Some might refer to it as the miracle on Oldham Street.
Libby Eichelberger prefers to call it "covering your bases."
For 18 months, as talk of recession has increased and real estate sales have slowed, the Baltimore real estate agent did just about everything humanly possible to sell the house on Oldham Street -- to no avail.
Finally, at a department meeting her office manager, Jane Griffin, suggested invoking a higher power. "Bury St. Joseph in the front yard," Ms. Griffin said.
And in front of several astonished real estate agents, Ms. Griffin handed a small statue of St. Joseph to Ms. Eichelberger, of the Baltimore East office of Long & Foster Realtors.
But the house was a row house with no front yard, Ms. Eichelberger says. So, "I put St. Joseph in the window on a Friday and got a contract Saturday. I guess St. Joe isn't real fussy about where you put him."
The practice of burying a small statue of St. Joseph in the yard of a house to be sold is an old one, although no one is quite sure why, says an O'Conor Piper & Flynn Realtor who declined to give her name but admitted having "planted many a statue."
Old-fashioned notion or not, in times in which houses linger on the market for months, St. Joseph is making believers out of droves of discouraged Realtors and homeowners.
"Real estate people are buying [the statues] by the dozens and it doesn't seem to bother Joseph what faith they are," says Ethel Bisson, saleswoman at a Northeast Baltimore store named Joseph's Gift and Religious Goods.
St. Joseph's popularity has soared so quickly in the past two years that national distributors are having trouble keeping him in stock. "Instead of buying a dozen, stores are buying a gross," says Mike Greene, co-owner of Panation Trade Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. In terms of popularity these days, Mr. Greene adds, St. Joseph is "second only to the Blessed Mother."
Meanwhile, the staff at Joseph's Gift has grown accustomed to customers shopping for a miracle. A few weeks ago, a real estate agent rushed into the shop. "She said, 'Two hours ago, I sold a $200,000 house and I buried a St. Joseph,' " says Ms. Bisson. "She bought a ton of them.
"And last Monday a man called me and he said, 'I didn't even get it buried and I sold the house!' "
However, some say St. Joseph doesn't always come through. Susan Kirsch, a Long and Foster administrative assistant, persuaded a friend to bury a statue in his yard about two months ago. He did so surreptitiously -- and immediately got two requests to see the house, she says. But the prospective buyers never called back. Now, she says, "I don't bring it up much because he felt silly burying it and then it didn't work."
Exactly how St. Joseph got his reputation as a salesman is unknown, say real estate agents. He is most often invoked as the patron of families and workmen -- neither of which necessarily suggests an understanding of real estate.
He was a carpenter, says the Rev. Domenic Cieri, director of liturgy at the Catholic Center in Baltimore. But that suggests a knowledge of building -- not selling -- houses.
"I wonder myself where the idea came from," says Father Cieri. "It's part wives' tale, largely superstition. I think all of us want a way to control the future a little bit. So they try to invoke the divine in some type of fashion. And this custom includes doing something: You pray and you do something -- like dig a hole."
According to the Roman Catholic Church, the statues themselves have no power to sell homes, says the Rev. James Coen, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington. But Catholics believe in the ability of saints to intercede on behalf of those who pray and ask their help, he says. "The statues' power lies in the power to stimulate devotion in the person who looks at the statue. In this instance, if [the homeowner] was really in need and he buried the statue devotionally and prayed to St. Joseph to intercede on his behalf, then this favor might be granted."
But if someone buried St. Joseph in a non-devotional manner and didn't pray, then "it's like burying a horseshoe down there and that's superstition," Father Coen says.
The particulars of how and where to bury St. Joseph vary from agent to agent. Some do suggest upside down works best, says Joseph Fabiszak, of Long and Foster Realtors in Rosedale, adding that he thinks burying the statue so St. Joseph faces the house is better. Still others say the saint isn't particular. Most agree, however, that the investment doesn't matter, with stores offering "the burying" St. Joseph statues for as little as 50 cents.
As stories of sales allegedly spurred by St. Joseph circulate, some skeptics may be revamping their ideas. "I used to think if people go to the extent of burying a statue, they've also gone to the extent of doing everything else so the house would sell," says Angela Figiel, manager of Joseph's Gift. "That was my theory, but I don't know what it is now, after hearing all their stories."
Not everyone is convinced, however. "The whole thing is hysterical," says Tom Soltis, a mortgage banker whose real estate agent placed a statue in the kitchen window after the house had been on the market for five months.
Three months later, a buyer came along, Mr. Soltis says. "I'm a skeptic, but my house is sold, so who knows?"