Next to the confessional booth was a statue of St. Lucy, a young Sicilian virgin who plucked out her own eyes and offered them to the wicked old man who had complimented her on their beauty. In her hand, St. Lucy held out a golden plate that contained her eyeballs. It was almost as if she was offering them to Joey, helping him see a way out of his dilemma. In an instant he knew what he would do. He quickly removed the sign, stuffed it into his pocket and entered the priest’s compartment of the confession booth. Today, he, Joey, would hear confessions and learn what was going on between Giuliana and Gino. If his worst fears were confirmed, oh what a penance he would give her. The inside of the confessional smelled of old priest sweat and stale incense but Joey felt strangely at ease and as the darkness enveloped him he congratulated himself on this stroke of brilliance, thanked St. Lucy for her guidance and waited for Giuliana to arrive.
Before too long Joey heard the church door open. He peeked out through the privacy curtain and saw a group of old ladies enter, his grandmother’s friends. There was Mrs. Scola, Mrs. Romano, Mrs Ciaramitaro and a few others. It wasn’t quite what he expected but there was no going back now and it would give him some practice before Giuliana came. Joey heard some rustling in the pew and soon someone entered the confession booth. He gently slid back the wooden partition part way. Disguising his voice as best he could he said, “Yes, my child, you may confess your sins to God”. “Padre” said the old lady and Joey recognized the voice as being that of Mrs. Scola, the fisherman’s wife. “Padre, my sins-a this week they the same as last a-week. My husband he wants-a do, you know, what all-a men wants alla the time, and I say no, you too old.” Well, Joey certainly didn’t expect this but, remembering his catechism lessons, he responded. “Signora, women have a sacred obligation to fulfill their husband’s needs, the bible tells us this.”
“What you talk about” said Mrs. Scola becoming slightly agitated, I cook, I clean, I give him seven kids, basta, and besides, his-a breath, its-a smell like Provolone cheese.” “Signora” said Joey feeling more priestly all the time, “we must look to the Holy Family as an example of marital love”. “But that’s-a just what I do Padre”, retorted Mrs. Scola, I wanna be just-a like the Holy Family”. “Let me ask you this” said Mrs. Scola, “Santa Maria, she a virgin, no”? “Yes” answered Joey wondering where this was leading, “St. Mary was a virgin”. “Well” said Mrs. Scola, “if she a virgin then her husband, San Giuseppe, he have to be a virgin too or maybe he visit all-a the whore houses in Gerusalemme”.
Whoa, this was getting pretty heavy. The sex life of the Holy Family wasn’t covered in Sr. Tarbula’s catechism class and Joey knew he was treading on theological thin ice. He decided to end the confession quickly. “Signora” he said, “You have committed a grave sin against your husband and against God. For your penance you must say an entire rosary”. “What you talk about” shouted Mrs. Scola, “last week same-a sin and I get three Our Father and three Hail Mary, this-a week I get a whole rosary, how come”? “Because you have not shown true contrition”, answered Joey, feeling ever more confident, “and, you must say the rosary crawling around the church on your knees”.
With that he shut the wooden door and ended the confession. Mrs. Scola exited the confessional looking distraught. She reached into her purse, took out her rosary beads and began crawling around the church on her knees saying the prayers out loud. Her friends were shocked and when the same thing happened to Mrs. Ciaramitaro and Mrs. Romano they knew something was wrong. Was Fr. Remigio sick or was he drunk…again? Someone was sent to find Fr. Louis and by the time he arrived there were half a dozen old ladies all dressed in black, crawling around the church aisles moaning their prayers. Thirty five years a priest and he had never seen a sacrilege like this. Fr. Louis ran to the confessional and swung open the door expecting to see Fr. Remigio. Instead, he saw Joey. “Disgraziada” he roared and started pulling Joey by the neck towards the door of the church.
Joey knew his life was over but, like I said, he was a quick thinker and he made one last, desperate attempt to salvage his dignity. “Please, Father” he pleaded, “I want to be a priest, I was just practicing”. Fr. Louis stopped and released his grip ever so slightly. Could this be true? A new recruit, fresh meat for the seminary, but when he looked down into Joey’s lying eyes he knew the truth. “Diavolo” he hissed and threw Joey out onto the cobblestones of North Square just as Giuliana and her friends were entering to witness his humiliation.
So, our story ends. Gino and Giuliana got married, had lots of children and moved to Gloucester where Gino had a fishing boat. Joey’s parents couldn’t show their faces in Sacred Heart Church ever again and had to attend Mass at St. Leonard’s where the dreaded Franciscans ruled.
And Joey? He moved to New York and got a job as a waiter in an Italian restaurant on the lower East Side. I haven’t seen him in fifty years.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.