Napoleon had just crowned himself Emperor of France. The United States was in the process of negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. Pius VII was leading the Catholic church. All this when the Barbiconi family opened a small store in the center of Rome that specialized in selling and producing hats for members of the Roman Catholic clergy.
Fifteen popes and three centuries later, the Barbiconis still own a store specializing in religious vestments for Catholic services.
“The shop has changed with the times of course,” said Christiana Fortuney, the current manager of the store. Her grandmother’s last name was Barbiconi. “At the beginning it was only for clerical hats. Then we began to sell more items for clergy; then items for nuns.”
Priests from all over the world visit Barbiconi, which is still located right in the heart of Rome near the Pantheon. Fortuney notes the diversity of the store’s clients comes not only from geography, but age. “[Our clients] are a mixed population,” Fortuney said. “We have many very old clients but there are many young priests that come here as well.”
While Fortuney was speaking two young priests, both American, walked around the store. Turning to a rack of black cassocks, the long robes worn by the clergy, one nudged the other and said, “Look! What an awesome deal on this.” The duo could have just as easily been flipping through shirts at the Gap, but their all-black outfits and shirts with Roman collars give them away.
The cassocks are a symbol of the traditionalist Catholic church Fortuney explained. “In Rome, you have to wear a cassock in Vatican services if you are a priest,” she said. “It’s been that way for a long time. You have to respect tradition.”
Some priests, mostly the older ones, wear the long cassocks every day. But “some priests, the younger ones a lot of the time, come in here with jeans and sneakers. You only know they are priests because of their cross pin,” Fortuney said.
Fortuney still sees many young male clients in her store. Young men who are either preparing to enter the priesthood or have just entered the priesthood come to Barbiconi for a variety of religious vestments—alms, stoles and more.
She is not sure how many of her young clients actually go through Holy Orders, the sacrament required to become a priest. “I think most people proceed to vows, but I’m not positive,” she said.
Barbiconi still has many young male clients, despite the fact that the number of priests has declined about 2 percent since 1970, while the population of Catholics worldwide has doubled since then. But Fortuney has noticed a significant drop-off in female clients in the past few years.
The number of nuns worldwide has declined steadily in the past three decades. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of religious sisters worldwide now stands at just over 705,000—a 30 percent decline since 1970.
“With priests you always have new generations take the vows and that is not the same with nuns,” Fortuney said.
The decline in religious figures does not have Fortuney worried about the future of Barbiconi. He has changed Barbiconi’s product line to reflect the changing times. “Now we sell things items to use for personal religious services,” Fortuney said. She noted that the membership in the church is increasing, even though the number of people entering religious orders is not.