Business & Economy

Catholic church vendors hang on in tough economy

Marklin Candle Design makes its candles by hand.  They're used as part of Roman Catholic religious services.
Marklin Candle Design makes its candles by hand. They're used as part of Roman Catholic religious services.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Even with God on your side, it’s tough to survive in a rough economy. Just ask the vendors who supply Catholic priests and churches with liturgical goods. They gathered to form a giant marketplace at the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.

Martin Marklin works amid a display of church candles that stretch upward like skyscrapers. Marklin owns New Hampshire-based Marklin Candle Design, one of only seven liturgical candle makers in the United States.

Priests and deacons pop into the booth to check out the latest beeswax designs. The candles range in price from a few dollars to $1,500. Business is slow for Marklin and his 25-year-old company.

Church Candle Maker Describes Process from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

"The difficulty in the Catholic Church is that nationally speaking, it’s not a growth industry," Marklin says. "With the consolidation and mergers that are happening in the churches, due to many reasons – one of which is the lack of vocations, the shortage of priests – it’s difficult for church suppliers, probably more so for durable goods, whether it’s stained glass or vestments.

"We in the candle business tend to be a little more resilient because they’re consumable. But nonetheless, there’s fewer churches nationwide."

That means fewer churches to buy candles.

"Additionally there’s a shift in churches," Marklin says. "Since the economy and the recession, they’re holding onto their money longer. So they’re not buying in advance and they’re waiting to the last minute to buy, which for companies that make handmade products is difficult because we then face the challenge of getting them a handmade product quickly and affordably."

Marklin says he’s concentrating on quality and reputation. He has also diversified his business, branching into Internet retail so anyone can buy commemorative candles, such as those celebrating the birth of a baby or memorializing the death of a loved one.

A couple of aisles over, at a booth filled with chalices and liturgical vestments, it’s super busy.

Father Pedro Lopez of St. Pius X Catholic Church is at a nearby rack of robes that priests wear during Mass. He says he's just looking to see what's out. He's not buying.

"In terms of buying for the parish, you always have to keep in mind the economy of the parish and the economy at large – you know, to be respectful and considerate of how you’re using the funds," says Father Lopez.

He says at his church in Santa Fe Springs, they haven’t cut back on candles – but they’re trying to make the best use of what they have.

"You don’t want to mismanage what you have," Father Lopez says. "You know, with the candle example, yeah, you’re going to make sure you use as much of the candle as you can. You’re not going to be tossing off a portion you could still use.

"But it’s not to be cheap or chintzy. It’s to make the best use of what you have, you know – use it in the best way possible and still minister to the needs of the parish and celebrate the liturgy with dignity, with respect."

But Father Lopez says they have been looking to save money other ways.

"Recently, I had the air conditioning and heaters inspected to make sure they’re in good repair," he says. "And I had to change the thermostats because they weren’t functioning properly and so we were wasting electricity and gas at times when there was nobody in the church or the temperature settings weren’t holding. And so you have to take certain steps to make sure you’re making the best use of things."

Mannix Delfino and her husband own Chagall Design, the Carson liturgical clothing company where Father Lopez is window shopping. Delfino flies around the booth with a measuring tape around her shoulders.

Delfino takes orders for stoles and chasubles - the embroidered vestments priests wear to celebrate Mass. Delfino says they’re handmade. She says benefactors still buy them as gifts for priests and deacons, so business is good.

"I can’t keep up with it," Delfino says. "My ministry grows and grows and grows every year. And it goes from where I’m working with one or two or three or four – I’m now working with diocese, making 300 chasubles or, you know, 300 stoles."

Delfino says she views her business more like a ministry.

"I don’t worry about the money aspect because, you know what, I’ve been blessed with the fact that whatever we can do to help, always goodness comes back – and I haven’t missed a payroll yet. So I’m feeling very good about that," Delfino says with a laugh.

It’s a message of faith that liturgical supply companies hope will get them through the rough economy.

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