ELLISON STREET: AN ITALIAN/AMERICAN MEMOIR
February days in Rochester are dreary, damp, and snowy. By February, the holidays have
passed, and everyone is exhausted from the endless days and nights of gray skies, winter squalls,
and snow shoveling. There is almost an atavistic longing for the sun and warmer days. On one of
those bleak February days, St. Philip Neri, my neighborhood church, was destroyed by fire. But the fire itself was only the first part of what became one of the most tragic days in the history of the city.
Just before noon on February 20, 1967, the alarm sounded at Fire Department Engine 9 located on Goodman Street, not far from Clifford Avenue. St. Philip Neri was on fire. As the first trucks arrived on the scene; smoke was already billowing out of the bell tower atop the wooden roof and churning up into the gray sky.
The fire had begun moments earlier during the lunch hour. Father Weinmann was
relaxing in the rectory next to the church, while second-grade teacher Sister Lilian Marie McLaughlin was in the school cafeteria. Outside students were enjoying recess in the parking lot next to the church. Soon children were heard yelling that the church was on fire.
Father Weinmann came running out of the rectory in his stocking feet and entered the burning church through a side door. When the 26-year old Sister Lilian Marie, saw the 77-year old, Father Weinmann, running into the burning church, she followed behind him. Meanwhile at another door, Father Mans tried to enter but was violently pushed back by the flames.
When the firefighters were told that children from the school sometimes entered the church to look at the statues during recess, a second call was made for additional units to be dispatched. Sister Lilian Marie probably entered the burning church in fear that children were inside during recess. In fact, the church was empty. Father Weinmann, too, may have initially entered out of concern for children, but once inside he ran straight to the altar to rescue the Holy Eucharist kept in the tabernacle.
Firefighters discovered the bodies of both Father Weinmann and Sister Lilian Marie near the main entrance. A confessional booth was adjacent to that entrance. Inside the confessional booth firefighters found a chalice and the Holy Eucharist. These items were normally housed
at the opposite end of the church in the tabernacle on the altar. Officials deduced that Father Weinmann and Sister Lilian Marie, in their effort to rescue the consecrated hosts of the Holy Sacrament, mistook the confessional door for the exit before succumbing to the heat and smoke. Seeing the two bodies so close to the exit, the Fire Chief on the scene sadly whispered,
“They almost made it.”
Sister Lilian Marie died on the scene. Father Weinmann, still breathing, was rushed to the hospital. While in his hospital bed witnesses testified to his last words: “Carry on no matter what happens.” Two days later he died from his burns and smoke inhalation. He had celebrated his 77th birthday just four days before the fire.
When an Italian/American neighborhood loses its Catholic church (for whatever reason) the very heart and soul of the community suffer a death. St. Philip Neri was not an impressive physical building. It had no aspirations to be a cathedral. It was a simple, mission-style church that belonged more in a rural setting than an urban one. The people who made up the community of the church were for the most part southern Italian/American, blue collar, working-class citizens like my parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles.
The sudden and tragic destruction of our church by fire, and the deaths of our senior pastor and one of the youngest nuns at the school, devastated the neighborhood. The shock reverberated throughout the city to religious communities of all faiths.
The younger Father Mans was now in charge. Inspired by Father Weinmann’s dying words, he was determined to carry on as his predecessor would have wanted. Services were moved into the basement hall of the school. A local seminary donated an altar. Almost all the liturgical vestments had been destroyed in the fire. Metal chalices, ciboria, patens, candlesticks, and ewers had been melted and distorted from the heat of the fire.
I can still recall attending mass in the basement school hall seated on metal chairs. As one entered, a long table displayed the many metal liturgical objects that had been restored by local city metalworking manufacturers or new ones that had been donated to replace those lost in the fire.
Many people were deeply affected on a personal level by the fire and the deaths of Father Weinmann and Sister Lilian Marie. No one more so than Peter Fantigrossi, the Italian/American firefighter who, along with his fellow firefighter, Tony Dentico, carried the lifeless body of the young nun from the burning church. Fantigrossi is said to have remarked that he felt as if “I held an angel in my arms.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy Fantigrossi lost his faith and fell away from the church. For many years, he suffered in silence from depression, trauma, and a sense of guilt related to the fire. It was too painful for him to attend Mass or to receive Communion.
In 1992, Fantigrossi attended Mass at Irondequoit’s St. Cecilia Parish. Unbeknownst to him, the priest at that Mass preached about the 25th anniversary of the St. Philip Neri fire. After that memorial Mass, Fantigrossi described an experience of healing and renewal. In 1994 he relived the experience in a poem he wrote titled: “I held an angel in my arms.” It reads in part:
The door of the church was thrown open in haste;
Tony Dentico emerged with a saddened face.
