Williamsburg, the Journey Continues. My Grandfather’s Grotto…

In 1966 John Sebastian penned a number one hit song for his group The Lovin’ Spoonful titled, “Summer in the City.”  The lyrics aptly state:

Hot town, summer in the city . Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty . Been down, isn’t it a pity?  Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city. All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head!”

I bring this up because it not only conjures up the true feeling of a stifling hot summer day in an urban jungle but because when James and I went to Williamsburg to revisit my childhood, New York City had begun the biggest heat wave it had known in years and it was precisely how the two of us felt. I was unable to get the song (which by the way, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked #401 of the 500 greatest songs of all time) out of my head. Needless to say that as a coupe of overweight, out of shape, middle-aged men suffering from a number of ailments not the least of which is high blood pressure, we were uncomfortable to say the least.

That said, there was still a very important place for me to revisit. In 1938, my grandfather Vito Abate, built an incredible grotto on the grounds of his local parish church, Saint Francis of Paola. Yes I know that this is the third church I mentioned in as many blogs, but there ARE that many Catholic churches in the area. It seems as though you stumble across another one every few blocks or so. The remarkable thing is, as a child, every one of them was packed full for each and every mass! Anyway, I digress… I knew that I absolutely had to take James to see my grandfather’s work no matter how oppressive the heat.

After stopping off (even further north on Bedford Avenue) we took a break to cool off and grab a bite to eat. We found a cute little place called, “Sweet Chick” that is known for their chicken & waffles. Outside the shop sat one of the famous food-trucks “Van Leeuwen’s Ice Cream” that was preparing for what was sure to be a huge crunch on this big feast day. After taking some time to share a scone, a couple of tall iced teas, and of course some chicken and waffles, we were ready to do an about face and head south to Conselyea Street, where St. Francis church is located.

Sweet Chick Restaurant on Bedford Avenue

Sweet Chick Restaurant on Bedford Avenue

Chicken & Waffles

Chicken & Waffles

As a child I remember passing by the structure thinking “oh, that’s grandpa’s grotto,” but because I was only a child, I was unable to truly appreciate the craftsmanship or the incredible hard labor of love it took to complete the task.

Please allow me to tell you about my grandpa.

Vito Abato was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. He settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and was drafted into WW1 shortly after marrying his wife Maria Petrocelli. A spelling error on a US army document changed his last name from Abato to Abate. Vito’s battalion was captured by enemy forces who attempted to execute them by lethal gas. Left for dead, Vito actually survived and was later awarded a medal of honor for his plight. The gas however did do irreversible damage to Vito, causing him to become yet another disabled veteran casualty of that Great War. Never one for self-pity, Vito worked wherever he could to raise money to support his wife and six children. He and Maria scrimped and watched every cent of his meager earnings, eventually saving enough money to fulfill the “American Dream,” when they opened a small mom and pop’s grocery store. However the couple eventually lost everything during the depression, when they freely gave away the store’s stock to the struggling families in the neighborhood. I remember asking my grandmother why they gave away all the food. Her answer was simple, “These were the people of my neighborhood. Their children were hungry and I had shelves of food. What else could I do?”

Vito’s greatest loss came in 1938, after the death of his youngest daughter, Anna who passed away from pneumonia at age eight. Heartbroken, he decided to build a grotto at his local parish church, Saint Francis of Paola, as an offering to the Virgin Mary in hopes that she may look after the daughter he could no longer care for himself. A poor and unhealthy man, Vito would walk from his apartment in Williamsburg, over the Manhattan bridge to Canal Street and through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, where he would collect the stones that were being discarded there during work on the tunnels. Hunched over his little wooden wheelbarrow, he hauled 6-8 stones at a time back to Brooklyn to be used to erect the structure. I can’t even imagine how much his back ached from the journey or the countless miles he logged, gathering the hundreds of stones needed to complete his beautiful grotto.

Built by my grandfather's hands in 1938 the grotto holds a small plaque dedicating the structure in his honor

Built by my grandfather’s hands in 1938 the grotto holds a small plaque dedicating the structure in his honor

This grotto was erected out of a father’s undying love for his daughter and has been standing as a testament to his incredible faith for over 75 years.

I was fortunate, honored, and above all, blessed enough to call Vito Abate my grandfather and I could not be more proud – or more humbled – by such an inspirational and devoted man. God bless you grandpa, I love you.

Untill next time,

Don

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Williamsburg, the Journey Continues. My Grandfather’s Grotto…

  1. Sue Tunnell

    Love this story!!! Xo

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Laurie Henle

    This is a wonderful story! XO
    I hope someday I can actually see it in person!! love you cuz!!! no wonder you are so great, look where you came from! 🙂

  3. Debbie Foley

    What a beautiful story.

  4. Elaine Cohen

    I get hungry just looking at the photos!! Great story, the Grotto is amazing.

    • Thank you Elaine. I wish I had a photo that did the grotto justice. It is about 15-18 feet in height at it’s tallest point and large enough for a group of people to walk into. The stones are laid in an igloo fashion creating a lovely dome ceiling. Such amazing craftmanship and a true work of “heart.”

  5. Anna

    Hi, I found the grotto today and took some photos and than I was curious on how it came about. I’m amazed to have read this story. I went to the church in the hopes of establishing a feast for San Francesco di Paola….we need a little history on the establishing and dedication of this church. I know that it was built in 1918… Does anyone know more? Where did the original people that honored San Francesco come from? Who was the first priest of the parish? Any other information is appreciated .Thank you

    • I wish I knew, Anna. I am surprised the church doesn’t have that information archived. 😦

    • E=Fr. Eugene Carrella

      Hi, my father was born and raised on Humboldt St (between Withers and Frost). He also owned Buonomo Cleaners on the corner of Withers and Humboldt Sts. I went to St, Francis of Paola School until the 3rd grade when we moved to Staten Island. St. Francis of Paola is a saint from Calabria; however, most of the immigrants that attended St. Francis of Paola Church were from various towns in Salerno (ie. Teggiano, Sanza, etc…) I don’t know who the founding Pastor was.

  6. I have lived here my whole life and didn’t know that story… I remember your grandfathers name from the neighborhood but I don’t think I ever met him.. my father was an user at St. Francis for many years…we all went to st. francis school/church. I don’t know who the first priest of the parish is but the church must have the info…The first Pastor I remember was Fr. Archioli, then Fr. Puleo (?) was it Fr. Danca next and then Fr. Verano … Its a beautiful grotto…just sorry they put the gates on but it was to protect the statues… Thank you for sharing your story

    • Thank you Doreen for your information. As a child I never actually attended St. Francis. If you go back one or two blogs from this one, you will learn that my father passed away when I was a small child and my mom later married the man who is my dad, John Abate. Before they were wed, we lived on Metropolitan and Union Avenue and attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Once mom & dad married, we left the neighborhood but returned afters my brother’s death and lived on Engert Avenue for two years, where we attended Saint Cecilia. After that we, left the neighborhood or good, only returning to visit family. I find it odd now to think that we didn’t walk the few extra blocks to go to my Grandpa’s church, if only to say a prayer each Sunday at his beautiful Grotto.
      If you lived there your whole life, and I don;t know your age, you might have known my Aunt Millie’s candy store in Graham Avenue from the 70’s -80’s. My Grandma (Maria Abate) often worked behind the counter there. I am so pleased that you read this Blog about my wonderful Grandpa. I wonder what led you to it? How you came upon it? I guess it was fate. In any case, thank you for your kind words.
      Sincerely,
      Don

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