[I]f real-life clergy were as wholesomely attractive as the frocked and grinning models of the CM Almy catalog, church attendance in this country would skyrocket. Its opening pages look like a Brooks Brothers photo shoot at the Vatican: all chiseled young men sporting gold-trimmed robes and fit silver foxes in embroidered stoles. The pictorials are shot in various churches around New York City, although CM Almy — one of the country’s largest producers of clerical vestments and liturgical goods — has long based its production in quiet Pittsfield, in an unassuming, single-story factory on the bank of the Sebasticook River.
“I’ll be honest with you,” says Almy vice president Michael Fendler, who joined the family business in 1976 as a recent University of Maine grad. “Some of the pieces in this catalog have been a part of our line since well before I started here.”
The wheels of change and fashion turn slowly in the churchware biz, but CM Almy has been around long enough to see a few trends come and go. The company got its start as a New York tailor shop in 1892, founded when Fendler’s great-grandfather’s brother — the company’s namesake — started peddling pastoral apparel around the five boroughs. During the Depression and World War II, Fendler’s granddad expanded the business, selling chaplain kits to the U.S. military, and the family took to spending its summer vacations at a farmhouse in Palmyra. In fact, in 1939, the Fendlers earned a permanent place in Maine lore when Michael’s uncle Donn, then 12, separated from his family during a Katahdin hike and spent nine days wandering the peak’s wooded slopes, an ordeal adapted into the classic children’s book Lost on a Mountain in Maine.
After the war, Michael’s father and another uncle shifted the company’s focus to mail order and moved the production line up north — first to the family’s Palmyra farmhouse, then, as business picked up, into an old schoolhouse in Pittsfield, and finally into its current factory digs across the river. Almy’s stitch-it-yourself choir-robe kits were a hit with DIY-friendly churchgoers in the 1950s and ’60s, and in the ’70s, the company branched out from clerical garments into metal fabrication, producing its own chalices, candleholders, and a whole treasury of ornamental crosses. Today, the one-time tailor shop employs around 80 people in Pittsfield alone, plus another 30 or so in New York, where Michael’s brother, company president Stephen Fendler, heads up Almy’s administrative end.
While many of its products will end up consecrated, there’s nothing particularly pious or sublime about the Almy factory floor. On the textile side, rows of seated and earbud-wearing needleworkers operate a fleet of a few dozen sewing and embroidery machines, adding clerical collars to oxford shirts and making sleeves from bolts of Chinese silk. Fluorescent lighting hums behind the machines, and drooping electrical cords crisscross the ceiling like party streamers. On the metal shop side, a burly lathe operator spins sterling silver into handsome “host boxes” — like candy tins, but for communion wafers. Fendler roams the floor in a long-sleeve polo, chatting up his employees by their first names. At 62, he wears a push-broom mustache and wire-rimmed glasses and has a habit of squinting when he speaks.
“Take a look at this,” he says, grabbing a gold chalice off a rack of items returned for refurbishing. “Forty years ago, no one would ever have taken a consecrated chalice and just mailed it to us. We handle it with care, of course, but it just shows how people have come to think of the holy part as symbolic.”
Over the years, some of the gradual changes to Almy’s product line have been spurred by simple design innovations (think a breathable, lightweight collar known as “The Clericool”), but others are prompted by churchgoers’ evolving attitudes towards religion. As an example, Fendler points to an armless mannequin wearing a prototype of a simple collared vest, designed specifically for Catholic deacons. The Catholic Church’s “assistants” have historically worn secular street clothes, but lately more and more are adopting formal clerical attire. Some 15 percent of Almy’s customers are Catholic, another 17 percent are Lutheran, and close to half are Episcopalian. It’s the progressive Episcopalians who drive perhaps the biggest ongoing change to Almy’s apparel line: Thirty-five years ago, the company carried no pastoral clothing specifically for women. Today, women’s clerical blouses make up nearly a quarter of the company’s shirt sales, and Fendler only expects that share to grow.
Of course, any business that tacks with shifting religious winds faces at least one significant drawback.
“There just isn’t a lot of growth in people going to church these days,” says Fendler. “So this is really a market-share–oriented business. People in this industry are fairly competitive.”
To that end, Almy has absorbed a half-dozen other companies since the 1970s, including, most recently, a maker of synthetic, fuel-burning altar candles that look almost unsettlingly like the old-school wax variety. Screw off the top along an invisible seam, however, and a refillable chamber holds liquid paraffin. “No wax . . . no mess . . . no worries!” gushes the catalog. “The last Paschal Candle you will ever have to purchase!” Candles in the current inventory are injection molded, but Almy is collaborating with Central Maine Community College in the hopes of mass “printing” refillable church candles using a 3D printer.
As with any new product, Fendler acknowledges, Almy is up against a certain nostalgia for the old ways. “Some people are never going to change,” he says with a shrug. “‘My grandmother used real candles, and I’ll use real candles!’ Others are slow to pick things up, but eventually they get there.”
When it comes to product development, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, to everything there is a season.