He yelled for me to give him a hand: a beautiful child
Dressed in black, he handed me;
I soon discovered–it was Sister Lilian Marie.
I placed her limp body on the church’s front lawn;
With all my training, I could not help;
She would not see another dawn.
Guilt and frustration came over me;
Is this the way that things must be?
The Bishop of Rochester at the time was Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen had become famous across the country for his television and radio sermons. He served as Bishop of Rochester from 1966 to 1969. Upon hearing of the fire at St. Philip Neri church, he rushed to the site. He stood helpless amidst schoolchildren and neighborhood residents and watched as firefighters pulled the two bodies out of the burning building.
Bishop Sheen presided over the funerals for the two fallen martyrs. He remarked, “Martyrs belong to our own times and in most unexpected moments. Sister Lilian Marie gave her life in helping Father Weinmann save the Blessed Sacrament from fire. Greater love than this no woman hath.” Father Weinmann, he called a “martyred priest in behalf of his Blessed Lord.”
One indelible image from the fire still haunts me. No one was allowed inside the burned-out church in the days following the fire as investigators worked to determine the exact cause of the tragedy. We learned about the state of the interior destruction mainly from photographs in the newspaper. On the day after the fire, there was a front-page photo in our local newspaper showing a firefighter crawling over wreckage at the altar rail. One could see the burned-out altar behind him where the tabernacle had been located. But as my eyes moved across the photo to the right, I saw the life-size statue of the crucified Christ still standing in place, looking almost untouched by the flames of the fire. For years I had stared at that statue during Mass hypnotized and sometimes frightened by it at the same time. Now all I could think of were Jesus’s last words from the cross as He neared death: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
My encounter with that photograph and the thought it engendered in me proved to be prophetic. It was revealed that the devastating fire of February 20th had been the third in three weeks. News reports spoke of defective wiring as the problem each time. Years later the National Catholic Register published the results of a retrospective investigation on the tragedy and reported that all three fires were the result of arson. A 10-year old, fourth-grade student had set them all deliberately. A decision was made not to press charges. I never learned the boy’s name.
Today, the restored tabernacle reclaimed from the St. Philip Neri fire sits in the Eucharistic Chapel at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, a reminder of their sacrifice. Father Leo J. Mans, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester for more than 66 years, the priest I always sought out to hear my confessions and who shepherded us to our religious lessons, died on February 26, 2020. He was 92.
Springtime brought with it the quickening pulse of life again and my house seemed to breathe more freely and to expand before my very eyes. It was especially at this time of year that I loved to touch the grainy and pitted surfaces of its bricks. They were warm in the new sun, warmer than the air around them and they pulsated under my fingers.
Often, I would kneel on the ground and, clearing away a slowly melting patch of old snow, I would touch the awakening earth below. An electric charge seemed to pulse up through my arm and into my body bringing with it a flush of new hopes and aspirations — a new consciousness as it were. After the many dark and silent days of winter the kindness of the spring
breezes, the brightness of the sun, and the renewal of the sounds of nature made one feel so strong and alive, able to conquer new worlds or to restore order to old ones.
For my grandfather and I such restoration centered around the bringing back to life of our fig tree, as elaborate a ceremony as its burial had been but with the juices of life (both the tree’s and ours) flowing in a different direction now: towards the rebirth and the reaffirmation of life’s processes and away from the inevitable dark slumber of the long winter. As I unraveled the still frozen twine from around the young limbs of the tree I always sensed something of what my grandfather must have felt when he saved our elm tree: a feeling of humble power and good, of caring deeply for something and of always being truthful and committed to it.
The coming of spring in Rochester is a precarious process. One is often teased by a sunny day, a sudden breath of warm air, and the first budding of yellow daffodils. Watching the early daffodils trying to grow through patches of snow, always inspired me. They appeared as the vanguard army of spring. But the claws of winter are deep. Winter does not give up the fight until the forces massed against it are simply too numerous to defeat. Then, and only then does it cede the field to spring. In Rochester it was not unusual to have snowfall on Easter Sunday, whether in March or April.
My grandfather was a captain in the army of the spring. He would sit in the backyard and clean all his gardening tools, scraping and sharpening their edges as if preparing for battle. I couldn’t imagine that he brought these rustic tools with him as a young man emigrating from Italy, but they all appeared to have had many a planting and harvesting campaign behind them in the old world. I say this because the handles on many were not smooth and machine-tooled but crooked pieces of a tree limb with gnarls and small stumps still visible on the surface.
