With the sad passing of Ann Marie Rowe (right) last week, an unexpected blessing is that we are happy to be seeing so many people who, like us, knew her from the little Catholic store she and Ann Strozzo ran, which was located near St. Paul's Catholic Church in Spartanburg.
For some reason, many visitors are erroneously under the impression that our store, St. Benedict's Catholic Store, which we opened from scratch 4 years ago, was actually started by "the Anns". Although Ann Marie Rowe & Ann Strozzo, "the Anns", as they were fondly known, were good friends and fellow St. John the Baptist parishioners, and we were certainly inspired by our countless visits to their shoppe years ago, we would like to clarify that there is absolutely no connection between St. Benedict's and what was once known as The Catholic Shoppe. "The Anns" had a very special little store, filled to the brim with goodies, and everyone who visited was greeted with love. Their ministry was an incredible support to St. Paul's and they helped so many people on their path to Catholicism. We will forever cherish the long, joyful conversations we had with them and we are so thankful to have had their Catholic store nearby.
In 2008, "the Anns" sold their little shoppe and by the time we felt called to open St. Benedict’s in 2012, the new owners had moved to an even smaller location where it was clearly struggling. We saw this as further confirmation from the Holy Spirit that the vocation we were being nudged to follow would fill the need for a very different kind of Catholic "store", especially once the Catholic Shoppe was lost.
With the full support of our priests and spiritual advisors, who all said that if it was of God it would happen, and if it wasn't it wouldn't, we started making plans. It was a terrifying time because not only were we completely uninterested in opening a retail store, but we hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to open a Catholic store! To top it off, one priest actually admonished us, calling us obstinate, for even considering doing it, saying that we would put the other Catholic store in the next city out of business. As we left the parking lot of that church after Mass that night, there was a giant cross in the sky pointing to our new location in Greer.
The reading from the Diary of St. Faustina that day was reassuring as well.
Entrust everything to Me and do nothing on your own, and you will always have great freedom of spirit. No circumstances or events will ever be able to upset you. Set little store on what people say. Let everyone judge you as they like. Do not make excuses for yourself, it will do you no harm (Jesus to St. Faustina - Diary, 1685).
Often God sends encouragement in various forms to help us with discernment and to strengthen us when we are discouraged.
Still, that night I barely slept as I was taunted by the enemy with, "the store in Spartanburg is clearly ready to close, if you open your store you'll put the one by the mall in Greenville out of business and then you'll fail and there will be NO Catholic stores!" Well, that's a pretty prideful thought. As if our humble attempt at opening a Catholic store from nothing was going to be any competition for a store with 25 years of great service, loyal customers and solid, pre-existing established connections to every church in the area. The Holy Spirit reassured us again and we knew that if this was not of God, it would not happen. Every obstacle in our path vanished before us.
The next day we called Ann Marie to tell her the news and she could not contain her delight as she relayed the message to her friend Ann. They were both so excited and Ann Marie said she would love to be able to help us out with our plans, but she couldn't because she was afraid that it could cause dissension between her and the new owners of the Catholic Shoppe who she had sold to. We completely understood this possible conflict of interest and forged ahead into the Catholic market wilderness on our own. Ann Marie assured us that what we were doing was an answer to prayer.
We cleaned and painted every inch of the building, and immediately upon completion of the physical cleansing, we had Fr. Smith come to spiritually purify it by his blessing:
"Oh God, you are the Lord of all learning. Pour forth your blessing upon this store. Let it safely withstand fire and every peril and permit it to increase all of its inventory and its visitors from day to day. May all who come here for work or for study or to learn more about You make progress in knowledge of things human and Divine and increase likewise their love for You through Christ, our Lord, Amen."
As much as we would have loved to have help from "the Anns" or anyone else who had experience in Catholic marketing at that time, we are actually now very thankful that God did not provide that, because instead, He sent His Holy Spirit to guide us into becoming one of the most unique Catholic presences in the country. A place where we are so much more than a store. Selling things is not the number one thing we do here. We're here to answer the questions of the atheist, the Protestant, the fallen away or just plain confused Catholic. We have one of the best selections of Catholic books in the country, and provide spaces throughout the building for reading, teaching and studying. Our job is to help build your Catholic faith and to guide you to Christ in the Sacraments. We are but a lighthouse guiding people to the Church and Her holy priests. Selling is secondary to our mission and a necessity to keep the lights on, the rent paid and to be able to provide a free Catholic Bible, Catechism of the Catholic Church or rosary to the person who cannot afford it.
We are constantly commended for having "broken the old mold", for daring to do what others would or could not. For giving up the reliable income of selling generic Christian church goods and cheap Catholic "kitsch" in favor of having solid, quality Catholic books and resources. Vendors are baffled by our lack of "sales strategy" and our reluctance to carry on the torch of what we see as the failed model, as Catholic stores continue to close across the country.
This is hard. This is scary. No question about it. The easy thing would be to just fill our store with generic Christian stuff, to supply Protestant churches with cheap goods, and maybe even just become a thrift store. But that isn't what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do. He's asking us to keep doing what we're doing. To keep moving forward, carrying our cross, no matter how heavy. To continually add quality items while removing those objects that do not strongly point people towards our Lord. To stay on the difficult path. To uphold the Truth when it is humiliating to do so. Because St. Benedict’s is needed now more than ever. This is being reiterated time and again by every priest who visits and thanks us for sticking it out. We've had our door slammed in our face more times than we can count.
But in closing, we are so very thankful for the incredible support of not only our upstate South Carolina Catholic community but our huge online community that spans the globe. We are also incredibly thankful and blessed that we had the opportunity to know Ann Marie Rowe. She was a "tough cookie" and wouldn't mind me saying that, because she was proud of being tough and yet she had the heart of an angel. Although she was unable to help us create our store, and there is no connection to the one and only, gone but not forgotten "Catholic Shoppe", she and Ann Strozzo were definitely an inspiration to us and without their excited encouragement and prayers, we may not have had the guts to actually do this. Thank you, Ann Marie & Ann Strozzo!