 years. Even Sheehan's most die-hard customers -- priests and ministers -- had begun shopping online, DiVito said.

The church sex-abuse scandal clearly hurt business, employees said. But the decline began long before that, with fewer and fewer younger customers replacing the departed old. Rita Collins-Nave, 61, of South Boston, has shopped at Sheehan's for 50 years. On the first Wednesday of the month, she would take the subway to Filene's for their big sale, go to Mass at St. Anthony Shrine on nearby Arch Street, then stop by the store.

But asked whether her children also shop at Sheehan's, she shook her head no. ''You know, they know what they're taught. I try. No, they don't shop here," she said.

The store closing was announced in October, with every item marked down 50 percent in the final weeks. Senator John Kerry and a few other notable customers, such as actor Martin Sheen, have stopped by. But for many, news of the closing is still a surprise.

While most customers lament Sheehan's move to the Internet, O'Malley, who will man the phone at the Roslindale warehouse, reminds them that it's better than the alternative: ''The most important thing is . . . the Sheehan's name will endure on the website." A few moments later, a customer asked whether any stations of the cross were left. The answer was no.

''God bless you," O'Malley said, and the man walked out the door.

Peter DeMarco can be contacted at

The Inside Scoop: I liked this place, and the people, and the story. O'Malley was a hoot. Great Irish sense of humor -- saying the opposite of what you expect to hear. And he even swore!

From Globe Magazine's Best of 2005 issue

The Inside Scoop: I had two last-minute writeups for the Best of issue this year. After trying to sell Zach Warren's story as a feature story, I had to settle for a 100-word brief. At least I got him in there. My plan to pitch him to People isn't going to work, I'm afraid, mainly because People is no longer about regular People: it's 95 percent celebrity news. Sucks. I need to think about pitching his joggling feat somewhere though, and soon. The Real Deal was in one of my table hops. I hope I didn't overhype the place. My memories were colored because it was jammed when I was there, but I didn't go back to see if the crowds were as thick months later. But that said, the editors were desperate for more new restaurants, so this was as good as any. Oh yes - one more funny thing. So the magazine had a launch party at a Kenmore Square restaurant for the issue. I got invited but it snowed that day and I had to pick Laura up at the bus station. So I meet Zach a week later and he tells me how he went to the party - but had absolutely no idea why he was invited! He had no clue that he was one of the best ofs, or that my piece got him (and his sister, Laura) in. Hey, when you're in college, free food and drink don't need any qualifiers.

Best of Food: The Real Deal

It was only a matter of time before someone opened a full-scale deli on West Roxbury's bustling Centre Street. But naming sandwiches after "Bugsy" Siegel and Al Capone? "Who doesn't like the Godfather or Tony Soprano?" asks Eric Battite, whose shop, The Real Deal, serves more than a dozen wraps and hot panini sandwiches named after real and fictional gangsters, a la Battite's other deli, the Brookline Spa. Do yourself a favor and try the Teflon Don boneless buffalo wings wrap. Or grab a thin-crust pizza slice - if you're on the run, that is. 1882 Centre Street, West Roxbury, 617-325-0754

Best of People: Zach Warren

Harvard Divinity School student Zach Warren has a theory about unicycles: No matter who you are - suede-patched-elbow types in Harvard Square, children in war-torn Afghanistan - seeing a red-bearded guy riding one will make you smile. Last summer, Warren, 24, took his cycle (and beard) on tour with the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children, a nonprofit with a board and backers in Denmark that's run from Kabul. A friend told him about the circus, and he was inspired to join. "I wanted to know what happens when you take deep pain and you meet it with creativity," explains Warren, who went to Afghanistan to find his answer. This April, we'll be watching for Warren, who hopes to run the Boston Marathon - while juggling, no less - to raise money for the cause.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hellenic Hill

Real Estate section
Sale puts beloved hill out of developers' reach
College buys tract at Jamaica Pond

As the sun sets over Jamaica Pond it dips behind Hellenic Hill, a thickly wooded slope that locals tout as one of Boston's best untouched natural vistas. But developers have been just as smitten with the hill as the walkers and joggers who circuit the pond each day. Neighbors beat back a proposed town-house development in 1998, in a battle that went all the way to the State House. But even with that victory, the hill's future, in particular a 6.9-acre swath owned by the Barletta Family Trust, remained in limbo.

The trust put the property up for sale two years ago, and its broker marketed it as a ''unique development site" that could host a subdivision of single-family homes, a condo development, or other uses.

The Barletta family has found a buyer -- but it's not a builder, as the community had feared. It's an abutter: Hellenic College, which bought the property this month, for $5.4 million.

What does Hellenic plan on doing with the land?

Exactly what locals want them to do: nothing, at least for now.

''The college is not planning on developing this property for at least the next 25 years," said Greg Filias, spokesman for the 91-student Orthodox Christian school, which now owns most of the hill. ''It's there to provide green space."

