Br. Sebastian Tobin, OFM
His family still calls him David, but when he became a friar, he took the name Sebastian.
The only son of James and Rose Tobin was raised in Pittsfield, Mass., where he enjoyed ice-skating, playing music with his high school band and attending daily Mass at St. Charles Church. He enjoyed participating in the many retreats offered by the parish.
A vocational magazine he found there made him think about religious life. Since he had two uncles in the Franciscan Order — both priests — he was attracted to the friars of Holy Name Province. After graduating from high school, he spent three years working for a furrier while discerning his vocation. “I kept attending numerous retreats until I finally applied to the Franciscan Order.”
David Tobin went to Croghan, N.Y., to the pre-novitiate program for brother candidates for two years. “At the end of these two years, I went to St. Raphael’s novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., for one year. Then I received my habit,” said Br. Sebastian, reminiscing about the past.
After the novitiate, he went to the “old” Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., which became his home for three years. Assigned as a porter and switchboard operator, Br. Sebastian knew the ins and outs of the lives of all the friars at Holy Name College. He also took care of the refectory until his solemn profession in 1965 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.
Br. Sebastian was then transferred to St. Elizabeth Parish in Denver, Colo., where he served in many ways while being the sacristan. Becoming acquainted with the funeral director of the parish led him to help at the funeral home for more than four years. He also enjoyed visiting the families of the parish, many from Mexico. Although some did not speak English, he found a way to communicate with them. This relationship encouraged Br. Sebastian to go to Mexico on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In September 1970, Fr. Finian Kerwin, OFM, then Provincial Minister, asked Br. Sebastian to come to New York City. He was assigned as one of the friars who take care of the front desk at St. Francis of Assisi Church. “In those days, there were about 75 friars living at 31st Street. Masses were celebrated on the hour in the upper church and on the half hour in the lower church. Confessions began at 6:45 a.m. and did not finish until 9 p.m.,” he said.
During the general visitation of Fr. John Vaughn, OFM, to Holy Name Province, Br. Sebastian expressed the desire to become a sandal maker. He was given permission to attend shoe-making classes, working part time at the front desk.
“It wasn’t until Fr. John Felice, OFM, became guardian of St. Francis of Assisi Friary that I became a full-time sandal maker.” Ever since, Br. Sebastian has been the full-time sandal maker for Holy Name Province. He has handcrafted sandals for the friars and many others, spending years at the workbench in the basement of the old school building next to the church.
Br. Sebastian starts with precise measurements and an outline of each customer’s foot. “Some of the friars have worn my sandals year-round and find they last for 20 to 25 years, with just having them re-soled and re-heeled.”
In September 2006, Br. Sebastian returned to Holy Name College, this time the “new” college in Silver Spring, Md. “Moving the shop was an adventure in itself, but moving myself emotionally from a place where I lived for 37 years was much harder,” he said.
The walls of his pleasantly cluttered shop are festooned with the beautiful leather shoulder bags and belts he has made between sandals. Shelves of wooden lasts in a wide range of sizes are also in view.
Br. Sebastian has enriched the life of the Province’s friars. Often while friars gather at special events, his anecdotes make them laugh. In spite of a few health problems, he continues the art of handcrafting sandals and finds time to bring his leather goods to local craft shows.
Br. Sebastian’s Franciscan journey has been a blessing for the many lives he has touched, especially those who have come to know him well. But for him, it has been the fulfillment of his life. “If I had to do it all over again, I would choose to be a friar,” The bearded 71-year-old friar said with a smile on his face.