Something About Mary

Article from MANH Modern Luxury

MANH - October 2012 Something About Mary
0000-00-00 00:00:00

On Oct. 29, 1945, 9-year-old Joseph Vitolo was visited by the Virgin Mary while standing on a rock ledge overlooking the Grand Concourse. Over the course of 17 days tens of thousands of believers and skeptics came to view the boy who claimed to be communicating with the deity. Writer Tom Clavin revisits the site, and the now 76-year-old Vitolo, and takes us through this Bronx tale. 

This past Aug. 12, Joseph Vitolo walked to a pharmacy on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx to pick up a prescription. When he came out, he had the feeling he was being followed. When he saw a tall teenager studying him, he crossed the street and went into a Dunkin’ Donuts. When he no longer saw the kid, he came out and headed for his home on Villa Avenue. Suddenly, from behind, arms surrounded him, as though he were being hugged. “What are you doing?” Vitolo kept asking, then he went numb; it felt like he was paralyzed, he says (likely due to a combination of a heart condition, shock and cut-off circulation). A bracelet was ripped off his arm, then he saw the kid running toward the Grand Concourse. 

For a moment, Vitolo thought of chasing him. Then he remembered he was 76 years old with a weak heart. What he could have thought next, especially given it was a Sunday, was: Where was God when I needed help? But he didn’t. That’s not the way he thinks. 

Even if it were, why would he think God cared about some old man in the Bronx? Because many years ago, Vitolo had seen and communicated with the Virgin Mary, or so it’s said. In some ways, he is still that 9-yearold, frozen in time by a series of events that fascinated not just the community, but the nation. Only his body aged, not his memory— and certainly not his faith. 

Every so often, the media reports sightings of the most revered members of the Christian roster. Mary has been especially active in the New York area lately. In July, some residents of West New York, across the Hudson River, noticed scars resembling the Virgin of Guadalupe in the bark of a small tree. Police had to cordon off that section of the block so pilgrims could worship there without stopping pedestrian traffic. A couple of sundays later, someone spotted the Virgin Mary in another tree, this one across the street from a church in Westchester’s Sleepy Hollow. Mary reportedly told the awestruck man, “I want all my sons to come and see me.” Again, police had to barricade the area because by the end of July hundreds of worshippers were congregating daily. 

But it was on Oct. 29, 1945, that the most famous Lourdeslike moment in U.S. history took place. 

Vitolo, a thin, somewhat fragile child, was living on Villa Avenue just off the Grand Concourse. His parents were Theresa and Joseph Vitolo Sr., who had married in 1917; the following year, Theresa gave birth to the first of 18 children, only nine of whom survived childhood. In 1936, Joseph, the last, was born. He was named for a brother who had been killed by a truck two years earlier. “I remember my mother taking us to Woodlawn Cemetery,” Vitolo says. “She’d throw herself on the grave and cry and cry. I got very frightened because I didn’t understand.” 

There would be a lot more to be disturbed about by the fall of ’45. A war-weary nation was trying to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific—more than a few of them wounded both physically and psychologically—and families still mourned their dead. The horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred only two months before. Many people were struggling to find work, and confronting other postwar realities as well. Maybe America needed a miracle. 

A Bronx boy gave it one. 

After supper on the night of Oct. 29, young Vitolo was with four other children on a rock ledge that overlooked the Grand Concourse. (Time magazine would later describe him as “small in the underfed fashion of the poor,” which made sense because by then his father was an alcoholic who could barely support his family as a garbage collector.) Suddenly, atop the ledge, Vitolo saw the Virgin Mary, dressed in white. The boy trembled, transfixed—a state witnessed by the other children. After telling him not to be afraid, she handed him a candle and told him to come back at the same time, 7 o’clock, the next evening. 

