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.
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.
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,