by Joe Bollig
CUMMINGS — Debra Fuhrman is under the gun.
Barraged by orders arriving from Kansas, around the United States, and even overseas, Fuhrman is shipping out product as fast as she can.
With All Saints Day less than a month away, you see, it’s high time for the saints — or rather, their costumes — to go marching out.
As best as Fuhrman can tell, Our Coats of Many Colors in Cummings, population 580 or so, is the Catholic children’s costume capital of the world.
That’s quite an accomplishment for Fuhrman, a member of the First Christian Church of Atchison. Until just a few years ago, she didn’t know the difference between St. Tarcisius and tartar sauce.
Fuhrman gives a lot of the credit for her success to her Catholic neighbor and friend, Maria Rioux, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Nortonville.
Fuhrman began her costume career in 1999 with “princess-style” dress-up clothes for her two daughters. When other parents began to ask her to make costumes for their kids, Fuhrman began a little bedroom-based business in 2002.
Initially, she only offered children’s costumes of historical and literary figures.
Then Rioux encouraged her to consider making saint costumes.
“I can’t do that,” said Fuhrman. “I’m Protestant. What do I know about the saints?”
But Rioux didn’t give up.
“The next year she said people in her e-group were asking where they could find patterns [for saint costumes], and there wasn’t anywhere to go and buy or get a pattern,” said Fuhrman.
Rioux was persistent. She was certain that there was a market out there among her fellow Catholic home-schoolers for well-made saint costumes for children. Those already on the market were mostly of the gag-type for adults — shoddy and vulgar. Parents hated them.
“I just didn’t see how it could work,” said Fuhrman. “I never tried to create my own patterns before. But the third time she asked, I said, ‘Fine, you show me, and I’ll try it, but I can’t do this alone.’”
“That’s when I told her that I’d help her with designs and any questions she had about a saint,” said Rioux. “I’m just down the road; pick up the phone.”
“We were picking up the phone all the time,” Fuhrman added with a laugh.
Fuhrman began making saint costumes in 2004, and the saints must be smiling on her, because business has been very good. Her first order — which she considered “huge” — was for 16 costumes. This year, she’ll make and ship approximately 1,500 saint costumes before Oct. 24, the cutoff date for rush orders.
“We could double that if I had enough seamstresses,” said Fuhrman.
Those first years, and costumes, weren’t easy. Starting with patterns for a Benedictine monk, a Franciscan friar, and a Jesuit priest, Fuhrman sought both quality and authenticity.
The latter turned out to be more difficult than first imagined. A nun’s cowl and the bishop’s miter, for example, dealt her fits.
“I lost so much sleep over the miter,” said Fuhrman. “It’s very hard to do the middle section.”
And the secret to making a good miter?
“I’m not telling,” Fuhrman said with a laugh.
It didn’t hurt that Rioux’s husband John is a philosophy professor at Benedictine College in Atchison.
“One of the monks let us use one of their habits,” said Rioux. “Abbot Barnabas let us use his miter. Sister Debora Peters [at Mount St. Scholastica] took us all around the Mount and showed us all the Benedictine Sister habits.”
About 90 percent of the costumes made by Our Coats of Many Colors are of saints, and the majority of those are bought for Catholic home-schoolers. Today, Our Coats of Many Colors offers 50 kinds of costumes, although the inventory is always in flux, said Fuhrman. Occasionally, the costumes of saints not often requested are replaced by those growing in popularity.
The company will, from time to time, take special orders as well.
“If I get more than three requests,” said Fuhrman, “I call Maria.
“‘People keep asking for Padre Pio. Should we add him?’, I’ll ask.
“She’ll say, ‘Yes,’ or ‘Why don’t we wait?’”
“Or I’ll say that he’s Franciscan, and we’ve already got that,” said Rioux.
It was a special order that led Rioux to create unit studies for some of the costumes. A unit study is a popular method of teaching for home-schoolers. It begins with a central subject, like a saint, and branches out to explore related subjects. The first one was written for a rush order of a St. Gabriel the Archangel costume.
“We were so out of everything and we couldn’t find wings anywhere,” said Rioux. “We told [the customer] the problem, but we still wanted him to have something special.”
Rioux wrote a unit study about St. Gabriel that was suitable for a seven- year-old. Soon, she was doing it for other saints.
Now that Our Coats of Many Colors is off the ground, Fuhrman is laying plans for her own clothing label as well. It will be called “V. Lorraine: Pure and Pretty” and will feature modest and attractive clothes for girls and young women.
“That’s my grandmother, Velma Lorraine,” said Fuhrman. “She’s my inspiration.”