Shrine in The Bronx
Monday, Nov. 26, 1945
Once upon a time there was a little boy whose parents were very poor. They lived in The Bronx, in a drab backwash of a great city.
Joseph Vitolo Jr., nine years old and small in the underfed fashion of the poor, was the 18th child (nine still living) of an immigrant Italian who makes a little money working on an ash truck, and a fat Italian mother who helps buy food by cutting flowers out of cloth. He went to school, where his teachers considered him bright, and in the evenings he played in a rock-strewn vacant lot. Usually he played with the neighborhood girls because he was too little to get much attention from the older boys.
One evening he sat watching a bonfire rise & fall with the winds that blew across the city. He stood up and walked to a hill at the edge of the lot. And there he saw—he was sure he did—the Virgin Mary. She told him to pray. She promised to return on 16 nights, and then to make a well spout from the hill—just like the miraculous spring in The Song of Bernadette, which had played at the neighborhood theater.
For the first time in his life, Joe Vitolo felt important. He told his friends, and those who were afraid to scoff followed him to the hill next evening. Sure enough, the Virgin Mary was there again; Vitolo saw her, though none of the others did.
The Halt & the Blind. Joe did not quite realize it at first, but there were many other lonely, unhappy or troubled people who also wanted to see a vision. People came to talk to him, and to see the place on the hill. They brought flowers and votive candles, and ailing children and crippled sisters, and the wept-over photographs of sons killed in the war. They watched, hopefully and awestruck, while Joe kept his nightly vigil. The crowd grew; people came from as far away as Cleveland; last week, on the 17th night, 30,000 jammed into the dirty lot and the nearby streets.
But something went wrong with Joe and his vision. In spite of his nightly visitation, he was still just a shabby little boy in a shapeless sweater. He grew sullen and peevish. When photographers took his picture he sometimes grinned and postured, but sometimes he kicked them in the shins or tried to tear up their film. He was not always kind to the people, ill or maimed, who sought his help; once he shouted to a roomful of them: "Get out of here, all of you!"
On the 17th night nothing happened; there was no well on the hill, nothing at all. A woman in the crowd fainted and seemed to revive a little after Joe touched her with his hands; Joe said hopefully that perhaps this was the miracle that he had been promised. But he did not sound very sure of himself, or very happy.
Still the people kept coming. Days afterward an endless procession still passed through the rock-strewn lot; a hundred men & women an hour knelt down at the place on the hill to ask for a miracle. For in the big city there were countless others who, like Joe, wanted something wonderful to happen.