One of the children on the rock ledge was the future actress and director Penny Marshall. Her family, including her brother Garry, lived at 3235 Grand Concourse. Across the street was Carl Reiner and his family, including Rob, Penny’s future husband. Also growing up in the neighborhood were Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Robert Klein. According to Marshall’s memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, published last month: “There was a vacant lot across the street from our apartment. One day Crazy Joseph [Vitolo] saw the Virgin Mary while we were all playing. Jo-Jo suddenly dropped to his knees and started praying. We didn’t know from the Virgin Mary, but we believed, because they built a shrine.” 

Vitolo ran home. His father thought it was a bad joke and slapped him. His mother told him to go back and see if Mary reappeared. He did, and she did. The other children saw the boy shivering as though very cold. Mary, now wearing a crown and holding a bouquet of roses, told Vitolo she would return for the next 16 nights to pray for peace. By then, word had spread through the neighborhood. Dozens of residents arrived, carrying candles and fingering rosary beads. As a quivering Vitolo gazed at the vision and prayed, residents kneeled and lay prostrate on the ground, praying along. “I was really scared,” he readily recalls. “Only 9 years old, and I see the mother of God.” The candles were placed in the formation of a cross, with Vitolo’s in the middle. Observers were amazed when a gust of wind blew out all the candles except the middle one. 

Thus began what became known as the “Bronx Miracle.” The Bronx Home News was the first newspaper to do a story, after which the Manhattanbased tabloids and radio stations joined in. Vitolo was no longer just one more boy in a city of thousands of them, but a miracle worker who, some believed, now possessed special powers passed down from God. He was the American edition of Bernadette Soubirous, the 14-year-old French girl who professed to experiencing 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes in February 1858. Reporters assumed Vitolo had seen the Oscar-winning film about the event, The Song of Bernadette, which had been released in 1943; but when asked, he said no, explaining, “We don’t have money to go to the movies.” 

With help from others in the neighborhood, Vitolo built an altar at the site and laid out another cross. On the second night, the 30th, at 7pm, the Virgin Mary was back. By the time she appeared to Vitolo the day after that, he was surrounded by 500 people. On Nov. 1, 3,000 people gathered at what was becoming a shrine festooned with flowers, candles, Mass cards and other items of worship. 

The boy’s life, no bed of roses to begin with, rushed off the rails. Every evening, a few minutes before 7, he went down Villa Avenue to the ledge overlooking the Grand Concourse and prayed. The crowds grew unwieldy and Vitolo had to be carried aloft on the shoulders of local men. The surging strangers scared him, and he wept as he prayed, awaiting Mary. She did not disappoint. Night after night she appeared, and her voice calmed him. He told the worshippers that she’d asked them to pray for peace, and other times that they sing hymns. Some of the neighborhood kids derisively called him “Saint Joseph,” and worse. “They were jealous, I guess,” Vitolo says, explaining their behavior. “For years after that, when kids saw me walking down the street, they’d cross to the other side. It was a lonely time.” 

Soon, according to accounts, the actual miracles began. A mother claimed that dirt from the site rubbed on her son’s hand cured its deformity. A woman who’d been brought in a wheelchair to pray with Vitolo stood up and walked away. Twisted backs straightened, tumors shrank, women found husbands. The 9-year-old boy was viewed as a holy man. Men from the neighborhood tried to protect him as the crowd—by then in excess of 8,000, including a contingent from Cleveland—pressed close, wanting to touch him and beseeching him with requests that he passed on to Mary. Sobbing parents who had lost sons in the war begged Vitolo to pray for their souls. The lame, the sick, the broke and everyone else wanting something followed him back to his house, where he held an audience in the living room, the line of believers stretching outside and back to the shrine. The more reasonable of the supplicants asked only that Mary perform miracles at the request of young Vitolo; but there were many who came to believe, or at least desperately hope, that the boy himself had godlike powers. 

