The Shadow and The Ghost

The Shadow and The Ghost


A woman who called herself Reverend Mother claimed that she could perform miracles. The price was her followers’ adoration and obedience—and in some cases their lives.


By Christine Grimaldi

The Atavist Magazine, No. 123


Christine Grimaldi lives in Washington, D.C., where she covers reproductive rights and policy and writes essays about history and culture. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Vice, Self, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Dame, The Rumpus, and other publications. She tweets at @chgrimaldi.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Naomi Sharp

Published in January 2022.


1.

Jennie Otranto slept on the same floors that she scrubbed clean. She was the Lord’s humble servant, too intimidated to ask her employer, the woman she called Reverend Mother, for a spare bedroom. Unlike the innkeeper in the story of Christ’s birth, Reverend Mother had ample space, especially compared with her parishioners, who lived in packed row houses and cold-water flats that rattled to the roll of Brooklyn’s elevated trains. Reverend Mother never even offered her maid a blanket. Jennie made do with her own coat and a small rug—if her minister-turned-master’s Scottish terrier and Siamese cat relinquished a favorite sleeping spot.

Come morning, Jennie shook out her coat and any fur that stuck to it. She smoothed the wrinkles left overnight in her clothes. Her scallop-edged top and skirt are crisp in a black-and-white photo old enough to be from her domestic tenure. In one hand, she clutches a box of Super Suds detergent, perhaps to wash dinner remnants off Reverend Mother’s plates or clothes—the brand’s tagline was “floods o’ suds for dishes and duds.” A fistful of Jennie’s hair is coiled around a barrette pinned just above her forehead, while the rest falls to her shoulders. The dark circles under her eyes seem to give the truth away: Jennie is a profile in exhaustion.

The circumstances of her employment amounted to forced labor. According to the 1940 census, 22-year-old Jennie earned $650 a year as a maid, and 54-year-old Reverend Mother made nothing as a pastor—a double-barreled lie meant to protect the person who told it. Jennie reaped no earthly rewards under the arrangement reached about a decade earlier between her mother, Serafina, and Reverend Mother. A friend had told Serafina about a woman who performed miracles out of a Pentecostal storefront church on 69th Street, also called Bay Ridge Avenue. It seemed as if only miracles could soothe Serafina’s arthritic joints, which confined the 40-something mother of six to bed for weeks at a time. So she went to the church, which largely drew from Brooklyn’s Italian immigrant enclave of Bensonhurst. As many as 200 self-proclaimed “full believers” sought cameos in Reverend Mother’s prayers and remedies from her “holy napkins,” pieces of cloth she anointed with oil over which she’d prayed. Reverend Mother preached that no other church in the world understood the Bible like La Cappella dei Miracoli (the Chapel of Miracles) did. And make no mistake: She was the church.

Reverend Mother expected full believers to pay for her grace, one way or another. Like many church leaders, she cited Bible verses to justify collecting a 10 percent tithe from her followers’ poverty-level wages. She went a step further, commissioning “scouts” to find families tending to dying relatives so that she could pray with them—and claim 10 percent on the relatives’ wills. But nothing was ever enough for Reverend Mother, and she levied the first of many egregious tolls on Serafina’s family around 1930. “After a while she had a stronger hold on us,” Jennie later wrote, “and decided that I should go live with her as her maid.” Serafina agreed. She considered her eldest daughter a gift to God.

Jennie’s delivery into involuntary servitude marked the end of her formal education. Eighth grade was as far as she’d go. Reverend Mother squeezed everything she could out of Jennie and her family. She once instructed Jennie to pull her mother aside after a church service to discuss Serafina’s life insurance policy. “Tell her, ‘Mom, God was good to you, why don’t you cash that policy and give the money to Reverend Mother?’ Letting it sound like it came from me,” Jennie recalled. The Great Depression plunged Jennie’s parents into darkness more than once when they couldn’t pay their electricity bill. Still, Serafina gave Reverend Mother the $200 or $250 her insurance policy was worth.

Teenage Jennie cleaned, cooked, and worshiped without complaint, but by the early 1940s, after a period in which she was sent back to her family, only to be enlisted as an unpaid maid again when it suited Reverend Mother, the twentysomething version of Jennie had to be stopped from testing the limits of her employer’s power. “As time wore on living under these conditions my patience was waning. One day, I don’t remember what happened. I might have answered her abruptly,” Jennie wrote. “She happened to have a metal can in her hand and banged it on my head.”

The can sliced into Jennie’s scalp. She pressed a Turkish towel to her head, but its fibers couldn’t absorb the blood flowing through her hair and down her neck. “Reverend Mother saw all this but did not try to help or even care,” Jennie wrote. “I then left her home without saying a word.”

It was nighttime. Where would she sleep? Grown women in Brooklyn often lived with their families until marriage, but Jennie’s parents would offer no refuge. Her father, Frank, was even more devoted to Reverend Mother than Serafina was. Reverend Mother regularly dispatched him to the homes of delinquent parishioners. “I would go and ask them how they felt and why they did not come to church,” he later told authorities. Jennie feared her father would force—or beat—her back into servitude. “Having no place to go, I rode the trains all night,” Jennie wrote.

The next morning, she went to see Serafina. Jennie mentioned only that she and Reverend Mother had had a “misunderstanding.” What happened next sounds a lot like love bombing—the showering of appreciation by abusers, narcissists, and cult leaders to overwhelm a target’s resistance. “When Reverend Mother realized where I was, she called and sweet talked me into going back,” Jennie wrote. “Why wouldn’t she? She missed having a good free maid.”

Jennie returned to work, but only in body. Her soul was her own. Reverend Mother, it seemed, had reached the limit of her power.

Reverend Mother preached that no other church in the world understood the Bible like La Cappella dei Miracoli did. And make no mistake: She was the church.

Nanny picked me up from elementary school every day of my childhood on Staten Island. The moms of my classmates idled outside their cars, gossiping. Nanny was the only grandmother in the crowd. We met each other with hugs and kisses, and our ride home never began until we raced to see whether Nanny’s automatic seat belt, a fixture of some 1990s cars, would cinch into place before I could latch my manual strap in the back seat. I inevitably won, but the thrill of my victory was never tainted by any agony of her defeat on her part. Nanny celebrated my safety.

Among my few after-school obligations were the weekly catechism classes that would rub off like a temporary tattoo once I got older. Nanny waited in her silver Toyota Camry while I was taught Catholicism’s particular brand of shame. She also took me to borrow books from the Great Kills Library, and to buy Archie comics at a store kitty-corner from a Sedutto ice cream shop. Occasionally, on the way home, we stopped by Dazzle Cleaners, where my parents, Nanny’s son and daughter-in-law, sweated as many as 14 hours a day, six days a week. But Mom and Dad preferred I stay away from their business, especially in the summer months, when the boilers spiked the heat index in the store, making it a sauna with none of the health benefits.

Home was in the Honey Bee Condominiums behind the Staten Island Mall. There, Nanny and I settled into our afternoon routines, starting with homework. I recited my vocabulary words, and she paged through a dictionary for the corresponding definitions. I wrote short stories, only remembering to cram in the assigned words at the end, while Nanny wrapped breaded chicken cutlets around cubes of mozzarella (mutzadell in Brooklynese) or formed tiny meatballs for minestrone soup. She could also put together a solid kids’ menu whenever my best friends, Andrea and Jen, came over to cosplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer with fake wooden stakes or Clueless with our teddy-bear backpacks. We loved Nanny’s English muffin pizzas with homemade sauce and her grilled cheese sandwiches made with Kraft Singles.

Depending on their nightly ETA, we ate dinner with one or both of my parents. Mom and Dad worked harder and longer than I ever have, or will, to fuel the last segment of their white flight from Brooklyn to Staten Island to New Jersey, a path worn by many Italian Americans before them. Living with my long-widowed paternal grandmother for six months was supposed to help our little family save for a house in the suburbs. We stayed for seven years.

From the time I was five through the summer after my twelfth birthday, Nanny was a constant in my life. I never missed one of her Saturday morning beauty parlor appointments at the Staten Island Mall. Weekday mornings, she power walked through the mall’s corridors with her septuagenarian friends. I gave Nanny a set of one-pound pink weights that she pumped through the Cinnabon-scented air, and during summer vacations I’d join the group now and then for a bialy in the food court. On many afternoons and evenings, fueled by homemade rugelach or pound cake, I was dealt in to card games with Nanny’s friends at our dining room table. Other nights, just the two of us, Nanny and I played round after round of Rummikub, the tile game that “brings people together.”

Oftentimes we snuggled on the den sofa to watch our shows: General Hospital bleeding into Oprah, and The Golden Girls in perpetual syndication. The sofa contained the folded-up mattress where Nanny slept after insisting that my parents take the only bedroom in her condo. It was there that we wore out The Goonies, Home Alone, and the rest of my VHS collection, supplementing them with Lifetime melodramas and the classics starring Audrey or Katharine Hepburn. On Friday nights, I’d curl into Nanny for an hour of Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters. We were devoted to the golden era of 20/20, and to each other. “You’re my shadow,” Nanny would say.

Our bedtime routine was an exercise in role reversal: I tucked Nanny in with many kisses and traced the sign of the cross on her papery forehead, smoothing the wrinkles up, down, left, right, with my thumb. She smelled of Noxzema and hair spray. After I lay down in my bed in the windowless nook next to the den, I often snuck back into Nanny’s room, drawing close to check that she was still breathing. She was a generation older than my friends’ grandmothers. My copy of Claudia and the Sad Good-bye, the Baby-Sitters Club book about the death of the protagonist’s beloved grandmother, Mimi, was my only guide for navigating the inevitable.

My parents and I moved to New Jersey in 1998, and Nanny took over the sofa bed in our new house about five years later. We both had senioritis: I was 18, and she was 86. I was filling out college applications as her health was declining, due largely to congestive heart failure. Claudia and the Sad Good-bye was still wedged between the more mature literature on my bookshelf the night an ambulance arrived at our house. Something was wrong with Nanny. “Bring the living will!” she yelled at Dad as the medics prepared to take her to the hospital. Mom stayed behind and tried to prepare me for the worst. In a big teenage mood, I sobbed as much to drown her out as from sadness. Nanny was not going to die that night if I had anything to do with it.

