By Joe Pisani
Kathleen Conroy-Cass made a deal with God. It went something like this: “If you take care of my family, I’ll do everything to spread your word.”
That was more than 25 years ago when her oldest daughter suffered a series of medical ailments and was in and out of the hospital with a condition the experts couldn’t diagnose.
Kathy was desperate and prayed for her daughter … and for personal direction.
“I was working as a part-time bookkeeper at the time but told God I would work anywhere,” she recalls.
To fulfill her part of the bargain and spread the good news, she became somewhat of a traveling saleswoman with a cabinet of religious items she kept at the back of St. Anthony Parish in Ansonia. She took her little business on the road and would fill up Rubbermaid bins with prayer books, rosaries, medals and statues and set up tables at church events in the Diocese of Bridgeport and Archdiocese of Hartford.
From those humble beginnings came St. Anthony’s Book & Gift Shop in Orange, which has been in operation almost 25 years. To Kathy, it’s more of a ministry than a business, and she has been diligently spreading the word to Catholics, Christians and anyone who walks through the door.
“People need to know they’re not alone,” she says. “People need to know that God is with us all the time and that they have a guardian angel. Even though I never know who’s coming through that door, I always spread that message.”
Many customers come in and confess, “I’m not really religious.” Kathy lets them look around and offers to help them find what they want. While there, they inevitably open a book, see a saying on a plaque, or read words from a psalm.
“They go out different than when they came in,” she says. There are occasions, too, when people confronting a crisis find themselves drawn to St. Anthony’s because they see his large image outside the store.
“Sometimes I meet them at the door. Maybe they just had a miscarriage or had a child die or be addicted to heroin or had a family member or friend commit suicide,” she says. “I’ve had people crying in my arms because of a tragedy they suffered, especially the death of a child. One woman was at the door and she cried and cried and cried, and I held her and told her I was so sorry.”
Many of them are looking for God at critical moments in their lives, whether it’s recovery from an addiction or an unexpected pregnancy.
“It’s a ministry,” she says. “Sometimes I joke that if the minimum wage keeps going up, I’ll go be a greeter at Walmart, but God always takes care of me, and I love what I do.”
Sherry Smarz of St. Joseph Church in Shelton often helps Kathy at St. Anthony’s and said, “I love this store. It’s my happy place, and I feel like I’m helping spread the word.”
On feasts of the Blessed Mother, they invite people to pray the rosary in front of the store, where there is a life-sized statue of Our Lady of Fatima on the porch.
“Our Lady watches over the people going through this intersection, and some of them even pull in the driveway just to say a prayer to her,” Kathy said.
On a recent Saturday, more than a dozen people gathered to pray the rosary outside in view of the passing traffic on Route 34.
“Afterward, a couple from Colombia came in and said, ‘This was a miracle. We were driving by and saw you praying the rosary, and we had to come back,’” she recalled.
Another couple from New Hampshire was passing by a few years ago and stopped to pray the rosary and have been online customers ever since they returned home.
During these troubled times when Catholics are often under attack, Kathy says, “We have to give public witness. I tell people not to be afraid. I’m not afraid because I’ve got God on my side. When we leave this world, hopefully he will say to us, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
She believes Catholics must have hope and not succumb to fear. The mother of three children, who have helped her with the store over the years, she tells customers, “I sell everything but church wine and white shoes.” And if you don’t see it, she’ll get it.
St. Anthony’s has everything from “birth to death,” she says, including christening outfits, baby gifts, wedding gifts, items related to the Sacraments, and religious supplies for death and bereavement, such as urns and Catholic caskets. There are also Catholic and Christian books, materials for 12 Step recovery programs, medals, jewelry and holy cards.
During the COVID lockdown, she enhanced her website to encourage online shopping at www.stanthonygift.com. The shop, at 461 Derby Avenue in Orange, is open Wednesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com or by phone at (203) 888-3390.
St. Anthony’s is one of a few religious items stores left in the state.
“People are always thrilled to find a Catholic store because there are hardly any more around,” she said. Her clientele includes parishes and customers from throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport.
“Our Catholic heritage has so many really great and amazing things, and I love to tell people about them,” she says. “For instance, I’ve heard people say, ‘I didn’t know there were patron saints for lawyers or for this or that. They’re always amazed to learn more about their faith.”
Along the way, many people have helped her — most notably St. Anthony, whose relic is on display in the shop — and several other patrons who passed on.
Her first location on Bank Street in Seymour was owned by the late Ted Rogal, known as “the mayor of Seymour,” who had a men’s shop downtown.
“He showed me the rent, and he gave me the key on a handshake. He was a huge help to me when I needed it,” she recalled. “God put him in my path. I loved him dearly. One Christmas, he helped me set up the nativity in the window, and people saw this Jewish man and this Catholic girl working together.”
Four years later, she moved around the block to Main Street to a place owned by the late Jimmy Principi, owner of Jimmy’s Place.
“He was a wonderful man too. He knew my biggest seasons were Christmas and First Communion, so when I was behind on my rent, he understood,” she recalled. “He had such a big part in keeping these doors open.”
Another one of her guardian angels was Fr. Nick Pavia, who was assigned to St. Joseph Church in Shelton at the time and helped her move from Seymour to downtown Derby in 2013.
“Father would always come in the store,” she recalled. “He even blessed it for me.”
Several thousand friends and family members were there for her when she got caught in a planning and zoning dispute in Orange. Her parents helped with the mortgage on the new building, and her customers signed a petition and supported her when her application for a religious gift shop faced opposition.
“It’s a miracle I’m here,” she says. “I never thought I’d be on the corner of Orange Center Road.”
And then, there was that deal she made with God over her sick daughter, who today is the mother of three sons.
For a while, her daughter ran a satellite St. Anthony’s in Winsted, next door to a health food store that sold gluten-free products.
“While she was working there, we learned that all those years her problem was actually celiac disease,” an autoimmune disorder caused by intolerance to gluten in foods, she said. “If we hadn’t had that store, we never would have found out.”
So Kathy kept her side of the bargain … and God kept his.