I met Fr. Andrew O’Connor at the gym: specifically, the fitness center at the “summer home” of the New York Athletic Club, Travers Island, which is in the Westchester County town where I live, Pelham Manor. Father O’Connor was up from the Bronx: specifically, the parish of Holy Family in Castle Hill, where he does all the things that priests do – and rather a lot besides.
And what might “a lot besides” be? For starters, he runs a company called Goods of Conscience, which makes women’s and men’s clothing principally with a cloth Father Andrew himself designed and which he cleverly calls the Social Fabric. It’s made by weavers in Guatemala and then dyed, cut, and sewn into shirts, dresses, and other items of clothing in the basement of Holy Family by Latin American women, most of them immigrants. Obviously this is all undertaken as a means to help support financially all those involved.
I spent an hour with him recently at Holy Family, which is like spending half a day with anybody else, so thoroughly does he fill every minute with energy and information. Before I drove down to the Bronx, I received a text from Fr. Andrew letting me know that his meeting at the New York Botanical Garden was running late. He was there to discuss the proper way to grow hops, which he is doing in conjunction with the newly founded Bronx Brewery, in order to get his brewing business off the ground. He’ll be doing beer or ale and also rye whiskey. The whiskey will be done in conjunction with a new distillery in the area. And when our get-together ended, he was off to someplace upstate for a session with the farmers who’ll grow . . . well, I don’t recall: hops, barley, rye – something useful.
Holy Family has beehives for honey and an expanding organic garden for whatever Fr. Andrew thinks may benefit the parish community. A space in the church basement that’s not devoted to storing or displaying Social Fabric (and other cloths necessary in the garment-making process) is a temperature-controlled room where Goods of Conscience produces and stores its own indigo dye (a more complicated procedure than you might imagine).
Now you might expect the clothing produced by Goods of Conscience to be inexpensive. You’d be wrong. Handwork should be expensive, and in my opinion the prices are actually bargains.
When I was a young man, I splurged on two suits and a blazer from Anderson & Sheppard, one of Saville Row’s greatest “bespoke” tailors. Thanks to recent weight loss, I was able to wear one of the suits to Mass last week. A friend said:
“Beautiful new suit, Brad.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but it’s far from new.”
I explained that it was the first suit I’d bought from the Brits – on 10 October 1982. I know the date exactly, because there’s a tag sewn into an inside jacket pocket that has my name (with “Esq.” after it) and the date on which the suit was finished. I paid $750 for it then; you’d pay $3500 today. The point is, truly well-crafted, hand-sewn clothes have to be expensive.
At Goods of Conscience, a men’s white riding jacket will set you back $220.00, and a gorgeous indigo-and-tan women’s “Eos” evening dress goes for $560.00. Not cheap, true, but these are actually remarkably modest prices for garments of such quality and beauty. And like my bespoke suits, these shirts and slacks and jackets and blouses and dresses will last a very long time indeed.
And there are some unexpected features found in Social Fabric goods. Father O’Connor is a cyclist and Vespa rider and very aware of the dangers of the road. So many of his shirts and jackets have interesting cross stitching that all but disappears in daylight but, when caught in a car’s headlights at night (or by my camera flash as in the photo on the right below), glow brightly and, therefore, provide safety to the wearer.
Same jacket: “daylight” left, “nighttime” right
For all the speediness built into his daily schedule, Father Andrew O’Connor is a “slow” guy. In the popular argot, he’s an advocate of slow food, slow clothes, slow brewing, slow distilling, and, I suppose, slow business, and maybe even slow politics.
I hated to do it, but I thought I ought to ask him about that last bit, because The Catholic Thing is Catholic, with a capital C, but also conservative – small c, big C; take your pick. So I sent him an email. In part:
I am interested in how you’d describe yourself. I know you went to Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, which I’ve always thought of as “conservative” in terms of Catholic orthodoxy. Traditional but not Traditionalist. (I wrote about Thomas More College in my first book, The National Review College Guide.) I wonder if some of your enterprising spirit arose from the College’s appreciation of medieval guilds.
And back to more familiar things a priest does: at Mass yesterday, there came the moment of confecting the Eucharist, and – not unlike as happens in Orthodox churches – Fr. O’Connor called all the Holy Family children forward, and they crowded around the altar, mimicking the priest’s movements, getting very much into the Spirit. Very old-style – if you cite your tradition in the first centuries of the early Church. Slow Catholicism?