I didn’t, of course, but she lived anyway. My teenage hubris validated, I made a deal with Nanny: She just had to make it to my college graduation. In retrospect, it was a cringeworthy framing her chronic illness as a battle to be won or lost. Yet Nanny’s health improved. We had four more years of summer vacations, secrets, and frank discussions about politics and sexuality. Nanny watched me take my first dose of birth control, and she opposed the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion teachings long before I rejected them. She was the most open-minded adult in my culturally conservative young life, which isn’t to say she was perfect. Though she never used the N-word or its Italian-American stand-in, derived from the word for eggplant, she occasionally toggled between color-blind and coded racism, which I in turn absorbed. She believed that in his twenties my father had lost out on a job because of affirmative action, though in truth Dad probably wasn’t qualified for the position, with his two semesters of college and a life that revolved around hanging out in bars and on street corners, where the police never bothered him and his friends.

I wish Nanny and I had discussed the things we were wrong about and why. But there wouldn’t be time. Nanny’s lungs started filling with liquid during the last semester of my senior year of college. I brought my cap and gown home so we could re-create the graduation ceremony she was too weak to attend. She died five months later, on October 14, 2008.

I had dreaded Nanny’s death for so long that when it happened, it didn’t seem real. I never cried. Tears flowed from small disappointments in newsroom jobs and from bigger ones I dated in my early twenties. It was easier to feel gutted over someone I thought was my soul mate than to recognize that my soul mate had come and gone.


I knew that Nanny and her younger siblings shared secrets. I had caught the occasional whisper about abuse: physical, emotional, spiritual. Then, a few years after Nanny died, I learned that these dark memories had been committed to paper.

At my great-uncle Joey’s urging, his three sisters had joined him in writing testimonials about their childhood. Late in life, Joey left Catholicism for an evangelical church and gave the testimonials to a fellow parishioner, who in turn produced a short, spiral-bound book called “Bazaar [sic] but True.” Apparently, Joey believed I could do a better job with the story the book told. He approached my mom about it before I left for college. She told him it was too much for me then, but I’d tell the story eventually. Later, when I started a graduate program in creative nonfiction, my dad’s cousin Patricia gave me copies of the testimonials.

In looping, spindly script, the documents revealed that, while I may have been Nanny’s shadow, she also had a ghost. Nanny, whose real name was Genevieve “Jennie” Grimaldi, née Otranto, was haunted her whole life by the specter of Josephine Carbone, a woman as cruel as she was charismatic. Carbone was better known, to both her followers and her critics, as Reverend Mother.

Nanny and I had talked about everything else—why not this? I summoned a memory, a Turkish towel soaked with blood, an echo from a phone conversation in a nearby room. My childhood instinct had been to file away such things instead of asking Nanny about them. But even if I had asked, I don’t know that she would have had the heart to tell me the truth.

A decade after Nanny died, I quit my latest journalism job, in no small part to investigate what happened to the love of my life. The testimonials were the starting point. With government records and newspaper clippings, the memories of the few churchgoers who are still alive and the descendants of those who aren’t, I pieced together the narrative of Reverend Mother’s rise to power and her eventual downfall. I learned the stories of families who, like the Otrantos, were all but destroyed by La Cappella dei Miracoli. In studying the one chapter of my grandmother’s life she never shared with me, I found a sense of purpose.

Nanny may have been shielding me from her pain, but in doing so she also gave me a final gift. Her secret was my inheritance.

From top: Reverend Mother’s naturalization records; La Cappella dei Miracoli (courtesy Municipal Archives, City of New York); Jennie Otranto.

2.

Screams rose in Lucia Della Contrada’s throat the morning of February 3, 1886, as she labored to deliver a child. She had little to offer another son and even less to a daughter. Her husband, Antonio Stabile—pronounced “stah-bee-lay”—was a peasant farmer in Frasso Telesino, a small comune located some 25 miles and a world away from the greater Campania region’s capital city, Naples. Poor farmers like Antonio, known as contadini, rarely had land of their own—they worked the estates of absentee landlords.

Class resentment was flourishing in the new Kingdom of Italy, established in 1861, at the height of a bloody unification movement, the Risorgimento. Cooked up in the north, the Risorgimento compressed various sovereign entities into a kind of geographical forcemeat approximating the shape of a boot. The kingdom left a bad aftertaste in the hungry mouths of the Italian south, the Mezzogiorno often racialized and eroticized in popular culture. Some Europeans still whisper about their continent ending at Naples—“Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa,” the saying goes. Armed with calipers, the late 19th-century pseudoscientist Cesare Lombroso, who hailed from fair Verona, measured what he believed was an innate potential for delinquency in physical characteristics common to southern Italians. “Born criminal,” he declared.

This was the cold world that Lucia and Antonio’s child entered at nine o’clock that February morning. It was a girl. They named her Maria Giuseppa Stabile.

Vital records offer little more than proof of Maria’s existence. They are the stars in the constellation of a life, the shape of which I can only approximate. One record indicates that Maria grew up an only child. What happened to Vincenzo, born three and a half years before her, and Giovanna, who came along in 1889? A birth certificate can’t reveal whether Lucia scolded or comforted Maria through tummy aches from eating too many sun-warmed grapes, or whether Maria’s grandmothers—Clementina on papa’s side, Giuliana on mamma’s—ever sang her lullabies as lyrical as their names.

Maria was six when southern brigands rebelled against various municipalities and the national government that conspired to tax them into the ground. Perhaps Antonio and Lucia joined their ranks with homemade weapons. Almost certainly they prayed to God to get them through each day. Many contadini practiced a Catholic faith far removed from that of the gilded Vatican. For peasant women especially, spiritualism was an intimate source of agency, a venue for the quiet defiance of patriarchal institutions. Women built home altars that incorporated the Virgin Mary and the saints. Women laid their specific needs—bountiful harvests, rebel victories, healthy births, safe abortions—at the feet of the beatified, imitating their ancestors’ ritual offerings to pagan gods and goddesses. Many paintings and statues rendered the Virgin Mary with olive skin to match her supplicants’ hands. Some southern Italians worshipped La Madonna Nera (the Black Madonna).

The holy trinity of anti-authoritarianism, regionalism, and spiritualism would have influenced Maria as she grew up. She never went to school. In 1905, she wed Alfonso Baccanale, a neighboring farmer’s son, 25 to her 19. A stillbirth and an infant who died at three months followed. In 1909, the couple decided to sail to America. They joined the contadini pouring into Italy’s salt-flecked Mediterranean ports, eager to set out for Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. Poverty wages from laying tracks, digging coal, hemming pants, and hammering soles in the new world, these emigrants hoped, would amount to more than they’d ever reaped from the old.

The Baccanales’ union either didn’t survive the transatlantic journey or ended abruptly after, and what transpired doesn’t seem to have been a mutual parting of ways. When she later petitioned for American citizenship, Maria claimed that, after reaching the port of New York on September 30, 1909, she never lived with Alfonso. “Shortly after their arrival, she was informed by her father that Baccanale had returned to Italy,” her paperwork states. “She commenced to live with one Philip Carbone and in 1910 a child was born.”

Based on baby Caterina’s date of birth, Maria could have conceived her with Alfonso on their voyage from Italy, or immediately thereafter with Philip, who still went by Filippo in those days. Either way, Filippo gave the infant his last name, and he and Maria eventually married in a 1919 civil ceremony in Brooklyn. Maria Giuseppa Baccanale officially became Giuseppina Carbone without divorcing her first husband or disclosing his existence to Brooklyn’s deputy city clerk.

There was a sole witness at the wedding: Mildred Zollo. More than a name on a vital record, Mildred, whose mother was Sister Josephine Zollo, a Brooklyn preacher, stands as the first evidence that the new Mrs. Carbone had crossed another ocean, a spiritual one. She had left the folk Catholicism of southern Italy for Pentecostalism, an American creation she would soon transform into something uniquely her own.

Women laid their specific needs—bountiful harvests, rebel victories, healthy births, safe abortions—at the feet of the beatified, imitating their ancestors’ ritual offerings to pagan gods and goddesses.

How does a false prophet rise to power?

In 1919 Brooklyn, Giuseppina Carbone is another racially suspect “dark white” immigrant with empty pockets and waning faith in the indifferent-to-hostile ’merigan Catholic Church. The staid Irish priests don’t want to hear about mysticism—the nerve of these “guineas” to worship La Madonna Nera when everyone knows the Virgin Mary is as white as fresh Irish cream! Being southern Italian is the original sin that can’t be baptized away, even when Giuseppina and Filippo christen their two-year-old daughter at Our Lady of Loreto, the rare Brooklyn Catholic church built by and for Italian immigrants.

Filippo is a laborer making $1.50 a day. Like many immigrant women, Giuseppina takes on piecework, in her case paid by the buttonhole. At least she works from home rather than in a tinderbox of a factory. Not long ago, on a clear, cold day in March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 garment workers in Manhattan. Giuseppina resembles the mostly Italian and Jewish teenagers and young women who jumped to their deaths to escape the smoke or succumbed inside the factory’s locked doors, a so-called loss-prevention measure. She is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and just five feet tall. Her daughter may soon eclipse her. At almost nine years old, Caterina—“Catherine, Mamma!”—can read and write English, courtesy of P.S. 178.

Giuseppina cannot expect much from life, until she hears Sister Josephine Zollo’s Italian sermons wafting through the air as she walks home one day, or a neighbor eagerly repeats them to her. Giuseppina’s mother tongue cleanses her like a newborn kitten. Salvation, she is told, can be hers.

A Pentecostal awakening has been sweeping across America for a decade. In early April 1906, Brother William Joseph Seymour, the Catholic-reared son of formerly enslaved parents, moved his rapidly expanding prayer meetings into a run-down building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. By then, he and his followers were speaking in tongues—a sign, they believed, of internal salvation, or “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Seymour’s religious creation would be emulated, imitated, or appropriated, depending on who’s telling the story of its spread. In Chicago, Luigi Francescon and Pietro Ottolini spearheaded the world’s first Italian Pentecostal church, and before long the faith reached Brooklyn. Perhaps the promise of un miracolo drew Josephine Zollo to Brooklyn City Mission, a Pentecostal church in East New York. She had been ill before she first attended a service there in 1912. Whatever happened that day, Josephine’s health soon improved. She decided that the Lord had healed her body and saved her soul.

Unlike Catholics’ solemn sprinkling of water on screeching infants, Pentecostal baptisms are often public statements of faith, made by people old enough to prepare for them. In Sister Zollo’s church, these immersions occur in Jamaica Bay—believers are dipped backward into the estuary like ballroom dance partners.

