The shirt on their backs
Popular T offers a nostalgic take on original parishes
Jack Doherty is grateful that he was led not into the temptation of humor when designing the T-shirt that has captured the (holy) spirit of Dorchester. The president of College Hype Sportswear recently recalled the trial-and-error stage nine years ago that preceded the creation of the T, which features a dozen churches and the simple phrase ''The Parishes of Dorchester."
''We were tossing around the idea of 'God's own 12-pack,' " said Doherty, 36, whose business moved from a college dorm to a Ventura Street bedroom before settling in Adams Village six years ago. ''I'm glad we played it straight," he said. ''The images and idea speak for themselves." And they speak to those Dot Catholics for whom neighborhood parishes have mattered more than the names of streets, hills, or parks as a marker of home.
''What parish are you from? It's the first question you asked when you bumped into someone on the street or at the market," said Nancy Greene, who lives a few blocks from St. Greg's and owns four of the T-shirts. ''I don't wear T-shirts very often, at my age," said Greene, 74, ''but my son and granddaughter still do. The shirt brings back a lot of memories. It shows the kind of pride people have in their parishes. That's what makes all these changes so hard to take."
Greene said she doesn't understand the archdiocese's decision to close St. William Church and have its parishioners merge with those of St. Margaret's. She prefers the Dorchester captured in four colors on cotton to the one now changing before her eyes. ''The shirt reminds me of a time when kids could walk to school on their own, when you didn't have to lock your doors at night," Greene said. ''I know that's the past, but it's worth remembering."
Doherty appreciates her perspective and says he has no plans to change the design of the shirt to reflect parish closings or renamings. ''People love nostalgia," said Doherty. ''Not to sound like a wise guy or anything, but we've been selling more shirts since all this talk of parish closings started."
Responding to website orders from as far away as China, College Hype sells from five to 10 parish shirts each week. Dot transplants to Florida and the Cape have proven regular customers.
And a new destination for the homespun T has surfaced in recent months. ''We have parents from the neighborhood coming in whose sons and daughters are in Iraq," Doherty said. ''They like to include the shirt and a couple of Dorchester bumper stickers in the care packages they put together and ship out."
Some have sought to tailor the T a bit. Placing the design in a frame fit for a spot on the living-room wall is not uncommon. Then there's the women who bought 12 and turned them into a quilt, and one who fashioned a dress from the $15 T-shirt. The shirt has served a diplomatic function as well. Worn outside the four-mile radius it depicts, the garment compels those who have shared a neighborhood to share their stories, as well. From Maine to Chicago to California, people sporting the T have been stopped in the street to chat about Dot.
''The shirt definitely shows how strong and central to community life the Catholic religion was in Dorchester," said Tom Barton, who designed the shirt. The former St. Peter's altar boy moved to Somerville six years ago and still attends Mass every Sunday, but says something's missing. ''I remember the way people would pour out of church. They didn't go straight for their cars or home. They'd stand around and talk, trade gossip about the neighborhood," said Barton, 34.
''That doesn't happen as much today," he said. ''People miss that sense of community. The shirt somehow captured that."
Barton recalled other ideas he and Doherty, a friend since childhood, batted around. ''We thought of doing the parks of Dorchester, but we soon realized it was all about the parishes," said Barton, who used church bulletins and some free-hand sketching to capture the cross-topped facades.
Like Doherty, Barton balks at the thought of a new design. He's willing to let the shirt be nostalgia, not news. ''To put out a new shirt with fewer parishes on it would show you're part of something that isn't as strong as it used to be. That would decrease the meaning of the shirt for me," said Barton, who has five shirts in his wardrobe. ''My wife and I wear them sparingly," he said, ''so that they don't fade too much."