Growing up with La Madonna
As we watched on TV the 13th-century Christian masterpiece of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burn in surreal fashion on Holy Monday of Holy Week, it begged many questions. Was it a modern-day metaphor for the widespread wreckage of the faith? Or a burning parallel to contemporary trashing of Mary’s holy integrity through defacing her truths and images – or in so-called entertainment? Did it mimic the apparent collapse of longtime teachings and traditions of the Church, and of the Mass and sacraments?
This charred iconic church, where faithful gathered under Mary’s patronage since the great Christian Renaissance, involved the toil of workers for centuries. Among priceless items saved were The Blessed Sacrament, Christ’s crown of thorns, the altar, Holy Cross, and others.
I would guess that what made many of those devoted workers in the 12th and 13th centuries give their lives to building and beautifying that great cathedral was not unlike the allegiance to Mary that many of us absorbed from our own devout lineage — especially parents and grandparents.
My first impression of Mary didn’t come through any formal instruction. It came from my Italian grandmother, whose name was Mary, an immigrant working as a Philadelphia garment-factory seamstress. A beautiful Madonna picture hung beside her basement sewing machine. As a child, I often walked with her several blocks to the parish church in West Philadelphia, still under construction as it had been for years (for lack of funds which begun during the Great Depression). She pointed out the precious Jesus, Mary, and Joseph statues, mosaics, and carvings – reminding me who they were, and telling me of the Italian towns and artists who produced them. The parish had an Italian priest, and she didn’t hesitate to gabble with him – hands waving, laughing, making requests, and blessing herself when we left. She did the sewing and repairing of their altar cloths, priests’ vestments, and nuns’ habits. Father usually had a huge bagful waiting for her. At the Italian butcher on the way home, he always greeted her as Bella Maria.
On warm nights after cooking and cleanup were done, she’d sit outside her cozy rowhouse, in her porch chair near the rose bush planted for Mary, and recite prayers in Italian – the rosary, prayers to the Holy Family, and to Mother Cabrini (of whom she was eminently proud as America’s first immigrant-saint). Her prayers were typically interrupted with “hellos” from neighbors walking by, and from the much-awaited street vendor, Tony’s huckster truck. We’d hear him coming almost a mile away, announcing his ‘specials’ via megaphone … baccala (salted codfish), tomatoes, and cucuzza (Italian summer squash, which we called “ca-GOOTZ”). She’d send me to the truck to get what she wanted, and I could see a Scotch-taped picture of La Madonna on the inside wall. At the time, I resented chasing Tony’s raucous food truck up the street for Italian stuff I thought no one else ate.
But those inspiring days – with so many infused lessons – live on as a great treasure.
La Madonna really lived among us.
CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s editor.