When Giuseppina becomes an acolyte, Sister Zollo must push for her overdue marriage to Filippo, ten years after they got together. Cohabitation is worse than bigamy, given the circumstances. Judgment Day will surely end worse for Alfonso Baccanale, who had the nerve to strand his bride in a strange country, than for Giuseppina, who had the gumption to make sure someone was providing for her child. So off to the deputy city clerk the couple goes, with Sister Zollo’s daughter in tow.

Giuseppina’s Pentecostal faith is an empowering departure from the imperial rituals of Catholicism. There is no private confession with a priest prescribing three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers as a cure-all for carnal sin, while he does God knows what behind closed doors. Pentecostals emphasize a direct line of communication with the divine. Why pray to Mary or the saints when you can repent to Gesù himself?

No records will survive to indicate when Giuseppina begins preaching. Perhaps she starts small, testifying to the glory of God from her seat in Sister Zollo’s church. Perhaps Sister Zollo, recognizing Giuseppina’s talent, makes room for her at the pulpit, only to realize that she’s elevated a rival.

Giuseppina returns to Frasso Telesino with 13-year-old Catherine in 1923. On paper she attributes their five-month journey to visiting her parents. She would be wise to omit any mention of mission work to bolster the nascent Pentecostal movement in Italy. Sister Zollo brought her faith to several towns in southern Italy, in the lead-up to the persecution of Pentecostals under Italy’s Fascist government. Giuseppina may or may not have dared to spread the word of the Lord in the old country, but upon her return to America, she commits the rest of her life to it.

She abandons her piecework and begins preaching on street corners, including the intersection of Columbia and Woodhull, between Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, two Italian neighborhoods to the west of Sister Zollo’s territory. Catherine takes over her mother’s household duties, dropping out of school. Eventually, Giuseppina works her way up, which is to say indoors, securing a storefront on Hamilton Avenue and another building on Sackett Street where she can hold services.

She adopts a name befitting her new American religion, translating Giuseppina to Josephine, and her mission soon attracts followers. She becomes one of many so-called miracle workers who provide succor in the space between her acolytes’ reality and the myth of their American Dream. It is the heyday of spiritual icons and grifters. Evangelical phenom Aimee Semple McPherson allegedly fakes her own kidnapping. The International Peace Mission’s Father Divine proclaims himself the second coming, a Black Jesus Christ, and splits his time between advocating against segregation and for reparations, and allegedly draining his followers of their assets for his own financial gain.

As Josephine Carbone amasses her flock, reverence isn’t a guarantee. Among her congregants is Antonio DeVincenzo, a 35-year-old street sweeper, who attends services over the objections of his hot-tempered Catholic wife, Rosaria. One day, according to family lore, Rosaria chases Antonio out of the church with a rolling pin snatched from her tenement kitchen. Josephine presses a charge of disorderly conduct against 28-year-old Rosaria, demonstrating the lengths to which she’ll go to quash her critics. The local Standard Union provides perfunctory coverage of a court hearing held on September 21, 1927. “Magistrate Fish told the defendant religious freedom is a foundation stone of the American Government and if her husband wants to attend a mission [she] must not interfere in any way with the workers of the mission,” the paper states.

Four months later, in January 1928, one family’s tragedy will bless Josephine with good fortune. Rosina “the Saint” Licata ministers a version of folk Catholicism out of her Brooklyn tenement until a disgruntled follower shoots her dead on her homemade altar. Rose leaves behind five children, who will be shunted to various orphanages and relatives. Her death also leaves a gap in her neighborhood, Bensonhurst, where her spiritual influence once dominated.

Does Josephine recognize an opportunity after reading about Rosina’s death in the Brooklyn papers? Maybe, maybe not—but like Rosina, Josephine soon adopts an honorific nodding to Catholicism: She becomes Reverend Mother. By 1929, she’s rented another storefront, this one some 200 steps down 69th Street and across New Utrecht Avenue from where Licata had her humble mission. La Cappella dei Miracoli is born, in the same neighborhood where the Otranto family are making their way.


MY GRANDMOTHER WAS BORN IN AMERICA. But, at age 3, her family went to live in Italy. She came back at age 8, on August 25, 1925.

On the Luilio, the children became seasick from the swaying of the ship. My grandmother was one of those children. The cooks made pastina for them, but she couldn’t even eat that!

Once again in America, the Otranto family resided in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. My great-grandfather delivered ice for a living. They moved, but to a different area in Bensonhurst. And, eventually, 12 years ago, my grandmother moved to Staten Island. Now we are back to the present.

In this G-rated cut of her life, which Nanny dictated for my fifth-grade family-history homework, she edited out her personal pain. Here’s the story I wish I could submit to Mrs. Siomos, if she’s accepting extra credit in retirement: Between 1908 and 1926, my paternal great-grandmother, Serafina Acri Otranto, birthed at least eight children and raised the six who survived infancy. Louie, Al, Jennie, Gilda, Helen, and Joey wore their Americanized names like cornicello charms to ward off playground bullies. Serafina’s husband, Francesco, became Frank to the customers on his ice delivery route. Though America had perks, including indoor plumbing, the Otrantos must have longed for the embrace of their extended family and the ease of a familiar life in Rossano, their hometown in Calabria. “When it was time to do laundry, our mom would put a basketful on her head and with her children go to the river to wash her clothes,” my great-aunt Helen, who was born during one of her parents’ long visits to Italy, later wrote in her testimonial. “She would look for a large smooth stone to scrub the clothes on, then spread them on bushes to dry.… We would meet our cousins and it felt like we were on a picnic, even though all we had to eat was homemade bread and cheese.”

Bucolic nature scenes, however, couldn’t counter emerging political threats. A Fascist upstart named Benito Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister in October 1922. Intentional or not, Frank’s departure—his last—for the United States that month made a political statement. He’d filed his initial paperwork for citizenship years earlier, and he naturalized in June 1924, two months after the enactment of a xenophobic U.S. law that restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and effectively cut it off from Asia.

Serafina brought the children over on the Duilio—I misspelled the ship’s name on my homework—on August 25, 1925. America tried its damnedest to break the Otrantos. Icemen like Frank shouldered 100-pound blocks that bit through their coats in the winter and melted down their overalls in the summer. One slip on a damp staircase could end it all. Bensonhurst’s first-generation, scrape-kneed kids lingered near the cab of Frank’s truck, begging for free ice chips between sweaty rounds of kick the can. Their mothers struggled to keep them fed.

Serafina shopped for the day’s meals in between preparing them, morning, noon, and night, for her growing family. Perhaps she wanted a brood of children, or perhaps she hesitated to pay for an illegal abortion or contraceptives with money that was her husband’s. When Serafina wasn’t stationed at the stove or the sink, she and her daughters cleaned the four-family home that the Otrantos shared, presumably with strangers, in exchange for rent. Soon, Serafina’s arthritis and migraines intensified to the point that she needed one of her girls home at all times. “One week Gilda would go two days and I would go three days, and the next week Gilda would go three days and I would go two days,” Jennie wrote of her experience with school. “It was very rough on us.”

When Gilda contracted diphtheria, she somehow managed to quarantine from her siblings, despite the family living like sardines. Helen once saved Joey from drowning in a backyard wine barrel swollen with water—this after Joey nearly died from pneumonia three times before his first birthday. “My uncle started to clear out the front room for the wake, but God saved our little brother,” Gilda recalled of one such episode.

At some point, along came Serafina’s friend, extolling Reverend Mother’s powers. Serafina couldn’t force her teenagers, Louie and Al, to attend nightly services at La Cappella dei Miracoli, but she insisted that her four youngest go. To tenement kids, the church seemed like a playground at first. “It was a novelty, and we enjoyed the music and singing,” Helen wrote. Gilda especially liked the jingle of the tambourine and the peal of the triangle played by congregants during hymns. Services were so loud that neighbors sometimes griped about the racket. “The owner of the apartment house next door to the church complained that he was always losing tenants the way they yell and carry on in the church,” a police officer once reported.

But what seemed like merriment was really zeal, and what looked like participation was submission. The Otranto kids didn’t know it yet, but the music emanating from La Cappella dei Miracoli was a death knell: Once they heard it, their childhoods were over.

From top: A newspaper clipping about the death of Rosina Licata; Helen, Jennie, Gilda, Serafina, Joey, and Frank Otranto.

3.

The full believers of La Cappella dei Miracoli assembled each weeknight in wooden folding chairs, waiting for services to begin at 7:30. They stared at a painting, based on Matthew 14:22–34, when Jesus encourages Peter to walk on water. Peter takes a few promising steps before doubt weighs him down into the sea: “And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ ”

When Reverend Mother appeared before her flock, she wore white—only ever white. She read verses and delivered sermons from an elevated platform behind an altar rail. Her appearance and position left no doubt about her power: Here was a pure, fierce force fending off the storm of human folly that afflicted anyone who doubted her authority.

Sometimes she let her longtime chauffeur, a man named Sallustio Del Re, take the pulpit to preach. Other congregants testified to the miracles God had performed for them since they started attending La Cappella dei Miracoli. Maria “Christina” Tripi spoke again and again of how the Lord had cured her cancer. She was so grateful that she would raise three children, Phil, Charlie, and Sarah, in the church, while her sister Annie would become one of Reverend Mother’s most loyal associates. Throughout the 1930s until at least 1940, Annie once reported, she did “volunteer work, without pay, because the Lord did so many nice things for my family through the Reverend Mother’s prayers.” She added, “I sleep there all the time,” referring to Reverend Mother’s house.

Helen Sebastiani gave exuberant praise to Reverend Mother, who had sprung the young mother from Kings County Psychopathic Hospital in December 1930. She “did so much for me that I have been all right ever since,” Helen later swore to authorities. “I have never been sick a day.” Helen and her husband, Louis, brought their two young sons, Gaetano and Eugene, to services, and they gave $800 to Reverend Mother in 1932. Other acolytes included Salvatore and Mamie Molinari, whose son Salvatore Jr. was Gaetano Sebastiani’s close friend.

Anna Grasso and her younger sisters, Mary, Josephine, and Rose, attended the church over the objections of their elder brothers, Santo and Peter, who owned a bakery on Fort Hamilton Parkway. The Grasso brothers were rumored to keep their sisters off the bakery payroll, lest their wages support the church. In lieu of giving tithes, Anna volunteered her services as the church’s secretary and even lived with Reverend Mother for a year after her own mother died, returning home only when her widowed father fell ill.

