Clergy tailor Robert Magnarelli remembers waiting near the off ramp to I-76 near Broad Street and Packer Avenue for Pope John Paul II to arrive in Philadelphia. It was 1979, Philadelphia’s first papal visit and the second time a pope had ever set foot in the United States. A crowd had assembled near the highway to greet the Holy Father. Robert, a 10-year-old at the time, was playing football with friends when the long black limo rounded the curve. The Popemobile paused for a brief moment, rolled down its window, and Robert caught a glimpse of the pontiff as he waved to the crowd before continuing up Broad Street. It was a brief, but memorable experience for the young boy who would later join his Italian-born father in crafting handmade liturgical garments.
Renzetti-Magnarelli Clergy Apparel, located at 2216 S. Broad Street, is in the heart of South Philly’s unofficial funerary district. Robert’s father, Lucio Magnarelli, immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1965 to work for the Renzetti family, who had opened a tailor shop in Philadelphia specializing in garments for the clergy. Lucio was imported talent from Rome and his reputation for fine craftsmanship was widely known in a city with a long and rich tradition of outfitting pontiffs. His design and garment construction skills, honed from the tender age of 15, would help establish a solid reputation for the new American business in Philadelphia for generations to come.
Only a handful of ecclesiastical apparel shops in the U.S. can boast a lineage like Renzetti-Magnarelli’s. The small family-owned and operated business celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and serves the vesturing needs of religious orders from around the world. They do accept orders online at clergyapparel.com, but many clients prefer to travel from near and far to visit their showroom for personal consultations and fittings.
Religion is heavy with symbolism, and religious garments are no exception. Early on, monks cloaked themselves in drab browns and grays to show that they were not so different from everyone else, shunning color to demonstrate their devotion to prayer and penance. By the fourth century, members of the clergy began to use color to set themselves apart and signify special times in the religious calendar. Catholic clergy chromatics adhere to strict representation. Roman purple (similar to fuchsia) is for bishops while regular purple is for Advent and Lent. Orange and red are reserved for cardinals. White and gold are for high holidays, and black is used for both mourning and everyday use. However, each denomination uses color in different ways and Robert and Lucio are extremely well versed in this complex visual language.
In a highly symbolic ceremony that was originated by Pope Pius XII, prelates will often give away their zucchetto as a keepsake to the faithful if presented with a new one as a gift. In Italian, zucchetto translates to “small pumpkin” and it is the small skullcap that is the pope’s signature headpiece. Pope Francis will be treated like a holy rock star this weekend. When he visits with bishops at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary on City Line Avenue he will be presented with a new white zucchetto, which was procured by Robert Magnarelli through a special order from Italy. Pope Francis will most likely receive the gifted zucchetto, remove his own, and graciously gift it to the bishops, placing the new zucchetto upon his head. It’s a small, but significant role that the soft-spoken Robert is playing in this weekend’s line-up of papal events, carrying on his family’s great tradition of service to the world’s church with style and grace.