Women experiencing hysteria were hauled by cops to waiting ambulances and taken to Fordham Hospital. So many vehicles double-parked in the neighborhood and along the Grand Concourse that the police had tow trucks operating 24 hours a day. Vitolo was brought to veterans’ hospitals, where he blessed amputees and others recovering from war injuries. He dropped out of school because there was no time for it and he had fallen too far behind. There was hardly any time to eat or sleep, either, especially when recognizable Catholic Church figures became involved. One night a limousine pulled up and out stepped Francis Cardinal Spellman, who requested a few minutes with Vitolo (who no longer remembers what was said to him). After the boy appeared as a guest on Bishop Fulton Sheen’s radio show, broadcast from Times Square, the bishop gave him a gift card to a Horn and Hardardt automat on West 23rd Street (which he still has). Vitolo was portrayed in Time and Life magazines, and the New York tabloids kept up a steady drumbeat—he was the most famous child in the country. 

People often assume that such events take place in areas where the poor live, with the visions perhaps caused by the needs for food, jobs and just a better life. People without those desires don’t need divine intervention. In Lourdes, Mary appeared to Bernadette in a dirty and obscure grotto; the Bronx neighborhood where the Vitolo family lived was working-class at best. 

But people better off financially have faith, too, or maybe hedge their bets a bit. The present shrine in Lourdes was erected in 1907 on the private estate of Frederic Romanet du Caillaud, a lawyer and wealthy noble. And among those who traveled to the Bronx in November 1945 were the more well-to-do of Manhattan, stepping out of their private cars and limousines in business suits and out-on-the-town outfits. No doubt some were merely curious, but others were people of sincere faith. A few were celebrities— Lou Costello, the rotund half of the Abbott and Costello comedy team, arrived one night and prayed with the Vitolo children. Another night, Frank Sinatra, bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary for the family’s house, made the trek north. 

The climax of the Bronx Miracle took place on Nov. 14, the 17th day of Mary’s visit. Police estimated the crowd that evening at 25,000 to 30,000. Accompanied by his brothers and sisters, Vitolo was carried down the street. The crowd included priests and nuns who led prayers, and thousands of throats offered up “Amazing Grace” and other hymns. There was a steady rain, but observers reported that from 7pm on, as Vitolo communicated with the vision, he did not get wet. When he finished praying, the rain stopped abruptly, and people reported a break in the clouds that, they believed, allowed the Virgin Mary to return to heaven. Before this happened, she told Vitolo, “I’m not coming anymore. I did my work and I do not want to answer any more questions.”

Vitolo went home, oblivious to the fact that in 17 days he had become an international figure. 

How much of this are we to believe? Unlike what transpired at Lourdes, the Roman Catholic Church never recognized what happened in the Bronx as an actual sighting of the Virgin. Vitolo has not wavered from his belief in what he experienced. And a study by John McGreevy, a professor of history at Notre Dame University, published in the September 2000 issue of American Quarterly, could find no fault in accounts of the event and concluded, “All we do know is the intensity with which Joseph ends the day’s final prayer: ‘Our Lady of the Universe,’ he intones. ‘Pray for us,’ the crowd responds.” In October 2009, the blogger “Heresy Hunter” used meteorological data and other scientific information to find support for eyewitness testimonies as well as Vitolo’s recollections. 

Of course there are legions of skeptics, some even within the church. “I tend to look at most of these events with a jaundiced eye,” says the Rev. Edward Beck, head of the Passionist congregation in Westchester as well as an author and a contributor for CBS News. “I think God can speak in many ways, and most ‘visions’ are internal visions. When someone sees something in an exterior way, to me that is much more suspect because I don’t see Mary or Christ having the same kind of corporeal form that we would see. More likely, the person is projecting something from his or her own wishes and dreams and hopes. I’m not saying it’s not from God, therefore, because God can certainly speak that way; but it would take a lot more to convince me [of an actual physical vision].” 

Of the so-called Bronx Miracle, Beck says, “It’s admirable that Mr. Vitolo has never made any personal profit from his experience—it does beg the question of why would he make something up. Yet it always seemed to me a rather sad story. He was very young and all these thousands of strangers showed up, many wanting something from him. He has carried this on his own his entire life. It must have been a burden.” 

