On a recent fall afternoon, sunrays pour through the windows of a small sleek lounge just off of Rosenblums store in Jacksonville Beach. Local custom clothier Fitz Opie kneels on the wooden floor between two dressing rooms flanked by denim drapes, and carefully pins the hemline of navy suit pants worn by a local television personality.
“Fashion’s going back to cuffs,” he says to the newsman.
“But you can have them how you want them.”
Fitz, his given name and also his official title at Rosenblums, wears a pair of grey cuffed trousers, a brown crocodile belt, camel-colored dress shoes, and a striped button-down shirt accessorized by a yellow tape measure around his neck. Only his collar-length dark hair and salt-and-pepper beard hint at his life outside of fabric samples and suit fittings. When not schooling clients on the latest fashion trends at Rosenblums, the 57-year-old kneels to a higher power—as a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Half way through high school the Catholics lost me,” says Fitz, who was raised Episcopalian and attended Catholic school in Alexandria, Va. “From that point and through college, I was a hippie backpacker living with my girlfriend.”
But in his mid 20s, Fitz felt a more pious pull.
“I wanted to find a church,” says Fitz.
Distant family ties to Russian Orthodoxy through his paternal grandmother and an uncle, both converts, resonated with the young retailer. Then one day, a jog past an Orthodox Church inspired him to act on his instincts. He found a local Russian Orthodox congregation in the phone book and attended his first service on New Years Day 1984. Less than six months later, he was received into the Orthodox Church, given the Saint’s name of Leo, and married his girlfriend. Fitz worked his way up from church reader to subdeacon in three years. He even learned to speak Russian with help from CDs he listened to while driving.
Meanwhile his career in men’s fashion grew, with retail management jobs from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta and Orlando. In 1998, an opportunity with Rosenblums brought him to Jacksonville. By day Fitz outfitted clients. But at night and on weekends, he traded his tape measure for a religious stole, praying from a big black book of prayers and hosting readings at his home. Eventually, he helped found St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Palm Coast, one of three completely Russian parishes on the First Coast.
As a fixture at Rosenblums in Jacksonville Beach, where he oversees the production of more than 300 pieces of custom clothing a year, it’s hard to envision Fitz wearing anything other than a dress shirt and flat-front trousers. But a quick flip through his iPhone photos reveals Father Leo or “Father Lev,” as his congregants know him, dressed in full regalia performing duties at St. Nicholas.
Fitz taps his phone’s screen and magnifies the photo’s details like the long cuffs on his vestments. He explains the meaning of the colors of his ceremonial robes: blue for the Feast of the Virgin Mary, green for Palm Sunday, and white for Pascha or Easter.
“I’ve got seven different sets of those,” he says, holding an image of himself in a long blue garment with gold embroidery. “I have a pretty serious clergy wardrobe.”
The history of the Russian Orthodox Church began with missionaries from the Greek Orthodox Church. During the 16th century, the Russian church became an independent organization recognized by other Eastern Orthodox Churches.
“He is very serious about what he is doing,” says Father Arkady Migunov, the Russian-born priest of Annunciation Orthodox Church in Jacksonville. “To see that [commitment] in an American person is inspiring to me and makes me appreciate my faith more. In Western culture, you learn to do what you want to do. But he learned to do what he needed to do.”
As a deacon, Fitz supports his priest during Sunday services, chanting from liturgy in both Russian and English and leading the congregation of about 30 regular attendees in response passages. He also counsels church members throughout the week and performs a Saturday night vigil. His holy work continues even at home, where he prays in an icon-adorned corner of his bedroom.
“An abbot once told me, ‘Always move your lips when you pray, that way the demons know what you are doing and will leave you alone,’” he says with a laugh.
Despite the seriousness of his life as Father Lev, Fitz holds tight to his sense of humor, a trait he draws on at church and in retail.
“Don’t quit your day job,” booms a voice from the doorway of the fitting lounge.
Bob Rosenblum, co-owner of the clothing store, pops his head in the room to banter with his long-time employee and friend.
“We’re lucky to have Fitz,” Rosenblum says. “He’s family to us.”