At services, after expressing their gratitude, the church’s congregation would sing. “Il Signore con Noi Dimore” (The Lord Dwells with Us) was Reverend Mother’s favorite song. Gilda and Jennie Otranto took turns at the piano. There was a youth choir and band, with Helen Otranto initially on the double bass and later on the cello, and the Tripi children on the trombone, drums, and clarinet. Eventually, music gave way to silent prayer. By the time it was all over, three hours had passed. It was time to go home and prepare to do it all again the next evening. Frank and Serafina could hardly wait for the next worship. They usually lingered at church well after services ended. Joey would fall asleep in his mother’s lap.

Church consumed entire weekends. Members of the children’s band practiced at 10 a.m. before they attended Sunday school at 1 p.m., followed by a 3 p.m. service that bled into the night. Special occasions demanded even more time from Reverend Mother’s congregation. Christmas brought the production of The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ: A Play in 12 Parts, “written, composed, copyrighted in 1934 by Rev. Josephine Carbone, ruling elder,” now archived at the Library of Congress. What hubris it took to copyright a story lifted straight out of the Bible. In another era, with her confidence, Reverend Mother might have been a televangelist or religious Instagram influencer. Or maybe she had the foresight to recognize that history would not remember her the way it would a national figure like Aimee Semple McPherson; she committed her name to the page so that there would always be evidence of who she was and the power she wielded.

The play’s first act depicts the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive the son of God. But the miracolo of Christ’s birth dims in the final act, with King Herod ordering the murder of all children under the age of two. “The weeping of the mothers and the massacre of the innocents,” reads the final line of the script—a stage direction perhaps intended to prompt wails from the audience at La Cappella dei Miracoli. Reverend Mother never failed to extract reverence from pain and fear.

What hubris it took to copyright a story lifted straight out of the Bible. In another era, with her confidence, Reverend Mother might have been a televangelist or religious Instagram influencer.

The younger Otranto kids had a small collection of toys, given to them by their brother Louie, who’d played Santa Claus one Christmas. They particularly loved the tiny electric stove, manufactured decades before the Easy-Bake Oven topped kids’ holiday wish lists. “We would cut up an apple, put some sugar on it, and bake it, it was really fun for us,” Gilda wrote in her testimonial. But Reverend Mother expected even her youngest followers to make sacrifices—giving up everything that made them happy was a matter of salvation. “I don’t think we had those toys for a whole year because when we started to go to church, we couldn’t play with them anymore,” Gilda wrote. “One day my aunt from Newark came to visit us with her children, they were a little younger than us, my mother gave them all our toys, we were heartbroken but we didn’t say a thing.”

Deprivation went hand in hand with isolation. “Once we entered, we could not leave,” Jennie wrote of La Capella dei Miracoli. “We were also told to disassociate ourselves from our friends and relatives who were not members of our church.” Gilda later dictated a family tree to her niece Patricia. “Church kept these cousins apart,” Pat scrawled under one branch. La Cappella dei Miracoli also created an ugly rift in the nuclear Otranto family. Louie and Al refused to attend services. “One night we came home from church and found my two older brothers playing cards with some of their friends,” Gilda wrote. “Well! My father took the cards and threw them away and told their friends to leave. From then on, we weren’t a family anymore, my two older brothers didn’t want any part of this religion. In my father’s eyes they were sinners, and they were only in their teens.”

By the mid-1930s, Louie and Al had moved into a furnished room, which would become a refuge for their younger siblings. Each had their own sad story. Joey watched other children playing schoolyard games and sometimes got up the nerve to join them, even though he couldn’t follow their conversations about the secular radio programs and movies that were now forbidden in his life. At least once, a church member spotted Joey playing and reported him to Reverend Mother. “After the service she would call me up to her and I would get beaten by her,” Joey wrote. “One time she had asked my father to make a good sturdy strap for her. My father cut a broomstick and cut leather straps about ½-inch wide nailed to the broomstick. I got hit once with it and never touched a ball again.”

Some nights, as Frank drove the family to services, Joey whined for his parents to turn the car around. He would pretend that he’d forgotten to eat—surely he couldn’t attend church on an empty stomach. The excuse never worked, particularly after he started the second grade and “promised God to fast” each Tuesday and Thursday, on Reverend Mother’s orders. “I remember coming home at lunch time begging my mother to give me something to eat,” he wrote. His hunger distracted him from his spelling tests and multiplication tables, but Reverend Mother expected him to give thanks for the ordeal. After school, Joey would kneel on his family’s newspaper-covered floor to say his prayers and “spit to cleanse his soul.”

Joey instigated little rebellions that Reverend Mother always managed to put down. Frustrated after a nightly service, he kicked the tires of her parallel-parked car on Sackett Street. Someone informed her of the transgression. “She came out in a rage, took my hand, and brought me back in the church and slapped my face in front of my parents,” Joey wrote. Sometimes Reverend Mother invented more creative punishments for the little boy. “She would ask her chauffeur to go down in the basement and get the dogs loose,” Joey recalled. “She would take me by the hand and pretend to throw me down the stairs to the dogs. It was the chauffeur who did the howling.”

By contrast, Joey’s sisters obeyed orders at any cost. Reverend Mother put her congregation’s young girls on guard duty after vandals broke into the church and ransacked it. Helen and Gilda got the most shifts. They slept on the floor until Gilda felt the claws of a rat dig into her blanket. The girls pushed chairs together to form makeshift beds and, they hoped, a barrier against vermin. “[We] were told to keep a stick or a bat near us for protection,” Helen wrote. “Can you imagine if someone had broken in? I don’t think we would be in one piece today.”

Helen watched her classmates eat lunch in the school cafeteria on the days that she, like Joey, had to fast. “How I would have relished having a cup of soup,” she wrote. Reverend Mother objected to Helen getting new shoes and clothes for school ceremonies: “She became very angry and asked, ‘Without my permission?’ ” When Helen reached the tenth grade at New Utrecht High School, Reverend Mother insisted that she quit and go to work in a sweatshop. A truant officer overrode Reverend Mother’s command, and Helen returned to school in accordance with the law. “Can you imagine how I felt when I walked into the classroom after having missed a few months?” Helen wrote. “All eyes were upon me, especially when the teacher made a speech about kids who leave school.” After Helen’s next birthday, she was ordered to go back to work: “Of course the little that I earned had to be turned over to Reverend Mother.”

Gilda only made it to the ninth grade. After that she babysat for a fellow parishioner who did Reverend Mother’s bidding and looked after her own mother. Serafina’s arthritis had flared up again after several years of relief. “Her knees were swollen and she couldn’t wear shoes, she was laid up in bed for a long time,” Gilda wrote. “Naturally she was told she must have sinned for God to punish her so!” Gilda had to stop caring for her mother when, one day, the church’s heater broke. Reverend Mother claimed that she needed money more than ever. “She told everyone to go to work, and give her their salaries so she could pay for the new furnace,” Gilda wrote. That’s what Gilda did, joining other young women in sewing dresses. Even Joey handed over to Reverend Mother the dollar or so per day he earned selling bananas out of his homemade cart, a converted baby carriage, during summer breaks from school.

Of course, not everyone had to make money for the church. There were congregants who served Reverend Mother in other ways. One of them was Jennie.

“My mother told the Reverend that she gave one daughter to God”—that’s how Gilda described her sister’s indenture, which began around 1930, a year or two after the Otrantos joined the church. What was Jennie worth, I wonder now: Un miracolo a month, or a year? What did Serafina think when her joints continued to swell despite her daughter’s servitude? Reverend Mother’s only documented ability was her power of persuasion, confirmed by the account of the girl who would grow up to be my grandmother.


Jennie cleaned the single-family home where Reverend Mother lived. Filippo, Reverend Mother’s husband, had ceased to matter in her life, financially or otherwise. He rarely attended La Cappella dei Miracoli. By 1940, he split his time between his wife’s finished attic and the tenement where their daughter, Catherine, lived. When Filippo died of heart failure the following year, Reverend Mother threw him in a charity grave with six strangers.

Sallustio Del Re, Reverend Mother’s live-in chauffeur, was 13 years her junior and may have moonlighted as her lover. “She and her chauffeur would be out all day and with the little money that she left I would manage to prepare a decent meal for them,” Jennie wrote. “They would sit down to eat and never asked me to join them. I would just stand there and watch. When they were through, she would tell me to eat the little, if any, that was left over.” Jennie then watched Sallustio and Reverend Mother ascend the stairs to go to bed.

His intimacy with Reverend Mother, coupled with his sex, meant that Sallustio had power over Jennie. She could neither consent to nor deny him. Once, Jennie wrote, he “came over to me and touched my breast over my clothes.” She didn’t specify her age when the incident happened. I imagine her body stiffening in the dining room chair where she sat, typing up documents for Reverend Mother. Eventually Sallustio left the room without a word. My grandmother confessed to Reverend Mother what had happened, as if it were somehow her fault. “Because of the way we were conditioned, I thought it would be better to tell her,” Jennie wrote.

Reporting Sallustio’s assault made Reverend Mother “very angry with him,” and she “wouldn’t let it go.” But whatever Reverend Mother said or did to Sallustio only led him to retaliate against Jennie. Helen Sebastiani, forever grateful to Reverend Mother for orchestrating her release from Kings County Psychopathic Hospital, happened to be helping with chores the day Sallustio stormed in to the house in search of Jennie. He ran up the stairs to the second floor, shouting, “Where is she? I am going to kill her.” Helen rushed Jennie out of the house. “Run for your life!” Helen said.

I imagine Jennie taking off “like a bat out of hell,” one of Nanny’s favorite expressions from my childhood. She reached the opposite side of the street just as Reverend Mother emerged from a strange car, driven by someone who wasn’t her chauffeur. Jennie guessed that Sallustio and Reverend Mother had argued, and that he’d left her “God knows where” to make her own way home. Once she arrived, Jennie wrote, “she then rushed up the stairs in a huff.”

It was 4 p.m. With nowhere to go, Jennie wandered the streets of South Brooklyn until La Cappella dei Miracoli’s evening service. When she turned up there, Reverend Mother fired her on the spot. “That night I was dismissed from her home and also from playing the [church] piano,” Jennie wrote. “I felt like an outcast, especially when members of the church, not knowing the truth, sort of shunned me. My mother was concerned and asked Reverend Mother what had happened. She told her I had made a terrible mistake on a check. Of course that was a lie.”

