Bless this house

The Baltimore Sun

The house price started at $375,000 in July -- a spacious townhouse on a wide Baltimore street, close to highways, near stores and restaurants. But despite five brisk open houses with snacks and cookie-scented candles -- including one the day of the Pigtown Festival -- and three price drops, it has generated compliments but no contract.

Last week, the sellers turned to divine intervention.

They gathered on the front steps with their real estate agent and buried a 4-inch statue of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the household, while saying a quick prayer.

"I am a staunch believer in faith, and I know I have done everything possible within my realm of expertise to sell the house," an exasperated Dee Statham, agent for the Washington Village house, said earlier.

What has become the worst home-sales market in recent years has become a great one for St. Joseph statues, as desperate sellers of various faiths invest as little as $4.95 and hope for a miracle.

Meanwhile, buyers and others moving into their new homes have their own rituals of faith, including house blessings and talismans.

Tradition calls for burying St. Joseph upside-down in the yard, facing away from the house, though some believers say keeping the statue in the house is enough.

"In Baltimore City, I have concrete. So I have a flower pot," Statham said.

The statue, in its plastic bag, went in with a Norfolk Island pine, the greenery decorated with bells and a rosary. The pot graced the front steps by the real estate sign.

"You have to have a little faith and see what happens. It's worked for others. It'll work for us," said homeowner Jimmy Velez, who is Catholic.

He and his wife, Michelle, want a smaller house. If this one sells, the statue will be unearthed and relocated with the couple.

"Maybe we'll put it in the front window. Or on the fireplace, if we have a fireplace, the mantel," he said.

If this works, Statham said, she's buying more statues. Kits typically include a plastic statue, a bag (for storage or to keep the statue clean when buried), instructions and a suggested prayer.

Not everyone thinks it's a good idea, whether it works or not.

"We consider that superstitious practice, and it is not encouraged at all," said the Rev. Louis Micca, pastoral director of St. Jude Shrine in Baltimore.

Nevertheless, St. Joseph statues and real estate kits are hot items at the shrine's gift shop.

Same at the Lamp Book Shop in the city.

"I can't keep them in the store," said Dan Orr, who owns the store with his brother. "We have real estate agents who come in and buy 10 or 12 at a time."

Whether faith or coincidence, he said, he hasn't heard of a house where the statue was used that didn't sell. When the original owners of his store sought to rent the space, they tucked a St. Joseph medal in one of the bricks on the outside, and the rental came through, he said.

At the Web sites that sell the statues, sales have more than doubled in less than a year.

"We are selling 400 percent more than we did five years ago, and we are selling tens of thousands this year," said Phil Cates, owner of stjoseph statue.com. "Last Tuesday, from 12 [p.m.] to 1 p.m., we had 560 orders."

Ron Weissman, owner of goodfortuneonline.com, said a bulk deal on packages of 100 statues did unexpectedly well. And he figures three-fourths of the sales are to non-Catholics.

Other sellers have turned elsewhere, including to feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of favorably balancing energies in the environment.

Recommendations that feng shui consultant Hope Karan Gerecht of Stevenson used at an Annapolis home a few years ago included lining the onerous 30 steps to the front door with evergreens and "grounding" the threshold with large earthenware planters, all to bring energy into the home.

Inside, "the front door was a straight line to the back door. It is very hard to hold onto energy," she said.

She blocked the line with tall plants.

Gerecht also had the owners send a slip of paper with their address down a nearby waterway.

"You are letting go of this property. People think they want to sell their houses, and then they've got this attachment and they're not letting go," Gerecht said.

Did it work?

"They sold the property in about six weeks," she said.

Other traditions

Over centuries, civilizations have had house blessings of some sort -- not to promote sales, but seeking guidance and protection for the household's occupants, and that continues today, said Madeline Duntley, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Native Americans, for example, continue to do smudgings, or spiritual house cleansings with smoldering herbs. In some faiths, prayers are done once the family moves in in a spiritual housewarming that often ends with food.

In Catholic and other Christian denominations, clergy doing house blessings go from room to room with the family, and often their guests, reading prayers specific to each room and sprinkling holy water.

Some hold a candle, to symbolize the light God gives a home, and incense, whose smoke symbolizes ascending prayers to God.

Showing their values

Judaism has no comparable tradition; a home is dedicated by placing a mezuzah, a decorative case containing Scripture, on the doorpost, and a prayer is said. Inside the mezuzah case, Torah passages speak to God's presence and blessings.

"The mezuzah is placed on the doorpost to indicate the values of the home, that this is a Jewish home with Jewish values. It seeks to be a home of peace and of love and of kindness, and that people entering the home should be embraced by this value," said Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman, spiritual leader of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

But other spiritual ceremonies seek to, literally, cleanse the premises of vestiges of troubling spirits before the new occupants enter.

Those are needed because the new owner doesn't know what negative energy the former owners may have left behind, according to Buddhist tradition.

"It is to dispel and cast out negative energy from the area and to make it conducive or receptive for the positive energy to come in. It is a purification process," said Kalsang Topgyal, a translator who works with the monks at the Ja Ling Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center in Baltimore.

He said the ceremonies include incantations, wielding a vajra (a ritual metal instrument), spreading holy water with a peacock feather and burning incense.

"We live in a world where a lot of things happen, and there can be bad spirits," said Jose Saravia, a Santeria priest in Baltimore, who does several cleansings a year.

He goes from room to room with incense, sprinkling holy water, touching herbal mixtures to the walls, asking Jesus to "take away everything that is bad inside this house."

Saravia leaves a white or blue candle, symbolizing purity and peace, to burn for a week -- most importantly, at night.

"The spirit doesn't like the light. It is going to go out," he said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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