The vision arrived
just a few months after the end of World War II. Boatloads of joyous
servicemen were returning to the city from overseas. New York was
unassailably confident. "All the signs were that it would be
the supreme city of the Western world, or even the world as a whole,"
Jan Morris wrote in her book "Manhattan '45." New Yorkers,
she added, using a phrase from an upbeat business pamphlet of the
time, saw themselves as a people "to whom nothing is impossible."
impossibility, the vision, soon faded from the headlines. The Archdiocese
of New York declined to make a statement on its validity, and as
the days and months and years passed, local Roman Catholics forgot
about the "Bronx Miracle," as Life magazine called it. But young Joseph Vitolo
never forgot, not during Christmastime nor at any other seasons
of the year. He visited the spot each night, a practice that alienated
him from pals in his Bedford Park neighborhood, who were more interested
in going to Yankee Stadium or Orchard Beach. Many in the working-class
area, even some adults, mocked him for his piety, derisively calling
him "St. Joseph."
of poverty, Mr. Vitolo, a modest man who works as a janitor at Jacobi
Medical Center and prays that his two grown daughters find good
husbands, has maintained this devotion. Whenever he tried to begin
a life away from the apparition site - he twice attempted to become
a priest - he found himself drawn back to the the old neighborhood. Today, sitting in his
creaky three-story house, Mr. Vitolo said the moment changed his
life, made him better. He has a fat, treasured scrapbook of clippings
about the event. But his life did peak at a tender age - what could
compete? - and there is a weariness, a guardedness, about him, stemming
maybe from both his earthly struggles and from the burden of being
the boy who saw the Virgin.
Did he ever
question what his eyes saw? "I never had doubts," he said.
"Other people did, but I didn't. I know what I saw." The
amazing tale began two nights before Halloween. Newspapers were
full of stories about the destruction the war had wrought in Europe
and Asia. William O'Dwyer, an Irish-born former district attorney,
was days away from being elected mayor. Yankee fans were lamenting
their team's fourth-place finish; its top hitter had been second
baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss, not exactly Ruth or Mantle.
the baby of his family and small for his age, was playing with friends
when suddenly three girls said they spotted something above a rocky
hill behind Joseph's house, on Villa Avenue, a block from the Grand
Concourse. Joseph said he didn't notice anything. One of the girls
suggested that he pray.
an Our Father. Nothing happened. Then, with greater feeling, he
recited a Hail Mary. Instantly, he said, he saw a floating figure,
a young woman in pink who looked like the Virgin Mary. The vision
beckoned to him by name.
petrified," he remembered. "But her voice calmed me down."
He warily moved
closer and listened as the vision spoke. She asked him to the spot
for 16 consecutive nights to say the rosary. She told him that she
wanted the world to pray for peace. Unseen by the other children,
the vision then disappeared.
home to tell his parents, but they had already heard the news. His
father, a garbage collector who was an alcoholic, was outraged.
He slapped the boy for telling lies. "My father
was very tough," Mr. Vitolo said. "He would beat my mother.
That was the first time he hit me." Mrs. Vitolo,
a religious woman who had had 18 children, only 11 of whom survived
infancy, was more sympathetic to Joseph's tale. The following night
she accompanied her son to the site.
The news was
spreading. That evening, 200 people gathered. The boy knelt on the
ground, began to pray and reported that another vision of the Virgin
Mary had appeared, this time requesting that everyone in attendance
sing hymns. "As the
throng worshipped in the open air last night and lighted votive
candles in the form of a cross, . . . at least 50 motorists stopped
their cars near the scene," wrote George F. O'Brien, a reporter
for The Home News, the major Bronx daily. "Some knelt near
the curb when they heard of the occasion for the gathering."
reminded his readers that Joseph's story was similar to that of
Bernadette Soubirous, the poor shepherd girl who claimed to see
the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, in 1858. The Roman Catholic
Church recognized her visions as authentic and eventually declared
her a saint, and the 1943 film about her experience, "Song
of Bernadette," won four Academy Awards. Joseph told the reporter
that he had not seen the film.