At that time in my life I had only the barest knowledge of Italian history. But I had heard enough conversations about the hardships and poverty of southern Italy and knew something of the meaning of the word terrone, a pejorative term used by northern Italians to malign Italians from the south during and immediately after Italy’s wars of independence in the nineteenth century. Looking at my grandfather’s roughly made farm implements, one imagined that these formidable tools might suddenly become equally formidable weapons at a moment’s notice.
Next to Christmas, the Easter holiday was the most important on the Italian/American and Catholic calendar. But unlike Christmas Eve festivities, Easter was celebrated within individual families and smaller groups of relatives. Some years after Mass we might even treat my mother to dinner as a family at her favorite Italian restaurant to free her from having to cook that year. This did not mean that there was no cooking and baking leading up to Easter Sunday. Like Christmas, traditional foods and rituals were a big part of the Easter holiday. The most traditional event in this regard was the creation of a St. Joseph’s Table.
St. Joseph’s feast day is March 19th. And much like the Sicilian Christmas tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the tradition of the St. Joseph Table shares a Sicilian origin. A St. Joseph’s Table is a large altar of food displayed on one or more tables. These table altars, were always created by women as an expression of gratitude to St. Joseph who was patron saint for a host of worthy causes including fathers, craftsmen, laborers, immigrants, unborn children, and refugees, to name only a few.
On Ellison Street, each family produced its own St. Joseph’s Table inside its home. Neighbors with their families, and strangers who happened to be walking down the street, were welcomed to visit door to door and to witness and share in the bounty. The staple food item at any St. Joseph’s table were the traditional St. Joseph’s breads, or pane di San Giuseppe. The breads took many shapes, including crosses, chalices, hearts, wreaths, fish, bundles of wheat, and St. Joseph himself. These were weighty loaves of bread placed on two perpendicular tables shaped to form a cross.
St. Joseph’s Tables could be modest or quite elaborate depending on the household. In addition to breads and other food items, they might include a statue of St. Joseph, religious books, banners, and paintings. The center of attention on my mother’s table each year, was a large statue of the Virgin Mary. This may have appeared as a slight to St. Joseph on his feast day, but my mother’s devotion to the Virgin Mary was total and absolute and transcended any single saint, event, or holiday. Mary as the mother of our Lord encapsulated the two core principles of my mother’s life: to be a good mother and devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Local priests from area churches would walk through the neighborhoods blessing the tables and depart with loaves of bread for their church rectories and food banks. The feast day of St. Joseph and the many tables set in his honor were signs of the solidarity of community relations and obligations coupled with concern for the less fortunate.
In addition to spring’s celebration of St. Joseph, was another ritual that I used to always attend since it too took place in my house. The week before Holy Week, led by my mother and grandmother, we would undertake a thorough spring cleaning of the house. Once completed, our local priest would arrive for the ceremonial blessing of the house. The priest would walk through each room of the house (with me tagging along behind) with his vessel of holy water (aspersorium) and sprinkler (aspergillum) sprinkling each room with the blessed water as a symbol for the renewal of baptism.
Our Easter Sunday meal followed the 12:15 celebration of Mass. Menus varied from house to house. In my family the possible yearly entrees were ham, lamb, or braciole — a large flattened flank steak stuffed with garlic, cloves, parsley, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, green olives, scallions, raisins, pine nuts, and hard-boiled eggs — all rolled up and held together with twine. After this afternoon feast, we would often get in our car and travel a circuit to visit various relatives around town, stopping for coffee, desserts, and, most importantly, storytelling.
Storytelling was an art form in my family. Stories explored many topics and took on many styles of presentation. Tales varied from the purely informative — about specific relatives and friends and their current travails — to the more supernatural, about strange people, miraculous events, and the effects of malocchio (the evil eye) witnessed by my aunts and uncles back in Italy as children. The stories often had a macabre sense of humor. Some for an impressionable child my age were scary and disturbing. When such an uncensored story was told, the adults might slip into speaking Italian. If they noticed the younger children ill at ease, they would say, è solo una storia! But we were, nonetheless, told to leave the table and go into another room to play. These visits would continue long into the evening of Easter Sunday, from house to house and story to story.
One story that has stayed with me to this day was told by my great aunt Anna. She was a young girl about ten-years old living in her small Sicilian village when one day a stranger dressed like Jesus came to town. He spoke to no one, but simply walked around the village observing the people and their daily lives and chores. When finally asked to identify himself by one of the village elders, he replied, “I am Gesù.” In this small Sicilian village made up of skeptical and shrewd individuals, the first inclination was to see this man as some sort of a con artist arriving to swindle villagers.
