This is the ninth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession in 2012. The last newsletter issue featured Michael Tyson, OFM.
SILVER SPRING, Md. — Sebastian Tobin, OFM — the Province’s shoemaker — estimates that he has made more than 1,000 pairs of sandals in the past 30 years.
Sebastian, who has not only kept alive a dying trade — but made it a vibrant ministry — is commemorating his golden jubilee year of profession this month.
His handcrafted and heart-felt vocation, cutting leather for a variety of products and making custom-made sandals, is about much more than simply producing shoes.
This ministry, he says, which started out as one where he created sandals for the friars, is today a wellness ministry that helps people care for their hurting, injured or hard-to-fit feet. In addition, Sebastian says, it is a means for bringing people into the Church through his sandal shop at Holy Name College, the Province’s house of studies in Maryland.
“I meet an awful lot of people who come to me for shoes, who I’m able to direct to priests for marriage counseling, or church instruction,” he said. “They often come to me before they go to a church.”
He also makes belts and other leather products for the Trappists, Dominicans and Carmelites. Once, Sebastian said he was asked to make a leather boot for a person’s pet llama in New York, but had to decline. He also gets requests from overseas.
Sebastian took the ministry over from the late Francis Tokar, OFM. His initial interest in the trade was spurred by his years spent working for a furrier while discerning a vocation after high school.
The West Springfield, Mass., native and only child had two uncles who were friars, which enhanced his interest in religious life. “I kept attending numerous retreats until I finally applied to join the Franciscan Order,” he recalls.
In 1962, he professed his first vows in Lafayette, N.J., where he learned a bit about the shoe-making trade. After novitiate, he went to Holy Name College, then located in Washington, D.C.,where he cared for the facility. He professed his final vows as a Franciscan in 1965 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.
He was transferred to St. Elizabeth Parish in Denver, Colo., where he became friendly with the staff at a nearby funeral home, and soon found himself helping out there. It was during his time in Colorado that Sebastian had an opportunity to go to Mexico.
New York City
In 1970, he returned to St. Francis of Assisi in New York City and began managing the front desk. During this time, his desire to be a cobbler took hold and he asked for permission to formally study the trade.
He returned to Colorado to attend shoe-making school and took a course in podiatric orthopedics at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. His first sandal shop was in the basement of St. Francis of Assisi Church, where he spent many hours behind his workbench.
Since each pair of sandals is custom-made, he asks clients to stand on cardboard and outline their feet. He then takes measurements of their insteps and arches. All his shoes have strong arch support and are made with metal shanks; he is quick to criticize poorly made, mass-produced shoes.
“Flip-flops,” he says, “are the worst things you can wear. I see people breaking their toes and hurting the balls of their feet; they offer absolutely no support.” He also thumbs his nose at the marketing of “high-tech” sneakers, saying that there is no such thing.
Sebastian is often asked to make sandals for people with foot problems, and has helped those with foot spurs and other ailments. While recently making a pair for another friar, he inserted form into the heel for comfort. His catalog consists of more than 25 types of sandals, as well as belts, wallets and purses.
He not only makes sandals, but also consults on people’s foot issues. “I’ve come to understand the mechanics of the foot. I’ve seen so many people throw out their hips, knees and backs by jogging.”
On The Web
Sebastian has expanded his ministry to the general public, maintaining a website that includes a YouTube video, which he made with help from Octavio Duran, OFM, a technology buff. His story has appeared in The Anthonian and other publications, including People magazine in the late 1970s.
Leather work isn’t his only hobby. The friar also makes jewelry from bone and shell that he buys from American Indians, giving the proceeds to Holy Name College. His spare time also includes riding his bike and skating and, while Sebastian says he can’t cook, he does admit to making a mean ice cream soda.
He is grateful to the Province for the opportunity to pursue his vocation and for all the support he has been given.
“The Province has been very good to me. I’m very thankful for everything they’ve done for me and how they’ve helped me in my prayer life and in doing my job.”
He also enjoys fellowship with the young friars who come to study at Holy Name College.
After 50 years in religious life, he’s very grateful to God. “I am thankful that I made it to 50 years, after having had open-heart surgery and a cochlear implant.”
The jubilarian said he would like to be remembered in this life as someone who was kind. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who was kind to the people I came in contact with and who led a good life.”
Sebastian offers a final reminder to people to care for their feet: “If your feet hurt, it changes the whole mood of your body. You get snappy and angry.”
“I’ve helped a lot of people and they’re happy with their sandals.”
Sebastian will be honored with the eight other 2012 golden jubilarians at the Province’s Jubilee Celebration on June 21 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Midtown Manhattan.
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today.