In the next
few days, the story leapt fully into the spotlight. Newspapers published
staged photographs of Joseph kneeling piously on the hill. Reporters
from Italian newspapers and international wire services showed up,
hundreds of articles circulated around the globe, and people eager
for miracles arrived at the Vitolo home at all hours. "I couldn't
go to sleep at night because people were constantly in the house,"
Mr. Vitolo said. Lou Costello
of Abbott and Costello sent a small statue encased in glass. Frank
Sinatra brought a large statue of Mary that still sits in the Vitolo
living room. ("I just saw the back of him," Mr. Vitolo
said.) Cardinal Francis Spellman, the archbishop of New York, swept
into the Vitolo home with a retinue of priests and spoke briefly
with the boy.
drunken father regarded his youngest child differently. "He
said to me, 'Why don't you cure my back?' Mr. Vitolo recalled. "And
I put my hand on his back and I said, 'Papa, you're better.' He
went back to work the next day." But the boy
was overwhelmed by all the attention. "I didn't understand
what it was all about," Mr. Vitolo said. "People were
charging at me, looking for help, looking for cures. I was young
By the seventh
night of the visions, more than 5,000 people were packing the area.
The crowd included sad-faced women in shawls fingering rosary beads;
a contingent of priests and nuns who were given a special area in
which to pray; and well-dressed couples who had arrived from Manhattan
in limousines. Joseph was carried to and from the hill by a bulky
neighbor, who protected him from overeager worshippers, some of
whom had already torn the buttons from the boy's coat.
After the services,
he was placed on a table in his living room as a slow procession
of the needy paraded before him. Unsure of what to do, he placed
his hands on their heads and recited a prayer. He saw them all:
veterans wounded on the battlefield, elderly women who had trouble
walking, children with schoolyard injuries. It was as if a mini-Lourdes
has arisen in the Bronx.
stories of miracles quickly surfaced. Mr. O'Brien reported the story
of an infant whose paralyzed hand was repaired after touching sand
from the site. On Nov. 13, the second to last evening of the prophesied
appearances, more than 20,000 people showed up, many via chartered
buses from Philadelphia and other cities.
The final night
promised to be the most spectacular. The newspapers were reporting
that the Virgin Mary had told Joseph that a well would miraculously
appear. Anticipation was at a fever pitch. As a soft rain fell,
between 25,000 and 30,000 people settled in for the service. The
police closed a section of the Grand Concourse. Carpets were placed
on the path leading up to the hill to prevent pilgrims from falling
into the mud. Then Joseph was delivered to the hill and placed among
a sea of 200 flickering candles.
Wearing a shapeless
blue sweater, he began to pray. Then someone in the crowd shouted,
"A vision!" A surge of excitement shot through the gathering,
until it was discovered that the man had caught a glimpse of a female
spectator dressed in white. That was the most gripping moment. The
prayer session proceeded as it usually did. After it was over, Joseph
was carried home.
hearing people yelling when they were taking me back," Mr.
Vitolo said. "They were shouting: 'Look! Look! Look!' I remember
I looked back and the sky had opened up. Some people said that they
saw Our Lady in white ascending into the sky. But I only saw the
sky opening up."
The heady events
of fall 1945 marked the end of Joseph Vitolo's childhood. No longer
an ordinary child, he had to live up to the responsibility of someone
who had been graced by a godly spirit. So every night at 7, he dutifully
walked up the hill to recite the rosary for the progressively smaller
crowds who were visiting a spot that was being turned into a shrine.
His faith was strong, but his constant religious devotions caused
him to lose friends and do poorly in school. He grew into a sad,
The other day,
Mr. Vitolo sat in his drafty living room, recalling that past. In
one corner is the statue that Sinatra brought, one of its hands
damaged by a fallen chunk of ceiling. On the wall is a brightly
colored painting of Mary, rendered by the artist according to Mr.
would make fun of me," Mr. Vitolo said of his youth. "I
would walk down the street and grown men would yell out, 'There
he goes, St. Joseph.' I stopped walking down that street. It wasn't
an easy time. I suffered." When his beloved
mother died in 1951, he tried to give his life direction by studying
to become a priest. He dropped out of Samuel Gompers Vocational
and Technical High School, in the South Bronx, and enrolled at a
Benedictine seminary in Illinois. But he quickly soured on the experience.
