“When the clothes do make the man”

In Jerusalem, a number of different offices and workshops nestle among the labyrinth of corridors of the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Savior—including a laundry and tailor’s workshop! We meet the men and women who take care of the friars’ clothes, as well as the linens that cover the altars of the sanctuaries: behind-the-scenes work that is as indispensable as it is painstaking.

A brown-habited figure carrying a white cloth sack slips along through a small courtyard filled with flowers and sunlight. This Franciscan seems to know his way through the maze; he pushes a black door on which is written Sartoria in Italian, “tailor’s workshop”. The door opens. The sound of a sewing machine, the aroma of Arabic coffee… welcome to the workshop of Faraj, the Custody’s master tailor. Trained by the Salesians, the smiling Palestinian speaks perfect Italian and has been custom sewing for the Franciscans for seven years. In the middle of the workshop stands a large table strewn with rulers, tape measures, spools of thread, fabric, buttons and other notions—a real Aladdin’s cave! His daily work includes tailoring new habits for the friars, mending the most worn out, sewing and resewing…

Each year about 150 new Franciscan habits leave the workshop to meet the needs of the Custody of the Holy Land. The friars who live in the Custody receive a new habit every two years because, they point out, the long cross-shaped garment requires patience and attentiveness. The fabric, for example, comes from Italy in shipping containers in three different thicknesses: lighter weight for summer and two heavier fabrics for winter, particularly for the cloak. A Franciscan habit takes between five and six meters of this fabric (that costs about 25 Euros or about 35 US dollars per meter) to which must be added the white cord that serves as a cincture and is 4.20 meters long. The three knots in the cord are reminders of the three evangelic vows that are at the foundation of Franciscan life: obedience, poverty and chastity.

Fra Carlos Molina, who is in charge of this workshop along with the laundry and the Casa Nova hostelry for pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem, has formed a close friendship with Faraj. “I didn’t know a thing about tailoring when I received this responsibility in 2010. I even learned how to iron from him,” he laughs. But he is not the only friar to benefit from Faraj’s instruction. A short distance away we find Matipanha concentrating on stitching a hood. This friar-seminarian from the province of Mozambique asked to learn to sew. He explains, “When I entered the novitiate in Mozambique there were nuns who made our habits, but they went back to Portugal. At the Custody of the Holy Land I asked to be allowed to take advantage of this opportunity in the same way that others learn Arabic. When I told my superior, he was delighted with my initiative! I hope to return with this skill and—why not?—pass it along some day to my African brothers.

Fra Carlos invites us to follow him downstairs. We go down a few steps and now it’s the purring of washing machines and the sound of a little radio playing the songs of Fairouz, a Lebanese singer from the seventies, that we hear. Suzanne and Rima welcome us. Suzanne works in tandem with Faraj; she is in charge of liturgical vestments: albs for the future confirmands of the Jerusalem parish and stoles for priests, as well as altar linens—everything impeccably white. Today she is beginning a new project: an altar cloth for the round altar at Tabgha, at the request of the friars in the Galilee. Fra Carlos explains, “We help more than 16 monasteries, sanctuaries and institutions; you can imagine the volume of the work. It’s endless.” Everything functions like a well-oiled machine because of the knowledge and skill of the dozen veteran employees. Every white sack of laundry is opened and sorted before receiving a letter and a number, an internal code that allows everyone to find his own clean clothes. Surprisingly, in the midst of all the industrial washing machines are two workers cleaning the most precious liturgical vestments by hand. Seeing our astonishment, Fra Carlos adds, “Progress is good, but it should not in the least change what has been conserved over the centuries.”

Now Rima comes to meet us. She has worked at the Custody since the 1980s. Also Palestinian, Rima manages the staff, the schedules and logistics. She opens the ledgers to show us where she marks the daily laundry arrivals, be they from the friars, the Casa Nova or that of the Capuchin friars who live in the new city. The ledgers are submitted to the Custodial General Administration, which will send the bills to each monastery or sanctuary.

Our visit continues with a walk through steam as we quickly walk through the drying and ironing rooms. The laundry is a real maze, but Fra Carlos moves about in it easily. We finish our exploration in his office where a painting in honor of Saint Homobonus of Cremona, patron saint of tailors, is enshrined. Fra Carlos leafs through the latest catalog of liturgical vestments that he has received; it is important to remain abreast of what is being fashioned around the world. He also shows us the plans for the future custodial laundry, which will be moved to larger quarters and is impatiently awaited. If he is so invested in his mission it is because, unlike the saying, “for Franciscans the habit does partially make the man,” he smiles.

Emilie Rey

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