While some say the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the center of the local Irish Catholic community, you could make the case that the real center lies a couple of blocks northwest.
Specifically, at the corner of Bull Street and Liberty in the parcel that contains the Knights of Columbus, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, and the shop Saints & Shamrocks.
The latter institution celebrates two decades in business with some shenanigans this Saturday.
Hope Ebberwein has owned and operated Saints & Shamrocks for the past three of those 20 years. She says the store — in keeping with the jovial company it keeps on this bustling corner where the Grand Marshal himself watches the parade each year — represents more than just a retail storefront.
“It’s a huge ministry too. People who come in here are sometimes at their most joyful time — ‘my daughter’s getting married’ — or, ‘I’ve just lost my husband,’” explains Ebberwein. “That’s the part I really get a lot of meaning out of — the people part, being with them through all the twists and turns of their lives.”
Ebberwein — a local girl, maiden name Pinckney, with deep historical roots in Georgia and South Carolina who went to Blessed Sacrament and St. Vincent’s Academy — says she works in close concert with the local Irish community in celebrating their heritage.
“We especially try to help them with any needs they have during the season — the whole season, from the Irish Festival in February through the actual day of the parade,” she says.
Ebberwein laughs as she recalls the time one recent St. Patrick’s week when the nationally-renowned local Irish musician Harry O’Donoghue simply called her and asked if he could come play at the store.
And he did.
“He just set up right in the doorway and sang to our customers and to people walking by, playing music and telling funny stories. You know how he is,” Ebberwein laughs. “And he didn’t charge a dime. He just did it because he had some time in between performances and wanted to help.”
Saints & Shamrocks also works closely with local churches and schools, “and not only the Catholic ones. Some of the Episcopal priests down the street are our best customers,” Ebberwein says.
While a portion of Saints & Shamrocks is indeed occupied by various Catholic–oriented items of an overtly religious nature, Ebberwein views part of her mission as simply representing a slice of Savannah life that’s pretty much ubiquitous regardless of one’s faith.
“We’re not exclusive by any means. I have lots of Jewish customers who come here to buy gifts for their Christian friends, and I help them out. We’re all in this together.”
In the politically correct America of 2012, open expressions of faith are sometimes met not only with cynicism but with outright hostility. And some visitors to Savannah aren’t up to speed with how pervasive religion really is in Southern life.
But Ebberwein says for the most part her experience has actually shown the opposite side of the coin.
“We’ll occasionally have people who’ll come in the door, take one look around and walk right out. So I say a little prayer for them as they leave,” she laughs. “But mostly what I hear more than anything else is people coming in and saying ‘All the stores near me like this have closed.’ It’s so sad.”
Ebberwein recollects the occasion of a grandmother visiting from out of town.
“She started buying all this stuff, and I sort of asked her what was going on. She said, ‘‘We have nothing like this where I’m from. I have three grandchildren and they’re all having sacraments.’ So at that point I offered to wrap it all up and ship it to her. That’s the kind of thing I hear much more often than someone being shocked at seeing a store with a few religious items.”
Perhaps the store’s true ministry, however, is simply spreading the gospel of Southern hospitality.
“People really respond when you take a minute to ask about them and how they’re doing. Funny thing is, we’re all pretty genuinely interested in what’s going on in their lives!” Ebberwein laughs. “We make new friends all the time, and people love that. It comes naturally to us down here because it’s how we’re raised.”
As case in point she offers the example of an elderly couple from somewhere in the heartland, who found themselves staying at the Desoto Hilton during St. Patrick’s Day — having no clue what they were in store for.
“So we were giving them pointers. Later they came in and told us, ‘Yeah, we left our chairs on the parade route, left and came back, and nobody bothered them! We were holding people’s grandchildren. We met all kinds of new people!’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s Savannah.’”
Saints & Shamrocks 20th Anniversary Celebration
All day Saturday July 28. Ann Lutz signs copies of Painting Rachel from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. “Happy Hour” featuring Bailey’s Irish Cream Cupcakes is 4:30–5:30 p.m.