The lie, at least, let Jennie go home, but only for a while. Like Reverend Mother’s miracoli, her freedom was an illusion.

Clockwise from top left: Jennie Otranto; signed incorporation papers for La Cappella dei Miracoli; the Molinari family, with Salvatore Jr. seated far left (courtesy Marie Brown Bradley).

4.

I once chased down Barbara Walters for Nanny.

It was 2006, and I was a junior in college, interning three days a week as a congressional reporter. That November, I attended the annual awards dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists, hosted in New York City. Belying the unglamorous reality of shoe-leather reporting, I borrowed a plunging black dress from a friend and rimmed my eyes in liner. The well-heeled audience included Walters, resplendent in red. The veteran newscaster had by then inflicted the blight of The View on the media discourse. Still, I wanted to meet her for old time’s sake, for all those nights Nanny and I cuddled in the sofa bed while I imagined myself as the one asking the questions and churning out scoops on 20/20.

I caught Walters on her way out of the dinner and asked to take a photo together.

“Quick,” was all she said.

“Quick,” Nanny repeated to her sisters on the phone. Her face wrinkled even further with laughter while mimicking Walters’s indifference toward me. Nanny would only live two more years. She devoted a not insignificant portion of the time she had left to dining out on that story.

When I showed up at Aunt Gilda’s retirement community with my recorder, on July 14, 2013, Nanny had been gone for almost five years, Helen and Joey for six. Only 94-year-old Gilda lived long enough for me to ask her the questions I wish I’d been able to ask Nanny.

Macular degeneration had reduced my great-aunt’s sight by the time I visited. Before my arrival, she’d relied on muscle memory to fold strips of dough around preserves and nuts. Her rugelach tasted just like Nanny’s, because the Otranto sisters shared recipes and secrets.

“I never talked so much,” Gilda told me at one point.

“You’re going to talk enough today to last you the whole week, Aunt Gilda,” I replied.

Gilda’s memories remained sharp on my second visit, even if she struggled to put them into words as coherently as she had a year earlier. She described how in the early years of the church Reverend Mother broke off the engagement between Annie Tripi, who would become Gilda’s aunt by marriage, and Sallustio Del Re. “If you’re going to be my chauffeur,” Reverend Mother asked Sallustio, “how are you going to get married?” He never did. Neither did Annie.

I forgot this particular act of selfishness until well after Gilda died in 2015. That’s how it goes with this story. I’ve amassed hundreds of pages of research on Reverend Mother and La Cappella dei Miracoli: interview transcripts, marriage licenses, death certificates, immigration files, newspaper articles, court records, and deeds. Each time I revisit them a new cruelty jumps out, like a firefly suddenly lighting up before my eyes.

Quick, I tell myself—write it down. Don’t let it get away.


With her church thriving, in 1932 Reverend Mother renewed her lease in Bensonhurst for five years. Her landlord let her remodel the storefront into a proper chapel, complete with a new pitched brick roof. In a photo taken in 1940, a cross pierces the clouds in the sky over South Brooklyn, and gesù salva glares across the horizontal beam in what looks to be neon—a promise of salvation in place of Christ’s dead weight.

A handful of church members gathered in the retrofitted space on June 12, 1934. They voted to incorporate La Cappella dei Miracoli Pentecosta in accordance with New York State law. Reverend Mother became the “ruling elder,” the presiding officer, and one of three initial trustees, alongside Sallustio and Anna Grasso, the secretary, who presumably typed up the church’s constitution and bylaws—ten pages in all.

Behind the church’s new facade and legal status, coercion and abuse continued unabated. “From what my mother told me—and she hated to talk about it, because the memories made her very sad—her stepfather joined this ‘crazy’ church and the woman in charge made them do all sorts of weird things,” Linda Santo, a retired librarian, wrote to me in an email, after I’d traced her family tree from the 1930s to the present. Linda’s grandmother, Luisa, suffered from a variety of kidney and heart ailments, but her second husband, Joseph Mortale, refused any help outside of Reverend Mother’s purported healing abilities. “Luisa got very sick, and someone at the church told Joseph that he could not take her to the doctor,” Linda said. By the time Luisa checked into Kings County Hospital, it was too late. She died on November 2, 1934, at the age of 39.

Joseph’s loss did not shake his faith in Reverend Mother. Indeed, his loyalty would be rewarded within the next couple of years, when Reverend Mother made him a trustee of the church. But Joseph and Luisa’s son, Vinny, continued to suffer. “Because of the church, Joseph beat Vincent quite often and made his life miserable,” Linda Santo said.

For the celebration of her 50th birthday in 1936, Reverend Mother insisted that her church’s youth choir indulge in secular song lyrics usually forbidden to her parishioners. The words and melody would eventually make their way to Bing Crosby’s lips: “I love you truly, truly dear.” But the object of the choir’s affection wasn’t clear enough for Reverend Mother, my great-uncle Joey would later recall: “She interrupted in a rage and told the director to change the title to ‘We Love You Mother, Mother Dear.’” The following year, Reverend Mother bought herself a belated 50th birthday present: the building that housed her church. She put down $2,000 in cash.

Reverend Mother always got what she wanted, even if it required conning members of her flock. My great-grandfather Frank once needed money so badly for his family that he asked an uncle to sell a piece of property for him in Italy. Despite his situation, he gave a “big chunk” of the profit to Reverend Mother, according to Jennie. But Reverend Mother wanted more—she always wanted more. “Being greedy and never satisfied,” my grandmother wrote, “she told me to ask my father for some money for myself so that I could hand it over to her.”

At some point Reverend Mother began appearing on the radio: To listeners of Brooklyn’s WVFW and WCNW stations, where she broadcast sermons and music every weekend, Reverend Mother was La Maria Maddalena dell’Aria (the Mary Magdalene of the Air). At least once, she staged a tent revival. It took place at the corner of 26th and Harway Avenues, near Coney Island. “We attended services every night without bathroom facilities. Whenever anyone had to relieve themselves, they would go to the back of the tent, in the field,” Joey wrote. His memory placed the revival in 1937, but it must have been the summer of ’38, during a historic storm that walloped southern New England and Long Island. Brooklyn suffered, too. “One evening at the start of the service,” Joey wrote, “a hurricane developed with high winds, [and] the entire congregation was told to grab part of the tent and hold it down.”

Reverend Mother may have fancied herself the church, but without her full believers she would have nothing. The persona and institution she’d built would collapse like a tent in a storm.

Reverend Mother always got what she wanted, even if it required conning members of her flock.

How does a false prophet fall from grace?

It’s early fall 1938. The lingering summer humidity isn’t quite as sticky as the dough that Angelo Nicosia kneads with his bare hands. Angelo’s bakery sells semolina twists and brick-oven baguettes to Bensonhurst’s first-generation Italian mothers. Reverend Mother shares his customers’ tastes, so every night Angelo delivers a fresh loaf to La Cappella dei Miracoli. The church is three avenues over from his bakery, which is on the ground floor of a building that Angelo owns. To Reverend Mother, he must smell like money and yeast. That’s how the trouble between them begins.

Angelo turned to the church after his wife, Michelina, died in April. Michelina once attended services there, and her death recommitted Angelo, the kind of gentle soul who collects and cares for stray animals, to a place where he believes miracoli can happen. One night at church, Jennie Otranto watches a conversation between Reverend Mother and Angelo turn to the subject of his life insurance policy. Jennie predicts the money will soon end up in Reverend Mother’s hands.

In Angelo’s telling, Reverend Mother warns him that he must remarry—otherwise the 59-year-old widower will die as his wife did, “from the bad spirits.” Reverend Mother says she’s already picked out a prospective bride for him: Helen Sebastiani, Jennie’s one-time savior from a vengeful Sallustio Del Re. Helen is now a 37-year-old widow. Her husband, Louis, died a year ago in a Queens psychiatric facility. Helen’s 12-year-old son, Eugene, has been upstate in Letchworth Village—a home for “the segregation of [the] epileptic and feeble-minded”—since he was 10. Thirteen-year-old Gaetano remains at home with Helen, in their flat two blocks over from the church.

Angelo needs to put down a deposit for his bride-to-be, proving to Reverend Mother that he’s in a position to be married again. Besides his home and business, all Angelo has to his name is that life insurance policy, worth $2,000. Reverend Mother instructs her secretary, Anna Grasso, to pretend to be Angelo’s daughter on a visit to the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company. Together, Anna and Angelo work with the underwriters to cash out half the policy, at a reduced sum of $294.72. They bring the money to Reverend Mother. Go back and get more, she tells them. So they do, and by the end of October, they’ve presented Reverend Mother with a total of $557.01.

It’s too little, too late. Reverend Mother tells Angelo that the “bad spirits” have already taken hold of him. He’s not ready to marry Helen, she says. And she won’t return his money.

Angelo only appears to be an easy mark. The Otranto siblings will later say that Angelo’s grown children, who do not belong to La Cappella dei Miracoli, insist that their father press charges against Reverend Mother. Eventually, he heads down to the 62nd Precinct and meets with detective John Aloysius Cassidy, born into a bustling Irish-American family living a dozen or so doors down from La Cappella dei Miracoli. Cassidy’s mother, Margaret, a founding member of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a local Catholic church, may have shooed her children away from the neighborhood curiosity.

“I wanted to marry Helen because the Reverend Mother told me [to],” Angelo swears to authorities. “I finally got wise.” An indictment follows, alleging that “by trick and device and by aid of false pretenses and misrepresentations,” Reverend Mother stole Angelo’s money.

Reverend Mother tries to talk her way out of the situation, claiming that Angelo volunteered the cash for the church’s mortgage. “He came to tell me [he] had it in his heart to donate $400 for a payment on the church. He continued to say that he had an insurance policy and he was going to take that money,” Reverend Mother tells authorities. “I told him to do what he pleased to make the Lord bless him.” She adds, “I never promised to get him a wife.”

Detective Cassidy arrests Reverend Mother for grand larceny in May 1939. Dressed in her trademark white when it happens, she must seem like a fallen angel. She posts her $1,500 bail, either from her coffer of tithes or from an emergency collection.

