A staple of the Irish and Catholic communities in Denville, New Jersey, Faith & Begorra has stepped up in a big way during the Covid-19 pandemic, with owner Susan Banks co-leading a donation-based mask initiative that’s seen over 16,000 masks cut and sewn.
Across the country, local Irish and Celtic shops represent the heartbeat of Irish culture in their communities, a place for Irish Americans to connect with their roots and for those in the larger community to learn more about everything Ireland has to offer. During this unprecedented time, IrishCentral is shining a light on local Irish stores and the dedicated shop owners who pour their hearts and souls into providing the best possible experiences for their customers.
Faith & Begorra was founded 28 years ago, on June 2, 1992. Susan Banks and her husband Dennis are the proud parents of five children and noticed that when it came time for them to make their First Holy Communions, they always had a surprisingly tricky time finding apparel and appropriate gifts for the sacrament.
In light of this, they decided to open a Catholic shop, but they knew that they wanted it to carry more than religious goods, so they turned to their Irish roots. Susan’s grandmother was a Ryan whose parents emigrated from County Clare. Though Susan never met her, the stories her mother told her about her grandmother had a big impact on Susan, especially her pride in her Irish heritage.
The Irish Catholic focus turned out to be a wise business model, too. As Susan said, “when St. Patrick’s Day was over, we would be deep into First Holy Communion.” As an added bonus, it allowed Susan to more deeply connect with her Irish roots, making many close friends in Ireland over the years.
They normally travel to Ireland twice a year, once hosting a tour group and once to attend Showcase Ireland in Ballsbridge, the main trade show for purchasing gifts and crafts for the shop, held each January.
Selecting items for the shop is important to Susan, who likes to take her time and choose pieces that are new or different. Jewelry made in Ireland is their largest category. “Our customers want a real piece of Ireland,” Susan told IrishCentral. “Our clothing is also important to all customers, the quality of clothing coming out of Ireland is second to none. Hand-knit sweaters, loomed sweaters, gents’ jackets, shirts and vests are important, as are our capes and scarves.” Irish food, perfume, turf, and leather products are also among the top sellers, and pottery also sells well, with craft pieces from Ireland being of exceptionally high quality.
Susan shared that her customers are a mix depending on the time of year. “We have first-generation Americans in once a week for the food supplies, to Irish Americans, to non-Irish who recognize the quality of the woolens that are made in Ireland. Starting in January, we have built our Communion apparel and gift business to have the largest selection of the East Coast. We have sent dresses to 9 different countries and 18 different states. We stock well over 1000 dresses and all sizes and price ranges. Once an outfit is chosen, we also have all the accessories and religious gifts. Dennis and I feel it is important that the children know as lovely as the dress is, a remembrance of the day is also nice to have. I have my mom's Communion Prayer Book, a treasured gift that has not changed in over 85 years.”
In addition, Susan runs a wholesale business, The Wee One Collection, which features a range of baby items embroidered with sheep and other sweet designs. “I have designed and sell to about 100 other Irish shops and catalogs,” Susan said. “A shamrock on the bum is our mark of quality as every garment is doubled embroidered. Our embroidery shop is upstairs in the shop.”
The busy season for Faith & Begorra is November through May, with Christmas, Communion dress shopping, St. Patrick's Day, and Communion gift shopping. As Easter, Mother's Day and graduation season approach, they keep busy. “Our Summers are very quiet,” Susan said. “Not one to sit around, my husband and I travel about four months, vending at 14 Irish festivals. We hitch up our Airstream and hit the road. A little travel, a little vacation, and lots of fun and work at the festivals.”
Faith & Begorra is located in downtown Denville, in a 2,500 sq feet corner shop, 25 miles due west of NYC in New Jersey. “Our shop has the facade of an Irish cottage. Our building lends itself to a charming Irish shop, with flower boxes, a stone Celtic Cross, a Statue of Our Lady of Grace, and lace curtains on all the windows,” Susan said. The area has a thriving Irish community, with several organizations, parades, and many pipe bands, bars, and restaurants. Rugby is big locally, as are a few Irish festivals and feis.
“New Jersey has been especially hard with Covid19,” Susan reflected. “We closed our shop with a shelter at home on March 14. Our shop was still decorated for St. Patrick's Day. We lost a large part of our First Holy Communion business, St. Patrick's parades and parties, and our Communion gift sales. So far 80% of our festivals have been canceled. My staff of four have been laid off.
“As hard as this is, our lives are more important, and to be home for the summer for the first time in 29 years instead of festivals will be different, but needed until we are all safe and able to be open in our new normal. It will be ok. We lost our shop to a hurricane a few years ago and rebuilt and reopened. We will be back from Covid19.”
In the interim, Faith & Begorra has been shipping orders daily and offering curbside pickup for local customers who place orders over the phone or online.
Susan has also been contributing to the Covid-19 relief efforts in the area, working with a friend to organize a massive mask making project. “We have cutters and sewers. Since March 20, we have organized almost 16K masks cut and sewn. They have gone everywhere. We do not sell, but rather ask for a donation. Our donations have recently furnished 800 N95 masks for the first responders of our town and the fabric for graduation masks for six local schools. Each school is getting masks for their graduates, embroidered with their school initials and the year 2020, a year they will not soon forget, for these young people are living history.
“The entire Mask Project runs out of two containers, one at each of our homes, we never see our sewers, cutters or recipients of the masks, they come and go in a contactless way. The support of our town is beyond words.”
Faith & Begorra is located at 40 Broadway in Denville, NJ, 07834. You can shop online at faithandbegorra.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call them 1-973-625-0070.