Father Andrew O’Connor Weaves Community at St. Mary’s Church

Father Andrew O'Connor. Photo by Alex M. Smith.

Father Andrew O’Connor. Photo by Alex M. Smith.

The following article first appeared in the November 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

The pieces are made from handwoven organic cotton, infused with a New York aesthetic and touted by Cameron Diaz and Anna Wintour. But this is one clothing line you won’t find in a cutting-edge boutique on Orchard Street. The place to see these distinctive fashions is the rectory at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. That’s right: Father Andrew O’Connor, who was appointed head of the Grand Street parish last year, is a sought-after clothing designer and the creative force behind a company called Goods of Conscience. His designs are displayed in a new church gift shop, a part of a larger plan to engage both the parish and the greater  Lower East Side community around the fading art of craftsmanship.

The three-story, red brick rectory building, located on Attorney Street just to the west of the church, is easy to miss. Upon ringing the doorbell, visitors are buzzed inside and directed down the hallway to a newly restored library. It’s where you will often find O’Connor and see the most visible signs of change in one of the neighborhood’s most venerable religious institutions. Finely tailored clothes line a rack in one corner, while honey from beehives kept on the church roof and other handmade items sit on a table. For Father O’Connor, who has a background as a painter and sculptor, these pursuits are not extracurricular; they’re an integral part of his ministry.

“I come from the orientation of ‘let it be handmade, do it well,’” he explained during a recent interview. In helping to revitalize the tradition of making things, he’s hoping to fulfill a lofty goal: lifting up the parish and building community.

O’Connor, who comes across as friendly but reserved, has been busy in his first year at St. Mary’s, initiating several building improvement projects, launching new youth programs and taking his socially minded company to the next level. During our visit, we talked about all of that, and discussed what it’s like heading one of the city’s oldest Catholic churches, an institution that’s adjusting to a new head pastor for the first time in nearly three decades.

Following a retreat to Guatemala in 2004, O’Connor came up with “social fabric,” a material created from wild cotton still growing in Central America’s vanishing forests and utilizing the nearly lost art of back-strap weaving. The fabric is produced by Mayan Indian weavers who are paid a living wage. The first pieces, assembled by tailors in O’Connor’s former parish, were religious garments. While the material was imported, the designs were uniquely American and specific to New York. After establishing the company, Goods of Conscience, the clothing line grew to include shirts, pants, dresses and other items for both men and women. It made a big splash in 2009 when Cameron Diaz wore a pair of O’Connor’s shorts in Vogue. Now the venture is headquartered at St. Mary’s, employing local craftspeople. The profits support parish programs and the needy. “This is a store that is part of the church,” O’Connor explains. “So I have integrated it into the life of the church, but in business terms, it is vertically integrated.”

(Left) Cameron Diaz, Vogue 2009; (upper right) Goods of Conscience basic field shirt for men; (lower right}; 10-inch hand-dripped candles.

(Left) Cameron Diaz, Vogue 2009; (upper right) Goods of Conscience basic field shirt for men; (lower right}; 10-inch hand-dripped candles.

It’s obviously a major transition in any parish when a new pastor arrives on the scene. In the case of St. Mary’s, O’Connor succeeds a priest, Father Neil Connolly, who helped guide the Lower East Side through some pretty dark times in the 1980s and 1990s. Connolly was a fierce advocate for the poor and a towering figure within the Latino community, which has made up a large portion of the parish in the last several decades. But the Lower East Side is familiar territory for O’Connor. St. Mary’s was his first assignment after becoming a priest in 1996, working under Father Connolly. Born in the Midwest and raised in New Haven, Conn., O’Connor was most recently at Holy Family Catholic Church in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx.

Now he’s back downtown, and a lot has changed, of course. On the LES today, O’Connor says, “there is a large population of Hispanics living side by side with the new tide of gentrification.” Part of the challenge for him now is to appeal to a broader cross-section in the neighborhood while continuing to serve the traditional constituency, or as he puts it, to “welcome a greater community without disaffecting the Hispanic community. I don’t want that community to be washed away, as this other tide comes in.”