Like many other communities in Greater Boston, Jamaica Plain is feeling the acute pressures of housing shortages and escalating prices. Debates in the neighborhood are often over whether new housing should be affordable, or market-rate, and not whether it should be built at all.

But because of its proximity to Jamaica Pond, Hellenic Hill has not been subject to the calls for housing of any kind. Rather, the community appears in favor of keeping it as a flank of green space overlooking one of Boston's more popular outdoor recreation areas. In 1998, for example, opponents gathered 7,000 signatures on petitions to block the town-house complex.

Moreover, institutions in Boston often have an uneasy coexistence with the neighborhoods in which they are located, with real estate expansions providing a flashpoint. But Jamaica Plain residents said Hellenic College has been a good neighbor.

The college, for example, previously agreed to change the location of the last building it erected, a housing complex for married students, so it could not be seen from the pond. So its purchase of the land was hardly a surprise. The school, which includes a separate seminary, purchased 8 acres from the Barletta family about 15 years ago. When the family decided to put their remaining 6.9 acres on the market, it approached Hellenic again, offering them the right of first refusal, Filias said.

Several other potential buyers were interested in the property, said broker James Elcock, of Meredith and Grew Inc.

They included ''four or five high-end residential builders," he said, who wanted the hill for town houses; a school that had thoughts of building student ball fields on the hill; and ''a couple of religious groups" who inquired about building a residential community on the hill.

A spokesman for the Barlettas said the family was willing to sell to a developer, despite the public backlash it had faced previously, yet it wasn't relishing the thought of another fight. The family had, in 1998, agreed to sell the property to the state as open space. The Legislature approved money for the purchase, but Paul Cellucci, the acting governor at the time, vetoed a direct sale and a deal could not be struck.

Leaders of neighborhood groups said the college is probably the best buyer they could have hoped for.

''We've wanted to preserve it, said John Iappini, chairman of the Jamaica Pond association. Hellenic ''wanted to preserve it themselves. It's now part of their campus. It's to their advantage to have this beautiful landscape as part to their campus."

John Lovett, president of the Jamaica Hills Association, said neighbors were aware of negotiations with Hellenic. ''We were kind of comfortable with the fact that Hellenic was the player."

The Boston City Council had previously supported a $1 million loan in order to help purchase the tract for open space. With the property now in Hellenic's hands, former councilor Maura Hennigan wants the community to come up with pond-area improvements or beautification projects that the city would be willing to support instead.

Hellenic College officials said they have no immediate plans for the Barletta family home on Prince Street, which was included in the sale.

The school, however, may look to the home as a possible residence for its president, Filias said.

The Inside Scoop: This was my second piece for real estate, following that goofy story on the Winchester house with nude Greek statues on the front lawn about two years ago. Andrew Caffrey was my editor for the above piece, and he definitely had a vision for where he wanted the story to go. As well he should have: he wrote about this controversial piece of property 8 years ago as a correspondent. Now he's the real estate editor. (He played his cards right, though back then, you could get in as a correspondent more easily it seems.) He definitely tinkered with this piece more than any editor has tinkered with one of my pieces in quite a long time, but I like what he did. He inserted all the lines about JP's views on development, which gave the story context. I didn't know that's what he wanted, but the next time I write for him I'll make sure to ask. He unfortunately had to chop the piece, leaving out the history of how the hill was once owned by the family of a state Lt. Governor. The "family spokesman" was a trip. I won't identify him here, but I will say we were on the phone 45 minutes before he mentioned that he didn't want his name published. 45 minutes! I spent another 45 maddening minutes trying to convince him otherwise, to no avail. I gave this person way to much leeway. I should have cut the conversation right there, politely of course. Can't waste time like that...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Marliave Sisters update!

Three loyal shoppers find they'll always have Filene's
City Weekly, Jan. 22, 2006

After 55 years of bargain hunting at Downtown Crossing, the ''Marliave Sisters" had thought they'd seen it all. But yesterday, instead of spending money at Filene's, something extraordinary was set to happen:

Filene's would be spending money on them.

A newspaper story on Christmas Day highlighting the trio's decades-old tradition of shopping at Filene's caught the eye of Tom Kingsbury, Filene's CEO and president. To show his gratitude, Kingsbury offered to buy lunch yesterday for the women-- Ruth Humphrey, 73; Joan O'Halloran, 75; and Rita Healey, 85 -- at their favorite restaurant, the Marliave on Bosworth Street, and gave each a $50 gift card to their favorite department store.

''Lunch at the Marliave and shopping at Filene's in Downtown Crossing. What could be better?" Kingsbury wrote in a letter to the women that was hand-delivered to the restaurant. ''We thank you for your loyalty, your trust and for being such great customers."

The ''Sisters" -- their nickname at the restaurant -- said they couldn't believe their good fortune. ''Isn't that great?" said Ruth when reached by phone. ''We were shocked. We were shocked, I'm telling you."

''They've always been good," said Joan, in a separate call. ''I wish it were another store closing."

