Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saint Joseph and My Grandfather


Every March 19 the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Joseph, the stepfather or surrogate father of Jesus. Actually, the feast day is now largely neglected in America especially since it is so close to March 17, the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. There will be no parades or parties to honor the carpenter who took the Virgin Mary into his house.

Surprisingly, St. Joseph was largely neglected during the first fifteen hundred years of the Church. He played an important role in Scripture during the early days of Jesus but was completely absent during the adult or public life of Jesus. If you just page through Dante’s Divine Comedy, you will be hard pressed to find any sinners or saints called Joseph or Giuseppe. It is obvious that in the year 1300 Italians did not name their children after the husband of Mary.

For a variety of reasons St. Joseph only entered the spotlight in the fifteenth century after the Black Death had devastated Europe. He was only given a feast day in 1479 by Pope Sixtus IV, a former head of the Franciscan order. After that St. Joseph became more and more popular and he was eventually named patron saint of the entire Church, not just of one country or city.

At the same time, artists of the Renaissance began to depict him in a different manner. Previously, he had been depicted as a sleepy old man off to the side or in the background in depictions of the Holy Family. In the gospel of Matthew angels bring messages to Joseph while he is sleeping. However, during the Renaissance artists like Raphael depicted him as a younger man, virile and muscular enough to protect not only his family, but also the entire Church.

Eventually, Joseph, Giuseppe, or Jose would go to the top of the list of popular names for children. Both of my paternal grandparents were named after St. Joseph. Although we called them Baba and Nana, he was Giuseppe or Joseph DeStefano, and she was christened Josephina Maria Naclerio. I don’t want to neglect my grandmother, a great saint in her own right, but I would like to spend the rest of this post writing about my grandfather.

Joseph DeStefano was born in 1880 in the town of Agerola, a little town up the hills from the city of Amalfi on the famed Amalfi coast of southern Italy. His father died when he was young and he came to this country with his stepfather when he was only a teenager. He had hardly any schooling and must have immediately gone to work with relatives in the fruit and vegetable business. He was the kind of immigrant that no one wants today. He was not an engineer or a physicist but he was one of the wisest men I have ever known.

He must have been a hard worker for he soon had his own stand in a kind of supermarket. My grandmother, who was twelve years younger than him, told me that he would not consider marrying a woman who was not from his own village of Agerola. She was born in 1892 in Agerola and came to this country in 1906 to work in her uncle’s sewing factory. She was the oldest child and left home never to return. I suspect that there were too many mouths to feed back home, but she claimed that she came to find a husband because she didn’t like the young men in Agerola.

Of course, she lived with her uncle’s family and one day Joseph DeStefano was visiting after dinner. When he saw this beautiful and hard-working young woman from his hometown, it was love at first sight, for him. She was not so sure but he persisted and, according to her, he made sure that other suitors kept their distance.

They soon married and she worked the store with him even after she began to have children. Eventually, they moved out of Manhattan to the borough of Queens where they bought a three family house to live in as well as provide rental income. They opened a new store in Jamaica, where they served the well to do nearby community of Forest Hills.

They quickly had four children, one of whom died in infancy. In true American immigrant fashion, they all were upwardly mobile. Their eldest daughter married an engineer whose parents had emigrated from Italy to open a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee. Eventually, they came to New York and opened a restaurant on the East side of Manhattan coincidentally called, “The Original Joe’s”. Their son, also named Joseph, studied engineering at Manhattan College. The younger daughter married a New York City policeman of Irish German ancestry. Their only son, my father, worked in the store until the outbreak of World War II when he left to work in the defense department of the Bulova Watch company.

My grandparents had to close the store on the departure of my father. They never learned how to drive a car or truck and without my father they could not go to market or make deliveries.  My grandfather retired at the age of 60 and spent most of his retirement caring for a garden that included a cherry tree, a prized fig tree, a grape arbor, and a large vegetable garden. He thought that grass was a waste of good ground.

Like most Italian men, my grandfather never went to church except perhaps for special events like weddings and funerals. Also, like many Italian men he did not like priests. I went to Catholic school and he warned me to do what the priests say, but not what they do. Nevertheless, I believe that he was one of those millions of un-canonized saints in the true selfless tradition of his namesake.

My mother died in 1950 when I was only eleven years old. My father was forced to move me and my two younger brothers next door to live with my grandparents in their modest ground floor apartment. My grandfather was 70 years old at the time and my grandmother 58. Only now that I am in my seventies do I realize how hard that must have been for them. Never, ever did I feel unwelcomed or unloved. Like St. Joseph my grandfather became a foster father to me. We made wine together. We built a coop for the chickens together. I helped him with the constant work in the garden but I never could match his inborn skill and knowledge. He could barely read English and I never learned Italian but now I realize that both Baba and Nana taught me what it meant to give up one’s life for others.


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