His superiors expected a lot out of him - he was, after all, a visionary
- and he wearied of their high hopes. "They were beautiful
people, but they scared me," he said.
enrolled in another seminary, but that plan failed, too. He then
found a job in the Bronx as a printing apprentice and resumed his
nightly devotions at the shrine. But over time he grew annoyed by
the responsibility, sick of the crackpots, and sometimes resentful. "People
were asking me to pray for them, and I was looking for help myself,"
Mr. Vitolo said. "People would ask me, 'Pray that my son gets
into the Fire Department.' I would think, Why doesn't somebody get
me a job in the Fire Department?"
to look up in the early 1960's. A new group of worshipers became
interested in his visions, and, inspired by their piety, Mr. Vitolo
resumed his dedication to his encounter with the divine. He grew
close to one of the pilgrims, Grace Vacca of Boston, and they were
married in 1963. Another worshiper, Salvatore Mazzela, an auto worker,
bought the house next to the apparition site, ensuring its safety
from developers. Mr. Mazzela became the shrine's guardian, planting
flowers, building walkways and installing statues. He himself had
visited the shrine during the 1945 apparitions.
in the crowd said to me, 'Why did you come here?,' " Mr. Mazzela
recalled. "I didn't know what to answer. She said, 'You came
here to save your soul.' I didn't know who she was, but she made
me see. God made me see."
the 1970's and 80's, as much of the Bronx was overtaken by urban
decay and ballooning crime, the little shrine remained a peaceful
oasis. It was never vandalized. Over these years, most of the Irish
and Italians who had frequented the shrine moved to the suburbs
and were replaced by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Catholic
newcomers. Today, most passers-by know nothing of the thousands
of people who had once gathered there.
wondered what it was," said Sheri Warren, a six-year resident
of the neighborhood, who was returning from the grocery store on
a recent afternoon. "Maybe it happened a long time ago. It's
a mystery to me."
Today, a glass-enclosed
statue of Mary is the shrine's centerpiece, elevated on a stone
platform and set at exactly the spot where Mr. Vitolo said the vision
appeared. Nearby are wooden benches for worshipers, statues of St.
Michael the Archangel and the Infant of Prague and a tablet-shaped
sign with the Ten Commandments.
But if the shrine
remained vital through those decades, Mr. Vitolo struggled. He lived
with his wife and two daughters in the ramshackle Vitolo family
home, a creaky three-story structure just a few blocks from St.
Philip Neri Church, where the family has long worshiped. He worked
at various menial jobs to keep the family from poverty. In the mid-70's,
he was employed at Aqueduct, Belmont and other local racetracks,
collecting urine and blood samples from the horses. In 1985 he joined
the staff of Jacobi Medical Center, in the northern Bronx, where
he still works, stripping and waxing the floors and rarely revealing
his past to co-workers. "I had enough ridicule as a young boy,"
His wife died
a few years ago, and Mr. Vitolo has spent the last decade worrying
more about the heating bills for the house, which he now shares
with one daughter, Marie, than about increasing the shrine's attendance.
Next door to his house is an abandoned, littered playground; across
the street is Jerry's Steakhouse, which did spectacular business
in the fall of 1945 but now sits vacant, marked by a rusting 1940's
neon sign. Mr. Vitolo's
dedication to his shrine persists nonetheless. "I say to Joseph
that the authenticity of the shrine is his poverty," said Geraldine
Piva, a devoted believer. "He's never made any money from the
For his part,
Mr. Vitolo says that an unswerving commitment to the visions gives
his life meaning and protects him from the fate of his father, who
died in the 1960's. He is energized each year, he says, by the anniversary
of the Virgin's appearances, which is marked with a Mass and celebrations.
Devotees of the shrine, now numbering about 70 people, travel from
several states to attend.
The aging visionary
has flirted with the idea of moving - perhaps to Florida, where
his daughter Ann and two of his sisters live - but he cannot abandon
his sacred spot. His creaky bones make the walk up to the site difficult,
but he plans to make the climb for as long as he can. For a man
who long struggled to find a career, the visions of 57 years ago
have turned out to be a calling.
if I could take the shrine with me, I would move," he said. "But I remember, on the last night of the visions in 1945,
the Virgin Mary didn't say goodbye. She just left. So, who knows,
someday she might be back. If she does, I'll be here waiting for
Visit Our Lady of the Universe shrine. Address is entrance at 3191 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY 10468.