Throughout the holiday season, St. Joseph is in plain view, the familiar figure in manger scenes with Mary and the baby Jesus.
But for much of the year, Joseph goes underground.
All over the Tampa Bay area, little plastic Josephs lie buried in lawns large and small, lush and scraggly. They are interred there by people who are trying to sell their homes and hope that St. Joseph will find them a buyer.
"I get a lot of people every day looking for St. Joseph," says Sylvia Sierra, owner of St. Anthony's Catholic Gift Shop in Tampa. "Real estate people come here and buy them by the dozens."
While Sierra's store is packed to the ceiling with Bibles, rosaries and other religious items, Joseph is so popular that he commands his own display right by the front door. Prices start at $1.79 for loose, 4-inch statues and 59 cents for a laminated prayer card.
"It's not a huge investment," Sierra says.
At the Family Christian bookstore in Pinellas Park, boxed Josephs with a card can be had for $6.99. A manager said the store sells "quite a lot" before referring further questions to the Michigan headquarters of the 266-store chain.
How did Joseph become the world's most revered real estate agent?
Christian teaching considers Joseph to have been Jesus' earthly father, making him the ideal patron saint of the home and family. As one story goes, an order of Spanish nuns headed by Teresa of Avila in the 1500s prayed to Joseph to help them find land for new convents. For good measure, they also buried their medals of Joseph.
Teresa opened 16 convents and soon other people began turning to Joseph when they had land transactions. Over time, the custom of burying medals gave way to burying statues.
Today, thousands of homeowners swear by the practice. (Full disclosure: This writer twice has enlisted Joseph's help in selling houses although lowering the price likely was a factor.)
Lori Bederman said she and her husband contracted to build a house in Bradenton three years ago but worried about unloading their place in Connecticut while the economy was so poor.
"My husband was in a panic because we were now obligated to own two homes," Bederman wrote in an email. "I knew my faith in St. Joseph would guide our way."
Bederman buried a statue of Joseph in the front yard and two days later had a cash offer. She exhumed him and "he sits in our new home today."
Steve Danikowski, a Web designer who lives in Palm Harbor, calls himself a "huge believer" in Joseph's power to move property.
"Our family has asked St. Joseph to help sell our homes for well over 30 years," he said. "He hasn't failed us yet!"
But there are skeptics, too. Among them: Eckerd College student Aidan Murphy.
When her father got a new job in Michigan and the family had to move, they buried a statue of Joseph at their Ohio home. Eight years later, the house has plunged in value but still hasn't sold, Murphy says.
"My mom says, 'St. Joseph doesn't like us.' I personally think it's because it's a piece of plastic, and it is the home market system crashing in 2008 that has caused our misfortune."
Sierra, of the Catholic gift shop, says she's heard of only a few Joseph-related no-sales in the 24 years she's been in business. Instead, customers often report that houses that had sat on the market for months or even years quickly found a buyer when St. Joseph arrived on the scene.
Sierra notes, however, that many sellers seeking his assistance come in a bit sheepishly.
"They're almost afraid to say, 'I'd like a statue of St. Joseph.' When I say, 'For real estate?,' they feel better."
With the customer at ease, Sierra goes into her "spiel." Contrary to myth and common practice, the statue doesn't have to be buried upside down, or facing the real estate sign or planted exactly 8 inches deep.
"I tell them it's your faith in St. Joseph that's important. That's why when I sell individual statues, I sell them the prayer card, too."
Not Catholic? "I tell them, sort of jokingly, 'You will be when you see the miracle.' "
After St. Joseph brings a buyer, sellers are supposed to say a novena to him — a series of prayers — or give a simple prayer of thanks. Successful sellers are also encouraged to take St. Joseph to their new home although many can't find him again even after marking the burial site.
Sierra has never called on Joseph to sell a house. But she knows of his power firsthand.
"I said, 'Look, St. Joe, if you can sell a house, a car is a lot easier.' "
Several years ago, Sierra stuck a statue of St. Joseph on the dashboard of her Lincoln Town Car. Within 10 days, she had a buyer.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.