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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!