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St. Anthony’s marble masterpieces

Chicago’s beautiful St. Anthony of Padua church came into being 50 years ago under the direction of its pastor, the Rev. Adolph Nalin. Fr. Nalin, with the suggestions of his committee proceeded full-steam ahead with his plans for the church as he dreamt it.

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Fr. Nalin took trips to Italy to select everything from designs and styles to art and decorations from the many churches he visited. The results of those scouting trips were eventually incorporated into his design for the church building.

Father also visited the quarries of Tuscany and the Arighinni Studios in Pietrasanta to see the workers harvesting marble using centuries-old techniques. Those same skills were brought across the ocean by the artists who completed the sculptures that can be seen on the side altars and, of course, in the niche above the front doors where the 13-ton St. Anthony statue appears.

Fr. Adolph Nalin was so into the marble that, if you look at the picture of the marble workers at the Communion rail, you’d swear you can see Fr. Nalin doing his part. I asked the late Angelo Piolatto about this last year and he set me straight. It turns out that Fr. Nalin brought his almost identical-looking brother and his two nephews over from Italy to work on the marble for St. Anthony’s.

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In the photos accompanying this article, you can see the statue being raised by a crane and fitted into its permanent position. I recall that it was such a major event that the school children were let out early to watch. The neighborhood families such as the Luke Arvia family that lived above Joe’s Barbershop got a great view of the special event.

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In the mid-1990s, it was realized that the Chicago weather proved to be harder on the marble than the climate in its native Italy. The Rev. Raniero Alessandrini was the pastor at the time, and he sought out a company that could do marble work. Of course, the church lacked to funds for renovation project that extensive. Fortunately, there was a company that a lifelong parishioner was involved with.

For more than 35 years, Pesavento’s Restaurant at 115th and Front Street had been a mainstay of the Roseland and Kensington communities. Joe Pesavento worked as a bartender and manager for his cousin Roy. In the 1990s, Roy decided to sell the restaurant and move on into retirement. Joe had considered taking over the restaurant but thought better of it and, after working for the new owner for a year, decided he also wanted out of the business.

For the first time in 35 years, Joe had time on his hands and was looking for work. A friend of his who did marble work and had his own company, Harry Davia, asked Joe if he wanted to give marble work a try. Being in his early 50s, the first thing that occurred to Joe was that there would be a lot of heavy lifting. However, Harry persisted and told Joe, “Give it a try. If it doesn’t work out, I’m okay with you walking away.” Joe thought it over and decided to give it a try — a try that lasted for 14 years!

Joe knew that Harry Davia did quality work and could do anything in marble because of his superior technique and skill as a master craftsman. Joe felt it was a win-win situation and began working alongside Harry, learning from one of the best teachers he could have had.

Fr. Alessandrini contacted Harry at the right time. He and Joe had just finished a major job and had no immediate prospects. Harry knew the financial position of the church was always worrisome and, when father asked him what it would cost, Harry gave father a price he couldn’t refuse: half of what he normally charged. Fr. Alessandrini was ecstatic as his prayers were answered and Harry and Joe set to work.

A major part of the reworking of the marble, the beautiful pulpit was to be taken down. But first, the Santacaterina family, which had donated the funds for the pulpit, was called to come in to see it one last time. After viewing the plans for the re-use of the marble, they were very satisfied.

The pulpit had four panels on the front of it which can now be seen on the front of the current altar: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John now look directly at the parishioners. Other sections of the marble were used when the altar rail was moved forward and a gate was added to the rail. A number of large sections of marble were removed by crane, loaded on a flatbed truck, and delivered to Fr. Pierini’s Villa Scalabrini.

Harry and Joe also did repair work throughout the church, including installing and bracing the holy water fonts. It turned out that the original fonts, which were on pedestal bases, looked irresistibly inviting to children and they would hang on them. That went on until one little boy managed to tip the holy water font and broke his arm when it fell.

The outside stairs at the east side church doors proved to be another area that couldn’t handle the Chicago weather. Harry and Joe replaced those steps with granite, which might not look as good as marble but definitely holds up better.

In talking to Joe about his and Harry’s marble work, he mentioned that he had also worked on the Standard Oil Building. It was covered in rectangular tiles of marble that had begun falling off due, once again, to the Chicago weather. Harry and Joe were part of the marble crew that worked on shoring up the marble slabs with strips of stainless steel.

Years later, Joe’s son Gene was working in the Laborer’s Union when they were assigned a downtown job: to fix some loose marble tiles on the Standard Oil Building. Harry Davia has since passed away, but Joe and his wife Josephine are retired and I run into them every month at Spaghetti-Os. When Joe and I were wrapping up our interview, Joe told me to make sure and point out how good a person and how skilled a craftsman Harry Davia was — Joe is that kind of guy and I’m proud to know him.

In Memoriam

Carl “Chuck” Carli, 86, husband of 56 years of Beverly, nee Angio; lifelong resident of Chicago’s Historic Pullman neighborhood and former proprietor of Charlie’s Tavern … Louis Veneziano, 93, husband for 62 years of the late Lillian (nee Slater); longtime Palos Heights and Roseland area resident; proprietor of Lou’s Texaco Gas and Service Station in Kensington until his retirement in 1982. … Raymond A. Rigoni age 83, husband of the late Lillian (nee Corte); longtime Lansing resident, formerly of Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood; retired route supervisor for Gonnella Baking Co.

Upcoming Events

The Fenger Classes of January and June 1950 are planning a 62nd class reunion, which is to take place in September 2012. To get information on the status of the reunion to get on the corresponding list, contact Marion DeMaro Podgorski at 708-895-0669 or Bob Stupegia at 708-532-2567.

Contact CJ Martello at 1501 W. Belmont Ave. #708, Chicago, IL 60657; 773-525-7823; or cjfranoi@yahoo.comRoseland Roundtable on Facebook.

About C.J. Martello

CJ Martello has returned to his roots as the author of “Petals from Roseland.” After five years of writing his column as a resident of Chicago's North Side, CJ put his money where his heart is and moved to Pullman, near the Roseland area in which he grew up. Having joined the Spaghetti-Os, Veneti nel Mondo and St. Anthony of Padua Parish and being one of the founders of the Roseland Roundtable Facebook page, CJ has become reacquainted with countless friends and acquaintances from his youth. CJ is looking forward to retirement and completing the books he has put on hold, including one that will encompass as much of Roseland's rich, beloved history as possible.