The foster father of the Son of God was a hard-working man — an industrious and dedicated carpenter, to be precise.

We remember this aspect of his life on May 1, feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

But his builder’s skills and diligent work ethic are not the main reasons many people turn to him as a patron of real estate. They’re hoping he will sell their houses quickly.

“He’s a logical patron for finding a home or helping someone else find your home,” explains Father Joseph Linck, director of the office of divine worship for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. He points out that God called St. Joseph to find shelter for the Holy Family in Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth.

To be sure, seeking St. Joseph’s intercession is always wise and admirable. Problem is, today there are many goads to turn away from devotion and toward superstition: Some crafty marketers are making a bundle on St. Joseph “home-sale” kits.

These generally consist of a small plastic statue of the saint with a set of instructions. Bury St. Joseph in the front yard, you’re told. For surest results, place him near your sign and facing your house. Tell him you’ll dig him up when he sells the house and put him in a place of honor in your new home.

Is this the way to treat Jesus’ foster father?

“Don’t hold the saints hostage!” says EWTN’s Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa. “That’s the basic underlying issue. Pray to St. Joseph for his intercession. That’s a good thing. If anybody understands what its like to be in a high-risk situation for homes, it’s St. Joseph. It’s a good idea to ask his intercession to sell you house and other things. But don’t hold him hostage.” 

Lonny and Linda Hofer, who had to relocate from one part of Rapid City, S.D., to another, did turn to St. Joseph for his intercession with their sale. Not knowing the history behind the statue-burying custom, they planted one.

But first, says Linda, they began a novena to St. Joseph. “Very shortly afterwards, the house sold,” says Linda. “We did the novena with faith.”

At their new home, they got a pleasant surprise.

“When we moved here, my son found this little statue of St. Joseph in the yard lying in the grass,” says Linda. “And it wasn’t ours.”

Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father William McSweeney, director of St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell, Mass., is uncomfortable with burying the statues, yet appreciates and admires the faith some people put in the saint via the problematic practice.

“I don’t want to do anything that is opposed to that [faith],” says Father McSweeney. “Most people’s intentions are good.” Best of all, he has an opportunity to gently set things straight when they ask or tell him about the burying.

When and where did it become de rigeur to plant St. Joseph in a hole in the ground to help with a home sale? And what’s the right way to enlist his aid in the process?

Father Linck traces the first of two iffy influences to misdirected piety in the Middle Ages, when some folks’ devotional fervor went well beyond the bonds of what the Church actually endorsed.

“It was actually thought that, if you did something to an image of someone, you did it to the person represented,” says Father Linck. At some point people got the idea that the saints could be threatened with various punishments if they didn’t perform certain intercessions. It wasn’t the common understanding but, yes, such silliness happened.

“An image of the saints is meant to be venerated,” reminds Father Linck, who finds devotion to the saints wonderful and encourages balanced piety. “But you can’t say you’re venerating an image of the saint if you’re burying him in the ground.”

Today’s “homesellers kit” is also a misinterpretation of a legitimate 16th-century practice of St. Teresa of Avila. Very devoted to St. Joseph, she prayerfully buried his medals to consecrate any property she wished to obtain for convents.

The practice of sanctifying the ground with a religious medal, so as to place the site under the protection or patronage of a saint, is very different from expecting a cause-and-effect response from the handling of a talisman or a lucky charm.

“The important thing in all this,” he adds, “is prayer.”

It’s a route Stephen Carter recently took. He didn’t even consider burying St. Joseph’s statue. “I didn’t need any of the superstition,” he says. “I just used good old-fashioned prayer.”

Contemplating job changes and his responsibilities uprooting his wife and family to a new city, Carter prayed for St. Joseph’s intercession for every area and lit a seven-day vigil candle by St. Joseph’s statue in church.

Within that week, he changed jobs smoothly; before the realtor listed the their house, somebody surprisingly knocked on their door to ask if they wanted to sell it; and the Carters immediately knew the house they inspected in Woodbury, Minn., was for them.

“We looked out the bedroom window,” says Carter, “and there was a statue of Mary with her hands stretched toward our new home.”

In Plain Sight

Linda Hofer tells about her sister Carolle Weber and her husband moving to Sioux Falls from Scottsdale, Ariz., last spring. Carolle didn’t think the house would sell fast.

“She had a deep devotion to St. Joseph,” relates Linda. “She didn’t put the statue of St. Joseph outside and do all those crazy things. She said their parish priest told them to put St. Joseph on their mantle. She did. She started a novena, and the house sold the first day on the market.” That whirlwind answer amazed even Carolle.

Father Linck says homesellers should invoke St. Joseph’s intercession by placing a picture, icon or statue somewhere in the home — and looking upon it as a prayer aid.

“Pray daily to St. Joseph and ask him for his intercession,” says the priest. “Upon selling the house or finding one, honor St. Joseph in your new home. Make him a patron of the home and the family. And continue to ask him for his intercession for the life of the family and home life.”

The American family has never been under such strain as it is right now, Father Linck points out.

“We need St. Joseph,” he adds, “where we can see him.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.