This morning I visited Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Camp Washington. Its school lunchroom next door is the scene of a beloved 108 year old ravioli and spaghetti dinner. The handmade spinach ravioli they serve are delicious pockets of joy. They’re the last remnant of a once massive Cincinnati Italian community who started Italian immigrant food businesses like Pasquale’s and LaRosa’s Pizza, and Caproni’s and Scotti’s Restaurants. People wait in line for up to an hour just to taste this local Italian delicacy twice a year.
Today I was there not to gorge spinach ravioli, but to photograph the murals painted above the altar in 1893 by German immigrant artist Edward Heinemann. At that time the church ministered to a mostly German immigrant congregation. The Italian Sacred Heart Church on Broadway merged with this German congregation in Camp Washington in about 1969. While photographing the paintings I was stopped in my tracks by the creepiest statue I have ever seen. At first glance the female saint looks like any normal statue. She holds a palm frond in her right hand and is dressed in the robes of an early Christian martyr. That’s all cool until you realize in her other hand she holds a plate with two human eyeballs. Gradeschool religion classes taught me that there were some pretty gruesome martyrdoms, but this statue should have had a warning. My sister makes great bloody hard boiled egg eyes with olives inserted for retinas at her Halloween parties. These reminded me of them. It was startling.
I’d never seen this representation of a saint so had to find out who she was. But then I noticed an interesting plaque at the foot of the pedestal on which she was standing. It didn’t ID her, but was inscribed “In Memory of Sam Gatto, from the Employees of the Cincinnati Post.” Ok, I was sure there was a great story behind this, and like a clue from a Dan Brown novel, I knew exactly where to look.
I first learned she was St. Lucy – or Santa Lucia to the Italians. She was a rich Sicilian girl, who gave all her money to the poor, vowed to be a virgin and was tortured by the gouging of her eyes by Emperor Diocletian for being a Christian, and refusing to marry a pagan suitor in about 300 AD. She is the patroness of the blind and those with eye ailments. She’s also the patroness of authors and journalists, so an appropriate choice from the employees of the Cincinnati Post. The faithful pray to her for cures of eye ailments and for pure thought, which journalists today should continue to heed. Her saint’s day is December 13, and Italians celebrate by not eating bread on this day.
I like the Scandinavian version of her much better. In Sweden, she’s a beautiful blonde in a white gown, wearing an evergreen crown with lit candles. A young girl usually dresses as her, carrying a plate of goodies to be passed out (mostly iced cardamom buns) with a host of other girls and boys serenading. But leave it to the Italians to be more maudlin with their representation.
Of course the day – January 20, 1954 – when the statue was hoisted into place at the now demolished Italian Sacred Heart Church on Broadway, the Post had an article about Sam and this tribute to him. The subline read, “Old Sam Gatto was a stubby old Italian sandwich vendor who never did much for the world except love everybody. If he liked one type of person more than another, he especially like the people who worked for newspapers.”
At the time of his death, Sam Gatto was a widow, without any children, living at the Browne Hotel on Sixth and Elm Streets, and attended mass at Sacred Heart. Fr. Louis Bolzan, the pastor of the church, had a close connection with St. Lucia. The church in his hometown in Italy was named for her. Before coming to Sacred Heart he built the St. Lucia Church in Chicago. I wonder if there’s a creepy eye-holding St. Lucia statue there too. So when the Post employees came to Fr. Bolzan for a suggestion of a statue tribute, he already had the perfect choice. And, what a testament to this Sam Gatto that in less than a month after his death on New Years Eve 1954, a collection was taken, a statue purchased, placed and dedicated to him.
Sam Gatto was born in Cincinnati in 1873, to Italian immigrant Gianni Gatto. Like Buddy LaRosa’s father and grandfather, Gianni Gatto was a fruit vendor at one of the many public markets in downtown Cincinnati, probably the Fifth Street Market. Sam started his career as a manager of a plumbing supply company. But for over twenty years Gatto operated a lunch room at 218 Post Square, across from the offices of the Cincinnati Post Newspaper. So, his lunchroom became a hangout for newsies. He gave them beer and meals on credit, gave them the run of the cash register, and gave them lectures when needed. Known as “Gat” and “The Unofficial Mayor of Post Square,” his lunchroom became known as Paddle Casino, because he made his customers write IOUs on the wooden paddles or spoons he served with the ice cream. There were several articles about his positive attitude – after being burglarized numerous times – and his generosity – in some cases trusting customers to lock up at night and help themselves after he left to finish their games of dominos.
Two days after his death a morning High Requiem Mass was said at St. Xavier downtown, not at Sacred Heart, because it was closer to his ‘family’ at the Post. Without any kids, he gave his estate to his two nieces Virginia and Catherina, and a goddaughter. The Post article said, “Looking at it (the statue) made you feel pretty good. Except that a lot of people were going to see that statue years from now and not know who Sam Gatto was.” When the Italian congregation moved from the Broadway church to Camp Washington in 1969, they brought two pieces of art – the Mural of Italian Immigrants painted in 1933 by Italian-Chicagoan Angelo Cangelosi (which hangs in the dining hall of the ravioli dinners) and the creepy eyeball-holding statue in memorium to Sam Gatto.