Sunday, June 17, 2012

San Antonio

Fabrizia is a village high in the mountains of Calabria, a region in the south of Italy. It’s not on the tourist trail but it is a place that is very close to my heart. It is surrounded by some of the last remaining virgin forest in Europe which, according to local folklore, is still populated with wolves. The land is unforgiving but the air is fresh, the forest mystical and the natural spring water is the most delicious water I have ever tasted. It’s still possible to stop by the side of the road and fill up your empty water bottles with crystal clear naturally ‘frizzante water.

The origin of Fabrizia, however, is less than salubrious. Again, according to local folklore, three robbers or brigands were escaping the law and decided to flee to the most inhospitable place they could find and took shelter in a cave, thinking that nobody would even think of looking for them there. This cave grew into a village called Fabrizia, the birthplace of my late husband, Salvatore Nesci.

Most Italian villages have a patron saint who watches over and protects the inhabitants or the Fabrizioti in this case. The patron Saint of Fabrizia is Saint Anthony or San Antonio and he has a lot of work to do to cover the Fabrizian diaspora as they migrated far and wide to Australia, North America, Argentina and of course to the prosperous north of Italy.

Most Calabrians of the previous generation had a small shrine or grotto in their living rooms dedicated to Saint Antony. He is a benevolent saint always carrying a small child as he is also the patron Saint of sick children.

Saint Anthony has become an integral part of my life and I still have a statue of him in my living room, taking pride of place next to the photo of Salvatore. Some would see my shrine to St Anthony as ludicrous. Others would see it as a miracle worked by the great saint, that a protestant-raised girl of the seventies with no real religious bent should display such a mediaeval tribute to Catholicism. I often wonder myself.


Early one morning, many years ago, in Fabrizia, a small child was getting underfoot during the hustle and bustle of breakfast when everybody had to be fed before a long day’s work in the fields. That small child was Salvatore and he was about two years old.  Accidentally he had hot coffee spilled over his head. His hysterical mother attended to his wounds but pleaded with St Antonio not to let her son die and even made an extra pledge that if he could survive without horrible scarring she vowed that she would lick the marble floor from the entrance of the church to the statue of St Antonio and back 13 times.

Thirteen is significant as St Antonio’s day is 13th June.

A woman of her word, Antonuzza engaged the help of her older son Bruno, who had to wipe the marble floor directly in front of his mother’s tongue before she licked the floor all the way to the statue and back, thirteen times.

As you may have guessed, this method of healing seemed to work and there of course was no scarring. Little Turuzzo ( Salvatore's childhood nickname) survived and in return St Antonio was thanked  by dedicating little Salvatore to the great saint every 13th June.  Each year, as a young child, he was dressed in brown priest’s robes with a cord tied around his waist as well as receiving a monk’s haircut complete with the bald patch at the back.

The family photo of him dressed as a miniature San Antonio has him flanked by his female cousins dressed in the same garb all with their little hands in prayer. Apparently one had been sick while the other just wanted to dress up. This custom of dedicating the children to San Antonio and dressing them up each 13th June is an old Southern Italian custom. There is a delightful scene in the film Macaroni with Marcello Mastrianna and Jack Lemon where a little boy, a mischievous nephew of Marcello Mastrianni, is dressed similarly.

Many years later, San Antonio continued to work his magic and his powers were again called upon when Salvatore was very ill and had a liver transplant. His mother prayed to the saint and once again her son’s life was spared. Just after the transplant Salvatore turned 50 and we decided to make it a ‘religious’ dress up party and of course Salvatore once again gave thanks to his saviour and dressed as San Antonio.

The statue of San Antonio was bought for the party decoration but soon became a prominent ornament in our house.

Salvatore’s health, sadly slowly deteriorated and he died of liver cancer six years after the transplant. Even though he was sick for many years his death was unexpected as he had only recently been diagnosed with liver cancer and underwent an operation to remove what they thought was a small tumour. Alas it was a large tumour and he didn’t survive the operation and died on May 10 2009. Even San Antonio couldn’t work his magic this time.

Nobody expected this outcome and a number of very close friends were overseas and were feeling bereft at not being around for his traumatic death and the funeral.
 I decided to have a large memorial gathering to celebrate Salvatore’s life when they returned. They said they were returning on Thursday 11th June. “OK I said. I’ll have the party on June 13th”. I decided on this early in the funeral arrangements and had it printed in the funeral booklet so many more people could come at a later date to talk, laugh, cry and grieve for Sam as the gathering after the funeral couldn’t accommodate all his friends.

My daughter’s music teacher, Valerian, had recently struck up a friendship with Salvatore as they shared a ridiculous sense of humour and a love of classical music. Valerian was a devout Catholic and not long after the funeral said to me “You do realise don’t you that 13th June is St Anthony’s Day!” I couldn’t believe it. Of course I didn’t know – why would a girl brought up as a Presbyterian and then a disbeliever know that the 13th of June was St Anthony’s day.
Two hundred people came to the party including his cousins who were in the photo when they were all dressed as San Antonio back in the village. It was very emotional to see them laughing and crying over the photo.

The 13th June is now Salvatore's Day.

                                             St Anthony and The Pope

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