Many of the children in the village, including my great aunt, followed behind this man as he continued to tour the village, asking for nothing, and speaking only when asked a direct question. At one point he entered a potter’s shop filled with terracotta amphora, pots, and bowls. Picking up one of the smaller amphoras in his two hands, he scrutinized it for a few seconds, then suddenly, and with great violence, threw it to the floor whereupon it shattered into dozens of shards.
The owner of the shop remained fixed in place, simply turning his head to stare first at the man, and then down at the broken shards of the amphora on the floor. My great aunt and her friends outside let out a shocked cry of surprise. Gesù turned to the young girls and spoke these words:
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
He then quietly walked out of the shop, past the girls, down the street and out of the village. By that time many villagers had assembled to follow his exit. When my great aunt, her friends, and the potter returned to the shop, the amphora that had been smashed, lay perfectly intact on the floor.
This was the story my 95-year old great aunt Anna recounted for us as if the event had just transpired that afternoon. For my great aunt it was not a story, it was the truth. Through the years people had presented all kinds of explanations for the story, from my great aunt’s hallucinations after having survived cholera, to mass hypnosis in the town, to a skilled grifter with an unseen accomplice playing tricks on peasant folk, to a visit from the anti-Christ. But with each passing Easter, my great aunt told the story with greater clarity and conviction.
For me as a young boy, amidst this mixture of Italian and Catholic rituals, symbolic acts, superstitions associated with the coming of spring, St. Joseph, Holy Week, and preparations for Easter Sunday, was the Passion Story of Christ. To put it simply, I was all about Good Friday and less about Easter and I have remained that way to the present day.
Perhaps that’s what Miss Martin had sensed in me at an early age when she decided that I should study for the priesthood. Maybe it was my inherent sadness and ability to empathize; my love of solitude and contemplation. I can remember being moved by the Passion Story from my earliest days of attending church and listening to sermons on the subject. There had never been much attention given to reading Scripture in the Catholic tradition of which I was a part. But the first time I really listened to and absorbed the exact words in Scripture telling a specific story, was with the events in the Gospels related to Jesus’s final days from Palm Sunday to his Crucifixion. And I believe that the life-size statue of the crucified Christ at the altar that had escaped the fire in St. Philip Neri, played a major role in this personal obsession.
I often stayed up late to watch television after my parents retired to bed. One Easter holiday, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent movie, The King of Kings was broadcast. I don’t believe it was my first silent move, I’m sure I had already watched some of the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, but DeMille’s King of Kings was probably my first silent movie on an epic scale. With the proverbial cast of thousands, vast sets, detailed costumes, and a running time of three hours, it was not a film for most young people. It was especially not a film to be watching on a small television set. But an important part of the film was the way DeMille used intertitles. He often quoted Gospel passages verbatim or with slight editorial changes, and in the corner of the intertitle card he would note the chapter and verse from which the passage was taken.
I was enthralled by the film and told my friends about it. I even acted out scenes, as I explained the action to them. I came to appreciate the inherent drama of the Passion as pure storytelling. The Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal of Christ in the Garden, Peter’s denial of Christ, these episodes and others exposed me to the human elements in the story more effectively than any sermon. They also confronted me with the difficulties related to understanding a person’s intentions, motivations, or reasons behind an action. In the Passion story I found the human dilemmas and frailties to be the most relevant and powerful parts of the story. How often had I acted out of fear, lacking the faith and courage to do the right thing, I pondered?
Ultimately as an historian of Italian art and film, I came to realize that the same dramatic moments and pivotal questions that captured my attention in the Passion story as a youth had for centuries occupied the greatest painters, composers, and filmmakers from the earliest traditions of western art, to Bach, Cecil B. DeMille, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. I was destined to carry the pain of the Passion into adulthood with little of the forgiveness of the Resurrection.
I graduated from No.11 school upon the completion of the seventh grade. I entered high school the next year. There were no middle schools in the city at that time to ease the transition.
My migration from the elementary school I had come to love, to a huge multi-level, multi-wing, high school, was frightening on several levels. First was the idea that I would be in a school so large, with so many buildings, wings, and floors, that I would get lost in the labyrinth. Second was the fact that I would now be with students much older than me. The difference between an eighth-grader and a twelfth-grader to me was like the chasm between the isle of the hobbits and the land of the giants. Finally, the high school served students from parts of the city far from my Italian/American neighborhood. It would be my first direct encounter with the racial and ethnic tensions of Rochester, something I had only witnessed from a distance during the 1964 riots.