For her part, Helen Sebastiani tells investigators she’s never spoken to Reverend Mother‚ much less Angelo, about marriage. Helen also affirms her devotion to the defendant. “I never received any pay from Mother for my work; I did it for pleasure for what I had received from the Lord,” Helen says. “As soon as she comes out I will go back to her again.” Helen’s loyalty is a hallmark of Reverend Mother’s congregation, which investigators refer to as a “cult” in their report on the case. “The members … believe that many miracles of ‘cure’ have been performed by the Lord through the prayers of the Reverend Mother Carbone,” the report states. “It is apparent that they are, for the most part, simple minded Italians, and, in some instances, their abnormal psychological trends have been sublimated into religious fanaticism until now they are completely under the domination of the Reverend Mother.”

The jury convicts her on January 30, 1940. Newspapers across the country pick up a United Press wire story and truncate it for their audiences. Readers in Austin, Texas, wake up the next morning to the headline “Miracle Fails Reverend Mother.” In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it’s simply “Miracle Fails.” Reverend Mother awaits sentencing in the New York Women’s House of Detention. She considers herself a martyr, the Joan of Arc of the House of D. At her behest, her followers travel from Brooklyn into Manhattan. They gather across the street from the prison and wait for her to wave a handkerchief, according to Joey Otranto. Hours pass. Without access to a bathroom, some parishioners resort to urinating on the steps of a neighboring apartment building.

The day of her sentencing, March 6, Reverend Mother protects her assets. She sells her eight-room house for $100 to Harry Brody, one of the two attorneys on her defense team, in the presence of Anna Grasso. It turns out to be an unnecessary step, because Judge Edwin L. Garvin implements the jury’s recommendation for leniency. In one breath, he lays out a prison term of three to ten years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. In the next, he suspends Reverend Mother’s sentence—“on condition that she behave herself in the future and that she make restitution of the stolen money,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle—and places her on probation.

Reverend Mother’s brief cycle through the criminal justice system neither reforms her nor protects her victims, including 22-year-old Jennie Otranto. “When she came out of the court,” Jennie will later write, “she asked me to go home with her to resume my former duties.”

Jennie has never been able to say no to her abuser, so her unpaid servitude begins anew. She gets in Reverend Mother’s car, with Sallustio at the wheel. They drive to South Brooklyn, and Reverend Mother asks Sallustio to pull over about a block from her house. She worries Angelo’s children may be waiting for her. Go and investigate inside and out, she tells Jennie.

Jennie does as she’s told. Inside the house, incense stings her nostrils like a backhand to the face. Room by room she navigates a hodgepodge of secondhand furniture, looking for hidden threats. It takes time—the home is large, according to Reverend Mother’s probation file:

The first floor consists of reception and living rooms; the second floor is the suite of the Reverend Mother, consisting of bedroom, sitting room, retiring room where “Mother” goes alone to pray, office, and bath. Mr. Carbone and Mr. Del Re occupy two finished rooms in the attic, and the maids are relegated to rooms in the basement. A modern kitchen, beautifully equipped with all the latest electrical devices, completes the ensemble. A large brick garage is in the rear and the grounds are landscaped and exceptionally well cared for.

Reverend Mother and Sallustio remain safely in the car, entering the house only after Jennie gives them the all clear: There are no intruders to fear.

That night, Jennie assumes a familiar position: She curls up to sleep in her clothes, using her coat as a blanket. “She saw me lying on the floor,” Jennie will later say of Reverend Mother, “and said nothing.”

Clockwise from top left: An ad for Reverend Mother’s radio program; Luisa Mortale (courtesy Linda Santo); Angelo Nicosia (courtesy Marie Abbate Schmelz).

5.

The larceny conviction didn’t end Reverend Mother’s career, but in retrospect it was the first step in her church’s demise. The downfall happened in fits and starts, over many years, with the loss of one follower, then another, to defection or death. Nanny and her siblings wrote down their stories, in their own words. Most parishioners did not. Some were never able to.

Among them was Gaetano, Helen Sebastiani’s older son. His stomach pains began on April 7, 1941. “Since the minister did not believe in doctors,” my great-aunt Helen wrote in her testimonial, “no one was called.” Two days later, Gaetano was rushed to the hospital. The toxins leaching from his burst appendix into his blood would take another two days to kill him. The condition should not have been a death sentence, even back then, but the attending physician nevertheless concluded that Gaetano’s death did not occur “in any suspicious or unusual manner.”

Gaetano died when he was 16, but he must have been small for his age: In a rare oversight, Aunt Helen wrote in her testimonial that he was just 12 or 13. With no direct descendants, for 79 years he remained little more than a name on a death certificate. But in life he was so much more.

“Gaetano was my friend,” 89-year-old Salvatore Molinari Jr. said into the phone, his voice cracking on the last word like a tooth on an olive pit. “We were best friends.” Junior called me at the height of a record-breaking pandemic-summer heat wave that stretched some 1,400 miles between our homes in Texas and Washington, D.C. He was responding to a letter I’d sent him after finding his father’s signature as a witness on the 1934 paperwork incorporating La Cappella de Miracoli. Salvatore Sr. couldn’t read or write in English back then; he and his wife, Mamie, would only learn the language once Junior, who was three when the church was incorporated, and their other kids brought it home from school like leftover snacks. “I don’t know if he was coerced into doing that or what,” Junior said of his father’s signature. Whatever the case, Salvatore must have felt some spiritual pull toward the church: He soon became a trustee.

In our conversation, I expected to hear more stories about Junior’s family, but instead he spoke at length about Gaetano.

The Molinaris and the Sebastianis lived in the same building on 67th Street, right near the church. Despite a more than six-year age gap, Junior and Gaetano played together every day. Perhaps Gaetano viewed Junior as a surrogate sibling while his younger brother languished at Letchworth Village. “Kick the can was his favorite,” Junior said of the games they used to play. When it was his turn, Gaetano would stand next to the can—an empty pail, perhaps, rescued from the trash—and count with his eyes closed while the other kids scattered. When he finished counting, he left his post to “go seek,” either tagging his friends or racing them as they attempted to kick the can.

“And then one day,” Junior said, “somebody, I forget who it was, came over and told me that he had passed away. And I could never understand that. I couldn’t figure out why.”

“What did he look like?” I asked.

“He needed a haircut,” Junior said with a laugh. “Just a good-looking kid. That’s all.”

As far as Junior could recall, unlike my great-grandparents, Salvatore and Mamie Molinari never pulled him or their other children out of school, never put them to work to fund the church’s new furnace or its minister’s lifestyle. Salvatore’s construction wages hovered near the poverty line when he wasn’t out of a job, so Mamie took on piecework; Junior and his siblings helped her sew straps onto brassieres. Still, they wanted for nothing. The Molinari kids were allowed to keep their Christmas toys. “As a matter of fact, the first Christmas present I remember getting—I think I was about seven or eight years old—was a tin airplane,” Junior told me. “That’s all I remember.”

Junior repeatedly underestimated how much he had to say before telling me another story.

“Well,” he said, “I do remember the church.” Salvatore and Mamie usually arrived early enough for Junior to mingle with other children before services. His parents called Reverend Mother “Mamma.” Worship dragged on, and Junior didn’t understand much of it. “But other than that, I don’t know what I have to offer you,” he told me.

His parents left the church when Junior was between ten and twelve years old. My great-aunt Gilda remembered it as an abrupt exit: “All of a sudden, I guess they got disgusted. They didn’t tell anybody. They just moved away.” It happened around the time Gaetano died. Maybe what Reverend Mother did to hasten the boy’s death served as a reality check for the Molinaris. “They made sure that when they moved, nobody knew their new address. I know that,” Junior said.

“Was that because they were afraid of Reverend Mother finding them or—”

“Yes. Yes,” Junior said. “My father probably didn’t know what he was getting into in that church. And how he got from the Catholic religion to that church, I don’t know, but I know that once they got tired of it all, they got away from it.” After that, he said, they were “really happy.”

I assumed that, like the Molinaris, Helen Sebastiani left the church after she buried Gaetano in April 1941—how could she not? But Reverend Mother’s probation file, which provides five years’ worth of information about her post-conviction whereabouts and activities, mentions her “maid” Helen working into 1944. The same year, 18-year-old Eugene Sebastiani, once again living with his mother, registered for the draft. When asked to list a “person who will always know your address,” Eugene wrote “Mrs. Josephine Carbone (grandmother),” though they did not share blood. Whatever power Reverend Mother held over Eugene appeared to have loosened by 1950, when a Roman Catholic priest officiated the young man’s wedding.

Helen died six years later. Did she ever leave the church? Did she find peace? She’s buried with her husband and Gaetano; decades later, Eugene’s remains would be interred on Hart Island, New York’s infamous potter’s field. Helen’s great-niece by marriage Cindy McDonald, née Sebastian, the Americanized version of the family name, told me she knows very little about that branch of her kin. “Helen and the others who were harmed by ‘Reverend Mother,’”  Cindy wrote in an email, “deserve to have their story told.

With no direct descendants, for 79 years Gaetano remained little more than a name on a death certificate. But in life he was so much more.

As the Otranto kids grew up, they made their way out of the church one by one. The girls, paradoxically, found freedom in a traditionally patriarchal institution: marriage.

Gilda and another congregant, Charlie Tripi, always “sorta liked each other,” my great-aunt told me. But Reverend Mother policed their budding bond. One night, Sallustio Del Re told his employer that he’d seen Gilda and Charlie talking outside the church. They were in a group of friends, but that didn’t make any difference. “She called me in and gave me such a slap in the face, in front of everybody,” Gilda recalled.

Charlie stopped regularly attending services around age 16 and “sowed his wild oats,” as Gilda put it. “He had sex,” she added, to remove any doubt about her meaning. Then Charlie joined the army and went to basic training in Maryland. “He used to come home every weekend, and one weekend he came to church and he saw me,” Gilda said. “I had cut my hair, I had a permanent. I looked a little different. So he wrote me a letter to say that I looked beautiful, that someday we [were] going to get together.” When Reverend Mother heard about the letter—because she heard about everything—she demanded that Gilda give it to her. “She took it from me. She took the letter,” Gilda said, tapping her fingers one, two, three, four, five times on her kitchen table. “But you know what I did before I gave it to her? I rewrote it.” She gave Reverend Mother the original and kept the copy.

Charlie asked Gilda to marry him on her 24th birthday in January 1943. Gilda said yes, and Reverend Mother didn’t stand in the couple’s way. In fact, the engagement came with a gift, if you can call it that.

“That’s when she told me, ‘Keep your money,’ ” Gilda said.