There’s truth in that. While one can’t necessarily say such visions change communities— this summer’s tree-trunk sightings of the Virgin in West New York and Sleepy Hollow are already footnotes for all but the most fervent believers—they undoubtedly change the person who experiences them. 

Indeed, Vitolo was never the same person after the events of 1945—he couldn’t be, after becoming a 9-year-old object of worship himself. Several attempts to become a priest failed. He worked a variety of jobs before finally finding a steady one, as a janitor at Jacobi Medical Center. 

But, he says, if the visitation of the Virgin was the first miracle in his life, his wife, Grace, was the second. A Boston girl, Grace made a pilgrimage to Rome to consult the mystic priest Padre Pio, whom she told she thought she could be a good wife and mother. As Vitolo relates the tale: “She was told she would marry a guy named Joe. She thought it would be Joe Peterson, the mailman. Then she came down from Boston to visit the shrine, and the first time I saw her, I said to a buddy, ‘See that girl right there? I’m going to marry her.’ I wasn’t even introduced to her yet. At the shrine, she heard a voice say, ‘This is your home.’ We met soon after. That was in January 1963. In June, we were married.” 

The couple went on to have two daughters, Marie and Anne. But after more than two and a half decades of marriage, Grace was diagnosed with breast cancer. “When the doctor told me she was going to die,” Vitolo says, “I put my hand on top of her head and prayed, ‘Dear God, please cure my Grace, not for me but for our daughters.’ The cancer went into remission and we had her with us for 10 more years. The last battle with cancer, I took care of her. She would’ve done the same for me. She was a very good woman, a very holy woman. You couldn’t find a more lovely and beautiful woman, and she was married to an ugly guy like me for 37 years. Thank God my daughters took after her.” 

Today, 67 years after Vitolo’s vision, the Bronx neighborhood where it took place is a very different place. “It’s full of Albanians now,” he says, as well as Dominicans. The congregation of St. Philip Neri is much depleted, with few of the families of Italian and Irish descent that once filled its pews. Its pastor, Monsignor Kevin O’Brien, is in his 70s, and there’s no line of priests waiting to take his place. Yet Vitolo still lives in the same house he was born in, and attends the same church. And until age and illnesses took their toll, every evening at 7pm he would walk down to the site where he first saw the Virgin, and pray. Sometimes he was in the company of visitors to the shrine, which now consists of a statue of Mary enclosed in glass— remarkably, it has not been visited by vandals. Currently he goes on Saturdays, with Marie, who lives with him; and he still makes sure to attend the anniversary celebrations: special Masses at St. Philip Neri on Oct. 29 and Nov. 14, followed by a pilgrimage to the shrine. “A lot of people come,” he says. 

As Father Beck acknowledged, Vitolo has never accepted a penny related to the experience. And he could’ve used the money. He’s retired from his job at Jacobi Medical Center; his home is 150 years old and in constant disrepair. In fact, the furnace is so faulty that “my daughter and I freeze in the winter here,” he says. The family has little in the way of possessions because over the years the many visitors have, as Vitolo puts it, “treated this place like an open house, and stripped it of everything.” 

His biggest concern, however, is for the shrine— which, remarkably, has endured through the decades. “People help my daughter take care of it for me now,” reports Vitolo. “I’m hoping when the time comes, the death benefit from my union will pay for maintenance of the shrine because, other than that, I have nothing. You still have quite a few people coming here. They leave candles, notes, cards and other items, so there’s always cleaning up to do. Thousands of people from that time to today have come to me to ask me for things—pray for their dead, cure sicknesses, help them win the lottery, whatever. All I can do is pray and wish them well.” 

And although he’s had heart problems and endured prostate cancer, the mention of death does not distress Joseph Vitolo of Villa Avenue. To him, it is just another reason to remember the Virgin Mary. “When I die, I’ll see her beautiful face and hear that beautiful voice again,” he says, affirming that in this humble Bronx neighborhood, as in the New Testament, this Joseph and Mary will be forever entwined. 

“I’ve waited 67 years to be with her,” he says. “But I’m OK waiting a while longer.”