Category Archives: San Antonio

The League of Italian Grandmothers

Today it’s the Feast of San Antonio: St. Anthony of Padua, sacred to Italy. He is one of the more popular saints, patron saint of lost things. All of my writing these past few days has been directed toward completing an annual report at work, and so, to be honest, I forgot to write you a Book of Days chapter about this day. I did, however, wrangle a few moments to rewrite one of my favorite past chapters on St. Anthony, and so here it is, complete with photos of some of my favorite people in a place I knew as home when I was a little boy, all taken in our backyard in Valley Stream, New York. I don’t know if that St. Anthony shrine is still there at the house on Victor Street, but my parents sold the house to the son of an old Italian friend who had helped my Dad and Grandpa build the house, and now the house belongs to that man’s son. With such a long line of Italian occupants, chances are good San Antonio is still there looking over things.

Please enjoy.
John

 

With the possible exception of the three years I spent in Alabama, I have always lived in places where it is common to see religious statues in front yards. St. Francis is one you see often. But if we’re talking about a statue of the Blessed Mother or of St. Joseph or St. Anthony, and especially if it’s enclosed in a little shrine, most especially if a spotlight is trained on the statue at night, well, chances are very good that these are my people. We Italians love our saints, and it’s hard to say which is most beloved… but surely a contender for that top spot would be San Antonio, St. Anthony of Padua.

He is a populist, a saint of the people, a saint you can talk to, one who will help you with trivial matters. Finding lost car keys, for instance, or anything at all you’ve misplaced… St. Anthony is there, ready and willing to come to your aid. Case in point: one Labor Day, on a family trip to the beach, when my nephew lost the same gold bracelet off his wrist not once but twice in the surf, my mother retrieved said bracelet both times after praying to St. Anthony. We’re talking needle in a haystack here, folks: crashing Atlantic waves, sand, wind. And to find it twice? Mom swears by St. Anthony’s helpful powers to find lost articles. You may even be familiar with the old children’s rhyme: Tony, Tony come around, something’s lost and must be found. If you’ve ever said that, it’s St. Anthony you’re invoking, and he’s all too happy to assist in your trivial worries. He is an all-around good guy and today, June 13, we celebrate the feast day of San Antonio.

What I remember most about June as a boy was Grandma sitting in a folding upright lawn chair in front of our statue of St. Anthony, which was in the backyard. Grandma always sat in the upright chairs; never a lounge or God forbid a sand chair at the beach (she’d never get out of one of those), and in June, her chair was there in front of St. Anthony and in her hands were her little prayer books printed at the orphanage of San Antonio in Italy that she supported and usually a rosary, as well. The folks at the orphanage would send her things, like those prayer books or, one Christmas, a little floppy record the children had made; we put it on the record player on the Hi-Fi and heard them sing “Tu Scende dalle Stelle,” the beloved Italian Christmas carol. But for St. Anthony’s Day and indeed for all these first thirteen days of June, she would sit there in front of that statue with her rosary and prayer books for what seemed to me hours each day. And very often she would have a friend over doing the same thing, a friend just like her, muttering prayers in Italian into the thick summer air.

They were saying their Tredicina to San Antonio. Tredicina as in thirteen. It is a prayer that is said for thirteen consecutive days starting on June 1, and there are variations of the Tredicina: it could be offered for St. Anthony’s general intercession in a problem in your life or it could be offered for no reason in particular or it could be offered even to help you find something, though one would think after thirteen days you might move on (the Tredicina does even offer this option as a viable suggestion: St. Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find [name the item] which has been lost. At least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss.)

St. Anthony was born in Lisbon in the late 12th century but spent most of his life in Italy. He was an early Franciscan: cowled brown habit, sandals, tonsured haircut. He is known for many miracles, one of the best known being his preaching to the fishes, who gathered in great numbers to hear St. Anthony speak. He preached to the fishes after trying first preaching to people, but they weren’t much interested at the time, so he took his lesson to a nearby body of water and found a more receptive audience… which then impressed the people enough that they began listening.

The feast day of St. Anthony is a day that, for me, always calls to mind Italian grandmothers, which were the only kind of grandmothers I knew as a boy. Occasionally I would meet a grandmother who wasn’t Italian if I went to a friend’s house after school, and I would be a little taken aback sometimes if their Grandma was tall or spoke good English. And one thing all of these Italian grandmothers seemed to have in common, whether they were my grandmothers or a cousin’s, was this devotion to St. Anthony. There may have been one summer day I recall when Grandma was joined by three or four of them, all saying their prayers, all sitting on folding upright lawn chairs, all muttering in Italian, lips moving just slightly, eyes fixed lovingly upon the statue of St. Anthony in his enclave in our little backyard.

The image above is of Mom and Grandma with corsages and fancy coats, posing near San Antonio, for my sister’s first communion, and below, that’s Grandma with one of any number of her friends, all Italian, and all of whom were referred to as “Cummara”.

 

Tony Tony Come Around

SaintAnthony

I was just a kid when my family moved from New York to Florida. There are lots of things we left behind that, to this day, my mom laments. The square redwood picnic table in the patio. The midcentury modern backlit frieze of a dancing couple on the living room wall. The statue of St. Anthony in the backyard.