One way O’Connor is reaching out is through collaborations with people on the Lower East Side. Among them is Cha Cha Pisani, a local resident and hat designer who is helping to run sewing workshops for young people in the basement of the rectory. She’s also offering her small-business know-how to the development of an online store for Goods of Conscience, as well as the on-site gift shop. Noting the store’s low profile, O’Connor says it is “hidden in plain site to the whole community, so we’d like to unveil it a little bit.”

The idea behind the store, says O’Connor, is to establish a parish benefice, a profit-making enterprise dating from medieval times. The benefice integrates the clothing company with other products, including scarves, votive candles and Guatemalan coffee. Father O’Connor also provides hops for beer made by the Bronx Brewery, although it’s not available in the church. In the future, he hopes to offer workshops for priests on starting their own parish benefices. As O’Connor explains on the Goods of Conscience website, it’s to fulfill a vision of “a global network of interconnected, interdependent local, self-sustaining businesses—a global social fabric.”

Some of the changes at St. Mary’s are plainly evident. Over the course of nine months, Father O’Connor and a team of volunteers, including a couple of talented carpenters, transformed the library, which was previously divided into four small rooms with a drop ceiling and linoleum floors. Today, the grand room features polished wood, glass cabinets filled with books and new furniture, including a table made with reclaimed wood and legs fashioned from old communion rails. The project, and others like it throughout the church, are meant to redeem the historic 1833 building.

“We don’t have any money,” O’Connor says, “but what we do have is the space to do a workshop. We have interesting things lying in the basement and we have ingenuity. So basically the restoration suits us because this is just what’s here.”

One of the issues that defined his predecessor’s tenure on Grand Street was the decades-long battle over the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, which surrounds St. Mary’s. Father Connolly fought for 100 percent affordable housing on the SPURA parcels before reluctantly supporting a 50/50 split between market rate and affordable apartments in 2011. O’Connor had just arrived on the Lower East Side last fall when the Essex Crossing development team was unveiled. He was certainly well aware that the topic of SPURA was an emotional one in a parish community being squeezed by gentrification. At the same time, O’Connor says, times have changed and the parish is in a position to adapt to those changes.

“I think Essex Crossing has presented us with a great opportunity that we need to seize,” he explains. In recent months he has had conversations with Isaac Henderson, the project manager, about a portion of Essex Crossing known as the Market Line, which will offer micro retail stalls to craftspeople and entrepreneurial startups. The commercial spaces, as well as an incubator, will literally be in St. Mary’s backyard, spreading out across Broome Street. O’Connor is intrigued by the possibility of drawing the parish into this part of the project. “If [parishioners] have jobs, that helps us build up our community,” he says. “Certainly housing is important, but the bigger thing really is those jobs.”

Looking back at his earlier stint on the Lower East Side, O’Connor recalls the alternative creative spirit that was still thriving in the neighborhood at the time. He remembers Tonic, the avant garde music club on Norfolk Street, and Arlene’s Grocery, which had just opened. “I loved the music scene back then and the rawness of it,” he says. Today he’s asking, “is it possible to find common ground between the church and the art community?” It’s a question he’s exploring through Essex Crossing but hopes to expand to the broader neighborhood.

“We want to have people give us a chance,” O’Connor says. “They know the Catholic church is associated with art and beauty, and it has a tradition behind it.” In his new parish, O’Connor sees the “opportunity to blend the [local community’s] expectations of the Lower East Side being the vanguard of great, thoughtful design, a haven for the intuitive spirit that helps save cities” with what’s happening within the church. “We need to see that it exists here, too.” If people “want the Lower East side to be in abundance of that spirit and to save it,” O’Connor suggests, “maybe that’s part of their work, to come in and explore, some fragment here at St. Mary’s, some missing piece that they might not have expected, that exists in abundance here.”