CALI, Colombia — To say Luis Abel Delgado of Colombia occupies a special niche in the global rag trade is an understatement: He's made vestments for two Roman Catholic popes and inaugural sashes for several Latin American presidents.
His sartorial skills have taken him from extreme poverty in southwest Colombia to the Vatican and several presidential palaces as an honored guest.
He's on a first-name basis with newly elected Pope Francis, who calls him Abelito, and he spoke monthly with Pope Benedict XVI, Delgado said.
"The new pope is as humble as they say. He insists I call him Don Francisco," Delgado said at his modest apartment in a southern suburb of Cali in Colombia. He first met former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on one of the six annual trips he made to the Vatican to fit Benedict.
Francis telephoned Delgado in Cali the night of his election, March 13, to discuss nine garments — cassocks, embroidered tunics, belts and ceremonial hats called miters — that he ordered for his investiture.
"Abelito, make them white ones with black embroidery," Delgado said Francis told him.
The Vatican did not respond to requests for confirmation of the conversation. But Delgado's photo album showing him with Benedict, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Panamanian chief executive Ricardo Martinelli, among others, speaks of the rarefied air he has breathed.
It's a dizzying rise in status for someone who was so poor growing up that he spent a year in Pasto living under a bridge and following his mother as she sang and played guitar for pennies at the city bus terminal. In 2003, then-President Alvaro Uribe presented Delgado with the Order of Boyaca, one of the nation's highest honors.
"It's the will of God," Delgado said just before he began a weekly prayer meeting with about a dozen friends.
Yet Delgado has also known tragedy. His wife and 5-year-old son were killed by a stray bullet in 2004 as they sat in a Cali restaurant. A deeply religious man, his voice dropped as he remembered.
"It was his plan," he said, then looked away, refusing to talk about it further.
Making the high-profile garments from the thread and 300 yards of fine cloth that the Vatican sends him each year is really just a hobby, he disclosed. His day job, which he insisted he will never give up, is working as the brigade tailor at the army base, making and mending fatigues and uniforms for army grunts and brass alike.
Delgado has had a lifelong fascination with religious objects related to Roman Catholicism. As a 6-year-old, he began making votive statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary out of candle wax and scraps of clothing he collected.
In his teens, he began sewing vestments for priests in his small town near the Ecuadorean border. After landing a tailor's job with the army at 15, he also made liturgical items and vestments for the base chapel. Gradually, Delgado's artistry came to the attention of the church hierarchy. Cali's archbishop, the now-retired Juan Francisco Sarasti, became a client.
The turning point came in May 2007, when Pope Benedict visited Brazil. Colombian bishops presented the prelate with several liturgical items, including a miter, that Delgado had made.
"Two months later, I got a letter from the pope saying he had seen my work and required my services for other things. (The Vatican) bought me air tickets, and in October I arrived in Rome. And I started making the things he needed," Delgado said.
"For Benedict I made 42 liturgical objects, 35 miters and three capes over five years and three months," Delgado said. "His holiness was more than a boss, but a friend also. He insisted I call him Benedict."
Delgado said Pope Francis has called him several times and has assured him that his job as the pope's tailor is secure.
"He gave me his blessing, and then asked me for mine," Delgado said of one of the calls.