This Thursday is the feast day of Saint Pantaleon, a third-century physician from the region that is now Turkey, who is known as the patron saint of doctors and winning lottery numbers.
While fairly obscure in America, Pantaleon is popular in Italy, where his feast day is widely celebrated.
A church in a small village in Southern Italy has been missing its statue of Saint Pantaleon for decades. All that time it had been hiding out on the third floor of a rowhome in South Philadelphia.
Maria Concetta Carito was from the village Montauro in the Calabria region of Southern Italy. She arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s, part of a wave immigrants that defined South Philadelphia for most of the 20th century.
“At 10th and Wharton, right around the corner from Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s,” said Carito’s great-grandson, Ed Nader. “My grandmother lived at 1305 South 10th Street, we lived at 1307 South 10th Street, my aunt lived at 1330 South 10th Street. So we spent a lot of time at my great-grandmother’s house.”
In that house, in the 3rd floor closet, Nader remembers a thing of horror: a six-foot statue of a pale figure tied to a tree, in the throes of dying. The closet was a shrine to St. Pantaleon created by his great-grandmother, who lit candles at the base of the statue, giving the whole thing an menacing glow from beneath.
“As kids, every time we went to the 3rd floor to go to the bathroom, we’d run past that room,” remembered Nader. “We were so frightened of that statue. My mother, me, my aunt, her children, my children.”
When Nader’s great-grandmother passed away, the statue stayed in the family. Even though it was creepy, after 80 years it was embraced as a family heirloom. So when Nader moved to Exton, Pennsylvania, the statue went with him.
“He’s not something you want to look at every day,” said Nader’s wife, Kathleen, who keeps St. Pantaleon in the den, under a sheet. “If he had more of a majestic pose, maybe I would keep him in the living room. But he’s a little scary. He can frighten you.”
The statue of Saint Pantaleon didn’t start as a family heirloom. A church in Montauro commissioned a Massachsettes-based artist Charles Pizzaro, to make the statue in 1936. The church sent it to Boston in 1946 to be paraded through the streets during the saint’s feast day.
A committee of Montauro parishioners were traveling with the statue at the time. They stopped in South Philadelphia to visit Maria on their way back to Italy.
“On the way home — for whatever reason — they chose not to take the statue with them,” said Nader. “I don’t know why they left it. They said, ‘Concetta, we’ll come back and get it.’ They were never heard from again. They didn’t come back and get it.”
There it stayed, on the third floor of the rowhome, giving nightmares to four generations of children. Nobody knew the statue was meant to be in an Italian church.
Last year the Naders were traveling in Italy on vacation, visiting Montauro to see the birthplace of Ed’s great-grandmother. As a tiny village that gets very few tourists, the mayor — whose name, by chance, was Pantaleon — thought he should meet the six Americans parading through his town. They got to talking through an interpreter. The subject of Saint Pantaleon came up.
Suddenly the Italians got very excited.
“I had no idea what they were talking about,” said Nader. “The interpreter was trying to interpret for us in English. He’s telling us to wait. We couldn’t get a word in edgewise in English or Italian.”
It dawned on everyone that the creepy statue was actually a revered religious icon. There is an empty shrine built into a wall of the church in Montauro where the statue was meant to go.
The Naders quickly decided the Italians should have their statue back. Ed and Kathleen footed the bill for shipping — adding up to a few thousand dollars — to get Saint Pantaleon in Mantauro in time for his feast day.
“We are thrilled. I feel like I know why we have it, why Eddie’s parents and grandparents have kept this. There was a reason. It’s our obligation now to get it back to them,” said Kathleen Nader. “It is God’s will. I never questioned it. It’s just, like — yes — that’s what we do. We send it back.”
The Naders plan to be in Italy during St. Pantaleon’s feast day, to see the statue finally in its natural habitat.