Joan guessed she might use her gift card to buy a pocketbook during the store's going-out-of-business sale, which begins later this month. Ruth and Rita, who actually are sisters, said they might make a more sentimental purchase. ''Maybe something special to remind of us Filene's when it's gone," said Ruth. ''We'll see."


The Inside Scoop: This was really nice: my story on the ladies got them a free meal and $150 in gift cards.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Table Hopping: Drink Up

Nguyen Do, pouring me a dangerous cup of Vietnamese coffee.

How they wash it down
City Weekly: January 15, 2006

This week, we circled the globe, while staying close to Boston, in search of traditional cultural drinks. Along our route: local restaurants featuring foods from China, Tibet, Colombia, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Vietnam.

El Cafetal
479 Cambridge St.

Colombia is famous for its coffee, but java isn't the national drink. (So much for those Juan Valdez ads.) The honor instead goes to aguapanela -- boiled brown sugar -- served either plain or with grated chocolate, milk, lemon, or a small square of cheese floating on top. ''Everybody drinks it. Families have it for breakfast," says Lucas Urrea, owner of El Cafetal, which serves dozens of cups every day. For the full experience I sipped a mug while munching on Colombia's traditional breakfast food, arepa de chocolo con quesito, a thin but dense sweet corn pancake with salty cheese mashed on top. Sampling one ($3.50) made it hard to go back to my plain old morning Grape-Nuts.

Qingping Gallery Teahouse
231 Shawmut Ave.
South End

I associate the words ''kung fu" with martial arts, but in China the expression has a far broader meaning. ''Kung fu is anything done with a lot of effort, a lot of energy, or diligence," explains Han Lee, manager of the South End's tranquil Qingping Gallery Teahouse. ''Serving tea kung fu is a lengthy process. It's a ceremony." Selecting one of his top imported teas, jasmine (a ''real crowd pleaser"), for me, Lee placed a palm full of pearl-sized balls into a special clay pot. A quick rinse with water to ''bring out the flavor" came next. Finally Lee filled the pot with boiling water, covered it, then poured more water on the lid. While kung fu tea is expensive (about $10 a serving), the quality is exceptional, and Qingping's staff will refill the pot as often as you or your companion like.

House of Tibet Kitchen
235 Holland St.

A recent visit to a Tibetan museum -- my first -- led me to the House of Tibet and a glass of kushu changkul, hot apple cider swirling with tiny bits of cottage cheese, resembling flakes in a snow globe. Proprietor Yeshey Palsang confesses that barley or rice-based alcohol, not cider, is traditionally the main ingredient. But lacking a liquor license, she improvises. ''We serve this drink on the Tibetan New Year in the morning," she says. ''People who are sick drink it, or women after giving birth. It's made with butter or cheese so they sleep well and relax." We enjoyed ours with another tasty Tibetan staple, sha momo, minced-meat dumplings flavored with ginger, onion, and garlic. We had leftovers only because so many dotted our plate.

Bengal Cafe
2263 Massachusetts Ave.

After a large wedding feast of goat biryani, Bangladeshis drink borhani to help their digestion. I stood next to Nasrin Imam, who owns Bengal Cafe with her husband, Ali, as she tossed cilantro, mint, a small green chili, a touch of sugar, salt, black salt, white pepper, mustard seed, cumin, coriander, milk, and plain yogurt into a blender to make me a glass. It certainly was as spicy (and effective) as advertised. To cool me off, Imam also mixed me a refreshing glass of mango lassi, a traditional yogurt shake made with mango pulp, milk, sugar and ice. ($1.50)

El Pelon
92 Peterborough St.
The Fenway

Street vendors throughout Mexico peddle agua frescas and horchata, the country's equivalents to iced tea and fruit punch. Horchata is made by soaking rice, almonds, and cinnamon in water overnight. The mash is then strained out, leaving an opaque, thin liquid that one can easily chug. Frescas -- literally fresh waters -- are made with fruits and spices. At El Pelon, a lively neighborhood taqueria with entire walls of customer photos, owner Nate Walker serves homemade horchata and agua de Jamaica, a cold drink made from hibiscus flowers that's tart like cranberry. ''It's very cleansing for the body," Walker says. (Each $1.50)

Pho So 1
223 Adams St.
Fields Corner
617-474-1999The coffee shops of Saigon are tiny, but the lines for Vietnamese coffee are long. So men take to the sidewalks, filling their makeshift outdoor cafes by the hundreds as they chat for hours. ''Americans drink beer. In Vietnam men drink coffee. It's cheaper -- only $1," says Pho So 1 owner Nguyen Do, a Saigon native. Vietnamese coffee is far stronger than most American versions, so even Vietnamese restaurants don't serve it unless requested. (Ask for coffee served ''cafe fin" or ''made at the table" as opposed to just ordering ''Vietnamese coffee," Do says.) Made with condensed milk, my coffee was creamy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste, and plenty strong. ''If you have whole cup," warns Do, ''tonight, forget about sleep." ($2)


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