In the year I started high school, I lost my church in the tragic fire at St. Philip Neri. In that same year the City School District implemented a plan for the consolidation and reorganization of the public elementary school system. Some schools were to be closed, others consolidated, and a few new ones built.
It was decided that school No. 11 and school No. 33 (named for James Audubon) would be consolidated into a new school. The location of this new school would be 500 Webster Avenue, the site of my old elementary school. To make room for this new modern school, the current No. 11 school would be demolished.
I can remember riding my bike to the demolition site. The exterior walls of the school had already been breached by the wrecking ball. I could peer into one of the second story classrooms in which I had once sat. The building reminded one of the photos of the bombed apartment blocks in Berlin and Dresden after World War II where one could still recreate the remnants of the past lives of the people who had lived in those rooms.
As I sat alone on my bike, I felt a profound sense of loss and grief, as if I were attending the funeral of a dear friend or family member. It was sorrow mixed with deep gratitude for what that building and everyone who had ever walked its wooden floors had given me.
Coming so soon after the fire and deaths at St. Philip Neri, I felt unmoored, as if the foundation of my life was revealed to be weak and cracked. Little did I know that the final foundational pillar of my young life, after my church and my school, was soon to be eliminated as well.
The day came when I was told that we would be leaving our house on Ellison Street and my grandfather. At the time the reasons for this move mattered very much to me but now, in retrospect, the reasons no longer are important. All that really mattered was that I would be leaving this world far behind me — forever.
Nonetheless, a kind of panic seized me, maybe even a terror. Never have I felt my world constrict as violently as it did then. I had no idea what to do. I was paralyzed by fear and disbelief. Why? Why? Why? How could this be? It made no sense to me. I was absolutely incapable of understanding it all. It was a betrayal of everything I held dear and I wanted no part of it. But what could I do? How could I prevent it from happening? I was powerless and in complete despair.
I went to my grandfather. “Why?” I asked. He tried to explain things to me, but for the first time ever I was acutely aware of the barriers of age, language, and culture that separated us. Nowhere in all that he had taught me and showed me did there reside an explanation for what was happening (at least that’s what I thought at the time). With each passing day the hopelessness of the situation became more and more apparent to me. And finally, the very week of my departure loomed menacingly before me. All was lost.
I can remember walking silently and sadly along the path that surrounded my house. Never did the house appear more solid and massive. It seemed eternal. It was early autumn and every step took me past part of a world that was so densely packed with significance for me that I could barely separate one image or moment from another.
I walked across the spacious front porch with its warm, unbroken expanse of gray wooden floor. I walked along the low flower beds where various cooking herbs were grown. I walked past the heavy press and two large oak barrels used by my grandfather when we made wine each year. And finally, I arrived in the backyard.
There, stretched out before my eyes, was the very hub of my world: the sturdy chairs of summer, their backs facing me now, tilted upwards on their front legs and resting against the fence; the rickety old garage with its charred, sagging roof and my grandfather’s gardens on either side; the fig tree, young and strong and never to be buried again; and finally, in the center of it all, the huge Dutch elm bearing my grandfather’s name.
I wanted to fuse myself physically with all that I saw at that moment. I worried that with time I would lose it all if I only carried it with me in my mind. I stared for a long moment at the letters of my grandfather’s name running down along the trunk of the elm tree. The desire came over me to leave a sign, however humble, of my final and lasting integration with this place.
I found a sharp, solid stone and moving to a corner of the house I carved my two initials into the wall — not high on the wall or in plain sight but very low, where the sidewalk and the wall met and where scraggly patches of grass poked through the crevices at the juncture. It was as if ,by doing so, I was forever binding myself to this house and would forever be rooted to this place. A few days later I was gone.
I have never returned to my house on Ellison Street, but I think and dream of it often. My grandfather died not long after my departure and I think of him often too. For many years now I have been separated from the places and the people that at one time so clearly defined the boundaries of my world and brought order and meaning to my life. But somewhere deep within me I continue to carry that house and occasionally, in my mind’s eye, I gently touch my hands to its rough surface.
David Gariff is senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art and adjunct professor of art history at The Catholic University of America. A specialist in modern art and the art of the Italian Renaissance, he has taught art history at the University of Wisconsin, Cleveland State University, Trinity University, and the University of Maryland, College Park. David is Italian American through both his mother (from Calabria) and his father (originally Garifi) from Sicily.