Faith might move mountains, but can a small piece of plastic move a four-bedroom house?
In this dismal real estate market, lots of people think so, provided that the plastic is a figurine of St. Joseph.
Local shops that sell religious paraphernalia are reporting phenomenal sales of tiny statuettes of St. Joseph - the earthly father of Jesus and the patron saint of the home and house sellers - to real estate agents and homeowners.
"We have over 5,000 items in our store," said Norma DiCocco, who owns the St. Jude Shop in Havertown. "And you know what the No. 1 item is? The St. Joseph statue."
DiCocco buys the figurines by the gross. Real estate agents purchase up to a dozen at a time. DiCocco estimated she had sold 6,000 to 8,000 diminutive Josephs in the last year.
They're hardly a deal breaker. A two-inch figure sells for as little as $1.39. Home-selling kits - with more ornate, stone-colored figurines; a prayer card; and a short history - sell for $5.95 and up.
"It wasn't until the real estate market really tanked that St. Joseph took off the way it did," said Dan Loughman, president of Roman Inc. of Bloomingdale, Ill., which distributes the St. Josephs nationally.
"It was always a best-seller, but now it's a super-best-seller," he said. "It sells everywhere. You can find it in hardware stores, gift shops and religious stores."
And not only Roman Catholics look to St. Joseph for help.
"It's not unusual for people of other faiths to come in a little sheepishly and ask, 'Do you have that statue you use to sell your home?' " said DiCocco's son, Robert.
On a blustery, snow-swept day last week, Connie Berg, an Abington real estate agent who is Jewish, conceded that she needed a small miracle as she walked with a shovel to a four-bedroom home in the township's Meadowbrook section.
"This is a fabulous house - brand-new roof, white picket fence, plenty of gorgeous space - but it needs some help. It's been on the market since August," said Berg, a 26-year veteran at Prudential Fox & Roach.
She scraped at the ice-glazed earth near a fence post and loosened a few inches of frozen dirt. She planted her two-inch St. Joseph statue head down, feet pointing toward the heavens, face pointed toward the house.
"There's an entire ritual to it," she said as she filled in the hole. "And you have to remember where you planted it so you can dig it up after the house sells."
Berg said she believed in the power of St. Joseph to help move stalled properties.
"It really does help," she said. "It seems to work no matter what faith you are. Recently we planted one, and in three weeks the house sold."
The practice of burying St. Joseph isn't officially condoned by the Roman Catholic Church, said Stephen J. Binz, a biblical scholar and author of St. Joseph, My Real Estate Agent, a lighthearted look at the phenomenon.
"It's pop spirituality and not endorsed by any religious organization," Binz said. "And like all grassroots phenomena, the origin of the practice is very hard to track down."
The most common story attributes the custom to an order of medieval nuns who placed medallions in the ground in the hope of gaining a new convent. They did.
Binz encountered the St. Joseph phenomenon after several frustrating months of trying to sell his own house in Little Rock.
"My Presbyterian Realtor suggested that I bury a statue of St. Joseph in the yard," Binz said. "I dismissed it as a ridiculous and superstitious practice. I wasn't about to bury anything to get what I wanted from God.
"But after a few more months of waiting, I decided to give it a prayerful try. My house sold within a week. Coincidence? Who knows. Would it have sold anyway? Who can tell?"
Robert DiCocco said there was more to the ritual than burying the statue.
"The most important part of it is saying the novena, the prayer that accompanies the statue, for nine days," he said. "It doesn't matter how big or small the statue is. It's the devotion and the prayer that's important."
And, say believers, sellers in search of a little divine intervention don't even need a front yard to bury a St. Joseph.
For condo owners, a potted plant on a windowsill will suffice, said Kathy Victor, who works at the St. Jude religious-goods shop on Cottman Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia.
"We had a couple from Ocean City, Md., who had a Rita's Water Ice franchise they wanted to sell," Victor said. "They bought one to put in the freezer because they didn't have a piece of ground to bury him."
At a Center City townhouse near Third and Lombard Streets, broker Mike McCann and a client buried a St. Joseph in a backyard garden plot.
The 1760 house, a three-bedroom that once was a bakery, has been on the market for five months and has been repriced twice, from $769,000 down to $699,000.
"I'm going to make sure I say the prayer faithfully," McCann said. " 'Ask, believe, trust' is what it says on the box it came in. And, hey, it's made in the U.S.A."
John Badalamenti, an associate broker at Weichert Realtors in Collegeville, keeps a St. Joseph on his desk. He recommends the figures when all else fails.
"But first," he said, "I offer a few other thoughts: Make sure the house is properly priced, take care of deferred maintenance, and consider paying the buyer's closing costs in a slow market."