If you’ve got shoes on that hurt,” says Brother Sebastian Tobin, “it shows up in your disposition. It changes your whole character.” In addition to a life in Christ, Brother Sebastian has found a second calling in comfortable footwear as proprietor of Sebastian’s Sandal Shop, tucked into a basement corner of Manhattan’s Church of St. Francis of Assisi. His clientele consists of the 1,000 friars in the Franciscan Order’s Holy Name Province; in fact, he has a backlog of 100 requests for sandals. But Brother Sebastian has also branched out into briefcases, purses and barrettes. (Although women shoppers are not supposed to enter the cloister, he sneaks Sisters in the back way.) Under the watchful gaze of Saint Crispin, the patron of cobblers, Brother Sebastian manages an annual $2,000 in sales, which he turns over to the order.
The bearded, 39-year-old friar proudly wears his own handiwork (size 7D) under his flowing Franciscan robe. “They say a tailor wears the worst clothes and a barber never gets his hair cut,” Brother Sebastian observes. “I figured I should wear the best sandals.”
A decade ago the province’s only cobbler became an auto mechanic, and the sandal shop closed. In keeping with the order’s tradition of self-reliance, Sebastian pestered his superiors for permission to become the sandalmaker. When they said yes in 1972, there was just one problem—he didn’t know the first thing about the craft. A fur cutter and cleaner before he joined the order, he taught himself from books and by hanging around shoe repair shops.
Brother Sebastian, whose given name is David, grew up in Pittsfield, . Mass. and joined the Franciscans when he was 19. He goes to footwear and leather goods conventions (in civvies) and refers to friends he has made there as “my other little apostolate.” Up at 5:30 every morning for Mass and morning devotions, he works six hours a day at his trade. But there are occasions when Franciscan rituals come first. “Holy Week will always slow you down,” laments New York’s saintly sandalmaker, “and Christmas was very tough.”