Christmas is once again upon us. It is, of course, a time for wishing the best to everyone. It is also a time for family gatherings where there will be plenty of storytelling with lots of laughter. I’m sure there will also be impromptu debates as to whether the stories are based on real events and retold just as they had happened. Why would there be any question? I’m sure we all remember Ralphie’s Christmas Story and his wish for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock?
If we were asked: “Who was the author of the Christmas Story?” we would all wrack our brains and eventually come up with the answer: Jean Shepherd. We’d all be “kind a” “sort a” right. The fact is that the story was made up of a number of pieces from different short stories that he had written.
In addition, some elements were derived from a Wanda Hickey story: “The Night of Golden Memories.” The reason I am pointing this out is to waylay the need some of you who read this column will feel to: 1) question the truth of the story I am about to retell; 2) deny these facts ever came to pass within the realm of St. Anthony’s Parish; and 3) discredit any sources I may mention. All I can say to those of you who are described by one of the above is: “Merry Christmas” and “Che Sera Sera.”
Many parishioners enjoyed the story of the Christmas morning years ago when the Baby Jesus went missing from the Crèche in front of our altar at St. Anthony. The following is a repeat of that old parish tale that others might now enjoy it.
Years ago, when Fr. Joseph Chiminello was pastor of St. Anthony, he had a beautiful manger scene set up in front of the old church altar. It cost a lot of money to import from Italy, and it was his pride and joy.
On Christmas morning, Fr. Joe went into the church between masses to pray in front of the imported crib. He was shocked to see the Baby Jesus had disappeared! He looked everywhere in the church, but couldn’t find the beautiful little statue.
He phoned the Kensington Police Station, then located at 115th Street and Indiana Avenue, and talked to Commander Tom O’Brien and reported the Baby Jesus was missing and someone had stolen it.
Commander O’Brien and his best detectives rushed to the church. Judge Alexander Napoli, who lived in the neighborhood, heard about the Baby Jesus being missing from the Nativity crib and rushed to help find it.
Someone phoned Alderman Dominic Lupo and reported that the Baby Jesus had been stolen from St. Anthony Church. He too, joined in the search but to no avail.
Fr. Chiminello, Commander O’Brien, Judge Napoli and Alderman Lupo stood at the front of the church in front of the Nativity discussing who might have stolen the beautiful statue and why. They had no clue and were at a loss as to why anyone would commit such a sacrilege.
Just then there was a sound in the back of the church of a door opening. As they watched in disbelief, a 6-year-old boy walked into the church and up the main aisle pulling a little red wagon with a blanket in it. As the wagon drew close to the group of men at the front of the Nativity, the boy stopped and opened the blanket to reveal the beautiful imported statue of the Baby Jesus.
The men were dumbstruck. Finally, Fr. Joe timidly asked: “Why did you steal the statue?”
The boy looked at the men with a smile on his face as his eyes lit up in innocent wonder and he said: “I didn’t steal Baby Jesus. I prayed to Jesus last night for a red wagon for my Christmas present. When I woke up this morning — it was there — my little red wagon was under the tree. I was so happy, I wanted to give Baby Jesus the first ride in my red wagon to say thank you for answering my prayers.”
And now, for the rest of the story.
I brought this story to light because my Pullman neighbors Emily and Flavia Panozzo gave me a copy of a story that had sat on their mother’s dresser for years and they thought it might interest me. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
After asking around and posing a few questions on Facebook as to this story’s origins, I received some interesting responses. Considering the information I received in these comments, I have developed a theory as to the story’s beginnings. A special thank you goes out to, of course, Emily and Flavia for making me aware of the story. And thanks to all of those who remembered parts of the story, though no one remembered all of the details. The biggest thank you goes to Pete Bausys, formerly of Calumet Park and now of Indianapolis, for giving me the needed input on the beginnings of the story.
It is my belief based on knowing Mario Avignone that Mario thought up the concept of writing the story for the St. Anthony’s Bulletin many years ago as a Christmas treat for his fellow parishioners after seeing an episode of “Dragnet.” The episode was brought to my attention by Pete Bausys, and can be found at the following link.
To make it entertaining and meaningful to his fellow St. Anthony parishioners, Mario used the well-known names of locals to give feeling to the story.
The copy I received is from St. Anthony’s bulletin dated Dec. 26, 2004, and is titled “The History of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Part 103, by Mario Avignone. At that time Mario was serializing his columns in the bulletin, hence the notation “Part 103” as Mario reprinted from the original, which appeared many years earlier.
Not one person I spoke to could give me a factual account, but only a sketchy account of the incident. When I pressed them for actual dates or facts or names that I could verify, there was a pause and then nothing relevant was said.
Facts: Father Joseph Chiminello was pastor of St. Anthony’s from July 4, 1935, until August 6, 1947. This is another point that shows the story is a fictionalized account since Fr. Chiminello was long gone from St. Anthony’s by the time this story appeared in print.
This story was first seen on TV on Dec. 22, 1953, as “The Big Little Jesus.”
Nonetheless, I know that this story is heartwarming and, on a local level, is as endearing as O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.” I hope you all enjoyed this story as much as I relished writing it and I wish a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. I hope that all readers of this column receive their own “red wagon” for Christmas.
Contact me at 11 403 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60628; 773-701-6756; or firstname.lastname@example.org.