“Who said that?” I asked.

“The big cheese!”

Before that, Gilda explained, she’d given Reverend Mother “every penny” she earned.

With Reverend Mother’s knowledge, the couple married right away at City Hall so Gilda could start collecting a $50 monthly government stipend given to the wives of World War II servicemen. They had a second wedding at La Cappella dei Miracoli the following June, followed by a small reception at Charlie’s mother’s house and a honeymoon in Niagara Falls.

When Charlie deployed to fight in World War II, Gilda initially turned to La Cappella dei Miracoli to get her through the nights spent at home alone, worrying. But she didn’t last long. One day Joey asked her to go with him to give a girl he liked a wristwatch. The girl’s name was Tessie, and she and her two younger sisters went to the church, too. Neither Joey nor Gilda told Reverend Mother about this overture, but Tessie must have reported it. “She called me up and she bawled me out,” Gilda said, stretching her vowels for effect. “I let her talk and let her talk. And I said to myself, This is it. I never went back to church.”

My great-aunt Helen decided she’d had enough that same year, when she was 21. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” she wrote in her testimonial. “We were told that if we left the church, we would go straight to hell.… At this point, I didn’t care.” But her parents, Frank and Serafina, were still entrenched. When Helen decided not to attend services one night, they demanded to know why. “When my father questioned me after realizing I wasn’t getting ready to go to church, I told him I didn’t want to go anymore. He immediately raised his hands to give me a beating,” Helen wrote. “The second time it happened, my youngest brother, Joe, was prepared and held his hands back which enabled me to run out of the house.”

Helen forgot to take her winter coat. She would have trembled from nerves and the November cold en route to her elder brothers’ apartment. Al and Louie weren’t there, so she turned around. There was Joey, pedaling down the street in search of his sister, carrying her coat in case he found her. “He encouraged me to go back to the house and told me the coast was clear,” Helen wrote. “My father was then advised to leave me alone. For a short while things were sort of peaceful.”

Enter Annie Tripi, Charlie’s aunt, who remained devoted to La Cappella dei Miracoli despite Reverend Mother forbidding her engagement to Sallustio. By the early 1940s, Annie was working in a dress factory, and she called to offer Aunt Helen some clothing. “I asked her to come to my home with the dresses, but she insisted I go to hers,” Helen wrote. Annie lived with her parents, including her father, who at one time was a church trustee, directly opposite from La Cappella dei Miracoli. “I can’t believe how naive I was to believe her,” Helen wrote. “Of course she was setting a trap.”

As soon as Helen arrived, Reverend Mother walked into the room. She asked why Helen wasn’t attending church, to which Helen replied that it was too strict. “She took a scarf from the dresser and stuck it into my mouth, so as to muff[le] the cries and/or the screams,” Helen wrote. “She proceeded to slap me back and forth very hard on my face. She then told me to go across the street to church. The next day my face was very badly bruised with two black eyes. I was not able to go to work for a few days.”

It was the last time Reverend Mother hit her, because Helen was done with the church. She married Phil, Charlie Tripi’s mild-mannered younger brother, in 1944, holding the ceremony at La Cappella dei Miracoli only to appease her parents. Serafina and Frank attended the nuptials, which Reverend Mother officiated, but skipped the secular reception.

As for Joey, his older brothers stepped in. “This one evening in 1941 my brothers asked me if I had any intentions of leaving the church. I said it was impossible,” Joey wrote in his testimonial. Still, Louie and Al convinced him to skip that night’s service, and afterward they sat down with a confused Frank and Serafina. “My brothers told my parents that I would never go back to the church,” Joey said. “The meeting lasted a few hours, finally they agreed I should go a few nights a week. I agreed to their demands, [but] I felt that I had one foot out the door.”

Joey didn’t elaborate on his final break from the church. He enlisted in the military in fall 1944, shortly after his 18th birthday, and survived the German front. He returned home to work with Louie and Al. They got Joey involved in their burgeoning silver business, which they’d started in their father’s basement despite the family’s spiritual schism; Frank even became a partner.

Frank and Serafina wouldn’t attend Joey’s 1950 wedding in St. Bernadette’s, a Catholic church. The estrangement from his mother was hard for Joey, his wife, my great-aunt Lillian, told me once. Occasionally, Joey and Lillian would venture to his parents’ house for dinner. “His mother would be near the sink doing dishes, and he would pull her back by the apron strings and take over,” Lillian said. Serafina would wrap her arms around Joey and say, “Chesto figlio mij”—in dialect, this son of mine—“he’s worth a million.”

“We were told that if we left the church, we would go straight to hell,” Helen wrote. “At this point, I didn’t care.”

Her probation’s “plan of treatment” prescribed in part that Reverend Mother “pay her employees a fair wage instead of accepting their services gratis.” For Jennie Otranto, at least, that never happened. Her second stint of forced labor lasted from 1940, when Reverend Mother was released from prison, through at least March 1943, the last time she’s named as a domestic employee in Reverend Mother’s probation file. What she later wrote about her departure makes it sound like she was leaving a bad job rather than an abusive situation—it was during this phase of her indenture that Reverend Mother cracked her head open with a can. “I still was not appreciated. Finally, I had had enough and left for good,” Jennie wrote. “Come what may! Believe me, it wasn’t easy. Of course, that also meant I was leaving the church. Now I had to contend with my father, who gave me a hard time, but by this time, I was 25 years old and my mind was thoroughly made up.”

From what Gilda described, over the next three years Jennie and her parents lived separate lives in the same house. Jennie got out whenever she could. A neighborhood woman named Maria used to have the Otranto sisters over for coffee and cake. She told them all about her handsome stepson, George Grimaldi, who was stationed overseas. The only single Otranto girl was Jennie. “When he came home, he met her, they got together, and they got married,” Gilda told me.

Still, Reverend Mother cast a pall over my grandmother’s new life. “I was planning my wedding,” Nanny wrote. “Since I was getting married in a Catholic church”—Our Lady of Guadalupe—“I knew my parents would not attend.” She hoped they would at least take pictures with her before she left the house for the ceremony. She even bought Serafina a corsage. Serafina initially said yes, but she then took the matter, as she did all matters, to Reverend Mother, who forbade it. “The day of the wedding, after taking my shower, I came out of the bathroom and to my surprise discovered my parents had left the house,” Nanny recalled. “I was heartbroken.”

Nanny’s wedding pictures reveal only the joy she felt on July 27, 1946, shortly before her 28th birthday. There is Helen, pretending to comb Nanny’s hair. There is Gilda, pretending to adjust Nanny’s beaded headpiece. Each faces the mirror, their smiles reflected back toward the photographer. Click. There is Louie walking her down the aisle to her betrothed, my grandfather, and there is my face: I’m all Grimaldi, from my angular nose to the dimple in my chin.

Whatever Frank and Serafina felt that day was between them and their God. “Sometime after that, my mother had a stroke,” Nanny wrote. “Reverend Mother told her that God punished her, because although her body left the house the day of the wedding, her heart was left behind with me.”

Nanny’s brothers loaned my grandparents the money they needed to buy their first house. Gone were the years of scrubbing floors and sleeping in her maid’s uniform, along with the years of living in a stalemate with her parents. But there would be more pain. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, so during her second, the doctor gave Nanny medication that was supposed to “hold the baby”—another one of those whispered phrases from my childhood. My dad’s beautiful, stylish, funny older sister entered the world with a bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate that would lead to childhood mockery, surgeries, and speech therapy. A message from Reverend Mother made its way to Jennie: “I was told God punished me for leaving the church.”

This quote is where Nanny chose to conclude her testimonial. It’s easy enough to understand why. After that cruel admonishment, what more was there to say? Gilda would fill in the rest when we met up, a lifetime later. Convinced that she’d sinned, Nanny took the baby to Reverend Mother one day. “I guess to pray for her,” Gilda said. “You see, it’s instilled in us that she could perform a miracle.”

Clockwise from left: Reverend Mother’s fingerprints from her probation file; the author and her grandmother; Jennie Otranto in 1943, around the time she left the church.

6.

Bensonhurst is still home to what remains of La Cappella dei Miracoli: an inglorious box of brick, a roof shorn of its steeple and cross. The building is a storefront again. Most of the neighbors are a generation or two removed from the church’s heyday. Many Italian Americans financed their suburban backyards and snowbird lifestyles from the sale of their Brooklyn properties to Chinese immigrants, but can’t stop lamenting that the old neighborhood has “changed.” No longer a focus of discrimination, they’re all too often the perpetrators.

Reverend Mother kept the church going for at least twenty years after the Otranto siblings’ self-imposed exile. She also experimented with other ventures. Within months of being sentenced to probation, she tried to persuade authorities at nearly every biweekly home visit to reduce her five-year term so she could travel to Miami. “Probationer feels that opening a church in Florida is the voice of ‘Providence’ asking her to come to the rescue of the ‘Sinners,’ ” her case officer wrote on September 15, 1940. The request was denied, but my uncle Joey recalled Sallustio Del Re driving Reverend Mother to Tampa in the spring of 1941. Sure enough, the probation records show that her case officer took a monthlong break that would have allowed Reverend Mother to sneak off to the Sunshine State. She bought no property in Florida that I could find in a local title search, but she did visit more than once. A 1949 Tampa Tribune advertisement for “Rev. Josephine M. Carbone, missionary” describes a weeklong event at which Reverend Mother showed audiences the 1927 biblical film The King of Kings in a lot that now sits steps from a present-day Church of Scientology.

Several of the Otranto siblings, including Nanny, lived in or around Bensonhurst for decades. Reverend Mother hovered in the background of their daily lives. She organized my great-grandmother’s wake when Serafina died in 1954. At the cemetery, Reverend Mother ordered the undertaker to open the casket so the Otranto kids could kiss their mother goodbye. “Nobody moved,” Gilda told me, indignation in her voice. “I couldn’t see my mother when she was alive,” she continued, because of the church’s prohibitions on interacting with outsiders. “I’m not going to go and kiss her in the casket.”

In his old age, my great-grandfather Frank intended to leave his share of the family silver business to Reverend Mother, but Al and Louie tricked him into signing it over to them instead. Frank discovered that he was no longer a partner from Reverend Mother, who’d figured it out through city authorities—“she was a smart cookie,” Lillian, Joey’s widow, told me. Enraged, Frank chased Louie with a hammer.