Each June, Grandma would spend a good part of each day sitting on an upright beach chair in front of that statue, saying her novena to St. Anthony, for June is his month, and today, the 13th, is his day. In old family photos, from before my time, the statue of St. Anthony is white, but at some point my dad painted it in full color. He painstakingly chose the colors and painted the statue with small brushes, down to the tiniest details, including facial expressions on St. Anthony and the Baby Jesus in his arms and the pistils and stamens of the flowers. Dad also painted St. Anthony’s hair and the top of his head all the same color brown, even though he is always depicted with a tonsure haircut, where the crown of the head is shaved bare. So our St. Anthony had a cap on his head. Dad also painted the little enclave in which the statue resided; it was pale blue, and I’m pretty sure he blew gold dust onto the wet paint behind the statue, so that there was some lovely golden illumination behind him, too. This is the St. Anthony I remember in our yard, and I remember thinking that I liked ours better than any other St. Anthony statue I had seen, and I had seen a lot of them, for Tony is a big deal amongst my people. He makes his appearance in the yards of many Italian American families, along with the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. Perhaps it goes back to our Roman roots: we like our statues.

And so when we moved away, that statue of St. Anthony stayed behind. Chances are good he’s still there in the backyard on Victor Street; my dad and grandfather built that home, and my folks sold it to the son of another Italian friend who helped build it (a paisano, as we say). Now the house belongs to that man’s son and his family. That’s a long line of Italians, and I like to think that Grandma’s statue of St. Anthony has been watching over all of us the whole time.

For years we had no statue of St. Anthony at our new home in Florida. But one Christmas we had a brilliant idea: We would get Grandma a St. Anthony statue for her Christmas present. And so that year her present could not go under the tree (it was too heavy) and when it came time for her to open that present, we led her outside with her eyes closed and told her to open them at just the right time. As I recall, it was one of the best gifts we had given her (better than all those slippers she usually got). She was a little Italian woman with dark olive skin who didn’t care for much besides her family, what was for dinner, her stories (Another World was her favorite), and her saints, St. Joseph and St. Anthony especially. And for the rest of her life, she was able to sit in that upright lawn chair and say her novena to St. Anthony each June. Novena as in “nine,” nine days of prayers to St. Anthony, with her prayer books and rosary. She muttered the prayers under her breath, eyes fixed lovingly on St. Anthony in his little house. Grandpa would sit with her sometimes, and earlier on, again before my time, so would her best friend, Cummara Filomena. Filomena couldn’t read, so Grandma would read the novena aloud, and Filomena provided the “pray for us” response at the appropriate time.

As for St. Anthony himself, he was born in Lisbon in the late 12th century, but he spent most of his life in Italy. He was an early follower of St. Francis, and as a Franciscan, he wore the iconic brown cowled habit with that tonsured haircut that left the crown of his head bare, a clear portal, perhaps, from head to heaven. He is a populist saint, and is called upon for many reasons, but he is best known as the saint who helps you find lost articles. And so when we misplace our glasses or our keys, we say Tony Tony come around, something’s lost and must be found, an old children’s rhyme. And more often than not, it works. Perhaps because he is here, a presence we Italians like to talk to, like an old paisano.

 

Image: Detail of the St. Anthony statue we gave to Grandma for Christmas years ago. Dad eventually painted this one, too, though perhaps with not quite the attention to detail as the one that was left behind on Victor Street. You’ll notice that Tony is still wearing a cap on his head. Some things never change.

 

The Backyard Saint

StAnthony

If you, like me, are of Italian heritage (I have mentioned once or twice in this blog that if you’ve seen the film Moonstruck, you’ve met my family), then chances are good you’ll associate June with San Antonio, St. Anthony of Padua. My grandmother would say novenas to St. Anthony every June, and so would every other Italian grandmother I remember from my childhood. Nine days of prayers to St. Anthony, seated before a statue of the saint in the backyard, prayer books and rosaries in their hands. It was as much a part of summertime as peaches in wine and dinner outside at the picnic table.

My mother did not know her grandparents for she was the first in her family born in the States. Her grandparents never came to America and even her older sister was born in the Old Country. But she remembers her mother saying the novena to St. Anthony together with Mamam, who lived next door and who was like a second mother to her. Mom recalls walking up to them, just to ask her mother a question perhaps, and then Mamam motioning to her to first of all be quiet, and then to sit and join them… which, as you might imagine, was not something a little girl wanted to do. And so she’d be stuck there while Grandma read the intercessions to St. Anthony and while Mamam, who couldn’t read, replied “Pray for us” to each one.

There probably are not many Italian grandmothers around nowadays who do this. If there are, I don’t know them. If you do, though, today is an important day for them, for it is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua. Anthony was from Portugal but Italians have claimed him as their own for centuries. It was in Padua that he preached, deeply moved by his contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi. He died in Padua in 1231 and was canonized soon after. He is invoked for the finding of lost articles, mostly. An old children’s rhyme comes out of this tradition: Tony, Tony, come around, something’s lost and must be found.

Aside from her novenas in June and her statue of St. Anthony, which is still in the backyard at my family home, Grandma also kept, in a little gift box with a removable lid, a small loaf of bread, about the size of a dinner roll. The box, with the bread in it, is still in a drawer in her room. Who knows when it was baked, but it was certainly decades ago, at least the 1950s, maybe earlier. It was blessed when it came out of the oven by a priest and she called it St. Anthony’s Bread and she kept it in that box in her drawer in her room and took it out only in times of heavy storms, when she would open up the box and place it on a windowsill. Now it is Mom who takes out the St. Anthony’s Bread when it storms. It’s gotten us through every hurricane and tornado warning we’ve been through, and quite a few big thunderstorms, too.

This is the St. Anthony I know. A presence in the family, guardian of the backyard, protector of the home, retriever of goods lost, companion to grandmothers who sit and talk to him day after day, especially now, especially in June, as summer’s heat settles in and the days grow long, long enough to fool us into thinking they may never grow short again.

 

Image: St. Anthony of Padua as depicted in one of the stained glass windows at the 1913 St. Anthony Chapel at St. Ann Church in Downtown West Palm Beach.

 

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