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Family business was a ministry to the faith community

Ed Sinclair has entered semi-retirement.

By Mary Stamp

In his 55 years as the fourth generation in his family's business, Kaufer's Religious Supplies, Ed Sinclair considered the business a ministry—with sales about relationships and meeting the needs of clergy and laity.

"It was amazing what customers shared when they came for a baptismal gift or a condolence card," he said.

Since 1904, most Kaufer family members have worked in, managed and owned stores in Seattle, Spokane and San Francisco.

Members of the fifth generation chose to pursue other callings in life, said Ed, the great-grandson of Philip Kaufer, who founded the Seattle store with his brother Louis.

In August, Catholic Supply of St. Louis acquired the stores in a merger.

Ed started working in the Seattle warehouse in 1967, first in shipping and receiving, then on the sales floor. Before moving to Spokane in 1981, he visited Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and other churches in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Utah to establish friendships and business relationships.

"Some might call it sales, but to me it was about relationships and finding ways to meet needs with our goods and connections with manufacturers, artists and artisans," he said.

Ed was 28 when he and his wife Mary Ann came to Spokane with their three children. He was to work five years with the manager, Mildred Beaudry—then in her 80s—and find its new manager. His great uncle John had hired her when he founded the Spokane store downtown on Monroe. In the 1950s, the store was on Riverside, and in the 1960s, at 716 W. Sprague.

Mildred worked with Ed's aunt Betty. The store later moved to 907 W. Boone, where Mildred worked until the late 1980s.

Ed and Mary Ann liked Spokane and decided to stay, so Ed went from assistant manager to co-manager to manager.

"In a family business, family members are partners and grow into new positions," Ed said.

The second generation were his grandfather, Leonard, his great-uncle John, a bachelor  who made several months-long visits to Italy to buy religious supplies, and his great aunt Monica.

The third generation were Leonard's children and two sons-in-law. His son, Bud (John), son-in-law Lee Sinclair, who married Maryhelen (Ed's parents), and son-in-law Francis Johnson made it a lifelong vocation.

Eight of Ed's nine siblings and nine of Leonard's 11 children worked with Kaufer's. Ed's brother Jim was manager-owner in Seattle for 39 years. His sister Michele worked 30 years; Jeanmarie, more than 20 years; Mark, 20 years, and Joe, seven years. Jim's wife, Alina, worked 28 years, and Ed's wife, Mary Ann, more than 10 years, setting up the company's computer system in the late 1980s.

Bud opened a Kaufer's branch as a merger-acquisition in 1969 in San Francisco. He ran it with his son David until it closed in 2014.

"As the fourth generation grew older, we wanted continuity, so we sought to find a good partner," Ed said.

For 10 years, the Seattle and Spokane stores worked with two Catholic Supply of St. Louis, Inc., and four other stores to produce a catalogue of religious supplies. Each had its own cover. With common inside pages, they saved printing costs.

"Supplies are for more than Catholics," he said. "Lutheran and Episcopal churches are also liturgical, but people from many churches shopped with us for candles, music, art, palms, vestments,  stoles, clergy shirts, altar cloths, altar breads and more."

Ed noted changes over the years.

In the mid-1960s after Vatican II, Catholic and other churches related with each other more closely.

"For a while, there was less emphasis on tradition, but then tradition returned. For example, the rosary fell out of favor but came back with a vengeance," said Ed, seeing interest among Episcopalians, too.

"Shifts in how people practice faith reflect what churches buy," he said. "Music was 11 percent of our business, until recorded songs and sheet music became available online. There were shifts from more use of candles to less, and now candles are more popular than ever. For a while, clergy vestments were simple. Then there was interest in artistic touches."

Ed consulted on furnishings or art appropriate for a church.

He found it valuable to visit churches to see their setting and meet with people," he said. "Being in a church, I could see what might be needed."

Kaufer's was behind the scenes on many projects.

When St. Ann's in Bonners Ferry burned down, Ed worked with parishioners as they rebuilt, arranging for wood carvings from Italy.

"It was powerful when they raised up a new 10-foot cross," he said.

It replaced the 10-foot marble statue of Christ's crucifixion outside St. Augustine's after teens damaged it.

It supplied the six-foot carved Mary in the grotto at Gonzaga University and stained glass in the chapel at Sacred Heart Hospital.

Kaufer's also supplies Palm Sunday palms for many churches.

"In the first generations, our business and niche was considered recession proof, but in the last 25 years we have experienced economic fluctuations," said Ed. "In 2008, people in the pews were hit in their pocketbooks and gave less to parishes."

Ed then realized the store was not fully using the building. Half was a warehouse. Staff sorted and discarded items so they could rent half the space.

When Monroe St. and the bridge were closed for construction, Kaufer's—even though it is a destination business—lost customers who would drop by when driving up Monroe.

Church scandals also disrupted attendance and giving.

"We reflect what happens in churches," Ed said, "but when COVID closed businesses, people knew we might not be able to continue, so they came to shop to keep our doors open."

Believing in having a brick-and-mortar store, Ed stuck it out through adverse times.

Ed grew up attending Catholic Mass and going to Catholic schools in Seattle. Inspired by the Christian Brothers order that taught at O'Dea High School, he spent his two years in a monastic community with them while attending Lewis College in Lockport, Ill.

"Living, studying, eating, working and praying together was part of my spiritual formation," said Ed, who eventually chose to marry and have a family.

His wife, Mary Ann, spent five years with the Good Shepherd Sisters, so they shared having experiences in religious communities.

In 1978, Ed completed a bachelor's in business administration at Seattle University.

He became involved in the Charismatic Renewal, deepening his personal relationship with God and Jesus, helping him realize even more that the divine was about more than a Sunday relationship. It was about intentionally having the divine be part of all aspects of his life.

The unexpected death of one of their three daughters in 2012 at the age of 33—a special needs child who was like a 12-year-old—had a profound impact on Ed and Mary Ann, but their faith gave them strength.

Being a Kaufer meant more than the legacy of the store. Ed's great-grandfather, Philip, wrote church music. When his family gathered, they sang.

"College was the first time I realized that not everyone sang in harmony," said Ed, who was part of a music ensemble, Joyful Noise, in the 1990s. They produced two cassettes with songs they composed and sang, "Show Me the Way" and "As We Gather." In 2012, Ed and ensemble member, Rick Markealli, composed songs for a CD, "Songs of Healing, Songs of Grace."

Now semi-retired, Ed works three days on contract with Catholic Supply as senior church supply specialist and mentor. He is grateful they recognize the legacy of Kaufer's by continuing the business under the Kaufer name.

He is also grateful for all the people—customers—he encountered over the years at Kaufer's.

"The business was also a ministry. People came through the doors searching. We were part of their lives, listening to stories while they shopped. It was humbling," Ed said.

"One woman had a phone call while in the store and learned her son had died. She fell to her knees in the aisle. I comforted her with my story of losing my daughter," he said.

"I always told employees that the ministry and the people we encountered every day at Kaufer's were a tremendous fringe benefit," he said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2023