The real shock came when I found Frank’s will. He reportedly died at 1558 Bay Ridge Ave., the address of La Cappella dei Miracoli. He left his entire meager estate—a rundown house and $100 worth of “miscellaneous articles of clothing”—to his “good friend and spiritual advisor” instead of his children, “all of whom have their own lives and who have, little by little, become alien to me and who see so little of me.” But for some reason Reverend Mother, never one to turn down an offering, no matter how small, renounced any and all claim to this “legacy,” according to a handwritten note shoved into the probate file. Perhaps my great-uncles paid her a visit with a hammer.

Reverend Mother’s power waned while she was on probation, a period that coincided with World War II. With time her chairs emptied of full believers. On several occasions before the pandemic, I knocked on doors around where the church used to be. Just one man, who looked like he could have been an extra in Saturday Night Fever, which was filmed in and around the neighborhood, recalled strange noises coming from the church in the sixties. Camille Paglinco, the granddaughter of Angelo the baker, told me by phone that in the 1950s, rumors abounded about self-flagellation performed at the church. That would have explained all the “moaning and yelling” that escaped through the building’s brick walls.

Anna Grasso and her sisters left the church without being subjected to Reverend Mother’s histrionics, perhaps because they weren’t bringing in any money from their brothers’ bakery, Aunt Gilda recalled. Still, Anna Grasso remained a lifelong friend to the minister. Her roles as church secretary and “spokesman” to Reverend Mother’s probation officers seemed to morph into unofficial ones after Anna married her husband before a Staten Island judge in 1942; she remarried him in a Catholic ceremony in 1949. Early in my research, I spoke to Anna’s son. He was born in 1950, and recalled attending the occasional weekday, Bible-themed movie nights at La Cappella dei Miracoli. As a little boy, he believed Reverend Mother’s “holy napkins” could heal his boo-boos. But his mother baptized her children Catholic and raised them Lutheran. Perhaps she was protecting them.

Reverend Mother’s church building was sold in 1971. In December 1972, Anna’s son accompanied her to the morgue, where an undertaker drew back a curtain to reveal Sallustio Del Re’s body. A postal truck had struck and killed the 73-year-old chauffeur. Reverend Mother, 86, was hospitalized at the time, after suffering a stroke. It wasn’t her first, but it would be her last. She died on January 9, 1973.

Reverend Mother left her entire estate, minus $500 for her daughter, Catherine, to her “beloved friends,” Anna Grasso and Annie Tripi. After Catherine contested the will, the three women ultimately agreed to a more even division of assets. Anna’s son told me she took in the smaller of Reverend Mother’s two poodles—fiercely loyal to the deceased, the dog bit Anna so many times that a veterinarian removed its teeth—and a caged mynah bird that mimicked its former owner. “Praise the Lord!” the bird would croak in an Italian accent.

It also fell to Anna to bury Reverend Mother. She put her in the same grave as Sallustio, on Staten Island. I have to wonder if Anna played nice for as long as she did to get what she believed was her due for any suffering Reverend Mother caused her. One thing I know for sure: Anna didn’t use her inheritance to pay for a headstone. She left Reverend Mother’s grave unmarked.

Anna died in 2003. She was someone’s grandmother, too. Like Nanny, she may have taken secrets to her grave—a final act of love for her family.

Anna took in the smaller of Reverend Mother’s two poodles and a caged mynah bird that mimicked its former owner. “Praise the Lord!” the bird would croak in an Italian accent.

Deborah understands the power of an exceptional grandparent’s love. Perhaps that’s why she listened to my difficult story about Nanny and Reverend Mother instead of turning me away from the Bronxville hospital waiting room where we first met. Deborah’s mother, who went by Kaye, was recovering from a stroke down the hall. (I’m not using Deborah’s last name, to honor her request for privacy.)

Just 15 when Deborah was born, Kaye wasn’t able to match the overwhelming love she felt for her newborn daughter with the overwhelming care that an infant requires. As Deborah grew, her grandfather, Primitivo Aruz, took over parental duties. Primo, as he was known, was a retired merchant marine who had fathered Kaye with Catherine Carbone—Reverend Mother’s only child.

Primo and Catherine’s relationship, which began at least as early as 1940, rocked La Cappella dei Miracoli. They were both married at the time: Primo to a woman with whom he had several children, Catherine to a man with whom she’d had just one child, a son who died in infancy. Catherine was pregnant with Kaye, whose full name was Catherine Jr., when her husband filed for divorce—the child wasn’t his, it was Primo’s. More scandalous, perhaps, than the infidelity was the fact that Primo, who left his wife to be with Catherine, was Afro-Latino. “Dark white” Italians like Catherine’s family were still white, after all.

Kaye was born two weeks after the final judgment in her mother’s divorce case. Catherine and Primo raised Kaye and her younger brother, Joey, between separate apartments in a Brooklyn divided along racial lines that even their love couldn’t cross. During stints in Bensonhurst, Reverend Mother would sometimes powder Kaye’s face white. By the time Deborah came along, little had changed—about Brooklyn or about Reverend Mother.

Deborah met Reverend Mother just once, when she was around ten years old. She must have tagged along with Catherine, who called her own mother by her religious honorific. Reverend Mother’s house was more extravagant than the apartments Deborah knew. “She had all of this stuff,” Deborah said. “She was the superior one, and we were the peasants.” Deborah was instructed to sit and eat a plate of ravioli that was put in front of her. More than 50 years later, she still remembered Reverend Mother’s stare. “She looked at me with disdain,” Deborah said.

Catherine wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type, either. Primo was the one to wrap his fingers, strong from working on vessels and nimble from playing the trumpet, around Deborah’s small palm when she needed comfort or direction. A devout Pentecostal, Primo took Deborah with him to Spanish-speaking churches in Williamsburg. She was 12 when he moved her and her younger sister, Gina, to Puerto Rico, hoping to provide them with stability. But Gina missed their mother and ran away. Deborah followed. So did tragedy: Back in New York, Gina died at age 15.

Deborah always felt gratitude toward Primo, and regret for leaving him, but she couldn’t find the words to say what she felt until her mid-thirties. One day, in the middle of chants with her girlfriend at a Buddhist temple, the urge to call him right now gripped Deborah. She dialed Primo’s number in Puerto Rico, where Catherine had joined him, and he answered. “I want to thank you for what you did for me and Gina when we were little girls,” she told him. The call marked what Deborah hoped would be a new beginning—she and Primo, picking up where they’d left off. “But then two weeks later, my grandfather died.”

That was thirty years ago. Deborah went on to get her associate’s degree. She worked for the New York City Board of Education for 32 years, until her retirement. I found her in 2019, caring for Kaye, who would die a year later.

It’s too late for justice, but it’s still possible to achieve some measure of accountability by telling the unvarnished truth. I can share Nanny’s story, and honor what she and her siblings wrote in their testimonials. I can reveal that a boy named Gaetano never lived to have granddaughters of his own, women like me and Deborah, who could recall him in painstaking detail and make sure he wasn’t forgotten. And I can show Reverend Mother as she really was: not a cartoon villain, but a woman soured by circumstance who again and again chose power over compassion.

I planned at my first in-person meeting with Deborah to tell her everything—I felt bound by the ethics of my profession, and by my conscience. She seemed eager to learn more about her own family’s history. I brought copies of her ancestors’ birth and marriage certificates for her to keep. My research packet also contained newspaper articles about her great-grandmother’s grand larceny trial. There, too, were the 1940 census entries for Reverend Mother as the head of her household, and of Jennie Otranto as the woman who cleaned it.

“ ‘Gave one daughter?’ What does that mean?” Deborah asked when I repeated Aunt Gilda’s words about Nanny’s servitude.

I answered. Deborah is spiritual, a devout believer in God. She especially resented how Reverend Mother wielded faith against the families who attended La Cappella dei Miracoli, and against her own relatives. She said that what I told her broke her heart. Mine broke, too.

At the same time, we seemed to be building something: a better understanding of our intertwined past, and a better foundation for our future. The real miracolo, perhaps, is that we became dear friends. To signify the beginning of our bond, Deborah and I left the hospital and went to a pizzeria. We ordered—what else?—grandma slices, a red-sauce-heavy Italian specialty. I pulled up some photos on my phone to give Deborah a glimpse into my life, including one of me and Nanny in my parents’ house. It’s from my restaged college graduation. I tower over Nanny in my cap and gown, and she fits into the crook of my body like I did into hers as a little kid.

Deborah took my phone. “ ‘Nana’—can I talk to her?—‘Nana, I’m so sorry for what Reverend Mother did,’ ” she said. “ ‘If you were here, I would hug you and kiss you and let you know that you are just a free spirit and you should be loved.’ ”

“It means a lot,” I said. “You mean a lot.”


There is no more powerful sorcery than sense memory. Hairspray transports me to the 1990s in one aerosol burst. My grandmother’s hair smelled like burnt cotton candy and was sticky to the touch. How often did I sit at her vanity? I browsed her array of aging lipsticks and plunged my finger into her Noxzema. I thought that our life together would carry on like the aimless swirls I made in her cold cream. I was always a dreamer.

Nanny’s dreams were more like nightmares. She may not have believed in bad spirits, but she lived with a simmering level of dread. Thunderstorms were her trigger. She often waited them out in a closet. Over the course of her adult life, Nanny also developed chronic hypertension and the kind of migraines that felt like her head was cracking open from within. She buried her trauma within her body, which wouldn’t let her forget it.

But that trauma didn’t define her. She was the kind of woman who slipped into fur-trimmed kitten heels to vacuum, who loved to show off her legs, to bake, to entertain. Five years after my grandfather died of leukemia in 1980, she moved to Staten Island to be closer to my parents. I was born a year later, and our life together—our love story—began.

For the next 22 years, The Golden Girls were as important as Polly Pocket, and songs by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra bled into pop rock from Third Eye Blind. I never found Nanny’s liberation in Catholicism. I left my church, too. Still, when I can’t sleep at night, I pray to La Madonna like Nanny and I once did in our adjoining rooms, her head resting delicately on her pillow to preserve her weekly wash-and-sets, mine burrowing into my New Kids on the Block comforter.

I cannot imagine my childhood without Nanny. I wish she’d had one of her own. If I could go and find young Jennie, sleeping on Reverend Mother’s floor, I would tell her that the best was yet to come. I would hug her the way Nanny hugged me any time I fell off my bike or got teased at school. “You did nothing wrong,” I would say, kissing her forehead. “Let’s get you out of here.”

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