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BY ALBERT AMATEAU | The 12 o’clock Mass at Our Lady of Pompei in the heart of Greenwich Village was full last Sunday when nearly 300 parishioners and friends came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Michael LaMantia’s vows on becoming a brother in the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, popularly known as the Scalabrinians.
Brother Michael has served at Our Lady of Pompei for 37 of those years and the Oct. 21 Mass reflected the affection and respect of the community.
Indeed, the congregation rose and cheered after Brother Michael renewed his vows at the hands of the very Reverend Matthew Didone, provincial superior of the Scalabrini Fathers, who celebrated the Mass along with Father John Massari, pastor of Our Lady of Pompei.
Founded in 1888 by Bishop John Scalabrini of Piacenza, Italy, to minister to the countless Italian immigrants to the New World, the order now also serves newer immigrants, with services at Our Lady of Pompei for parishioners from the Philippines and Brazil. At the Mass last Sunday, parishioners sang the anthems in Tagalog, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian as well as English.
At the reception later in the church’s Father Demo Hall, three generations of parishioners showed their love for Brother Michael.
Robert Rodriguez, currently studying for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, paid his respects.
“I was raised in the Village and went to school at Our Lady of Pompeii. I’ve known Brother Michael for years,” said Rodriguez, who hopes to become a priest in two years.
“I’ve been at Pompei for 20 years, since I came from Brooklyn, and I’ve known Brother Mike for 20 years,” said Vinnie Orgo, an officer of the parish who was among the volunteers serving the reception dinner. “He does everything around here, he even cooks sometimes,” Orgo said.
“Brother Michael has shared in the lives of so many people in this parish,” said Maria Donovan, the secretary and receptionist at the church rectory. Donovan was helping produce a YouTube segment on the celebration. “We’ll have everyone in our community in it, and you’ll be able to see it tomorrow,” she promised.
Marie-Coeur Altidor, an immigrant from Haiti who works at a public school on East Houston St., comes to weekday Masses during her lunch break.
“I’m here today because Brother Michael is my friend,” she said.
Elizabeth McKenna, an Our Lady of Pompei parishioner for 30 years, recalled that her twins, a boy and a girl now 19 years old, were baptized at the church.
“Brother Michael is such a giving person,” she said. Her husband, Brian, born and raised in the Village and owner of McKenna’s Pub on W. 14th St., said, “Brother Michael IS Our Lady of Pompei.”
Brother Michael’s oldest brother, Raffaelo LaMantia, made the trip down from Providence, R.I., to honor Michael. Joe Crocitto, a family friend, was with him. Crocitto, who retired as a New York Police Department sergeant in 1993, went to school at Our Lady of Pompeii.
“I’ve gone with Michael to Chicago to visit his family,” Crocitto said.
In an interview with a reporter earlier last week, Brother Michael said, “We were eight in our family, five boys and two girls. I was the fifth.”
He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in an Italian neighborhood that, like New York, became Chinese as the earlier wave of immigrants moved out.
“My father was born in Pittsburgh and my mother was born in Chicago,” he recalled. “My grandfather bought a house near the White Sox stadium.” His grandparents were immigrants, his mother’s family from Calabria and his father’s family from Sicily.
“My father was a butcher. The family worked in the produce business. We had a grocery story at one time,” he said. “I went to public school, but we were more religious than the kids who went to Catholic school. I can still see my mother ironing my shirts for church. It was always white shirts and ties for church.”
Raised in a religious family, Michael had a calling as a teenager for a religious life. He transferred from public school to Sacred Heart Seminary to finish high school.
“I became close to our parish priest who was a Scalabrinian,” he recalled. After graduating from seminary in 1960, Michael went to the newly opened novitiate of the Scalabrini Fathers in Cornwall, N.Y. He made his first vows Aug. 23, 1962, two years later. It is those vows that were renewed at the Mass last week.
At Cornwall, Michael took charge of the kitchen, cooking, buying provisions and cleaning the house.
“I learned to cook watching my mother at home,” he said. Michael’s cooking was renowned among Scalabrinian Fathers in New York, who found making the trip to Cornwall for dinner was well worth the effort.
The Scalabrinians gave up the house in 1968 and Michael was transferred to the Sacred Heart Seminary in Chicago. It was there that he took his perpetual vows and was assigned to Our Lady of Pompei in Greenwich Village as sacristan. And there he stayed, except for an assignment in 1974 to the Scalabrini House of Study in Toronto to be in charge of the kitchen. But the pastor of Pompei asked for him back a year later.
The average day at Our Lady of Pompei begins early for Brother Michael.
“We start at 5:45, open the church at 6:30. We have morning prayers at 7:30 and then breakfast. Our big meal of the day is around 12:30, we have a cook who comes in,” he said, although he acknowledged that he does some cooking from time to time.
A year ago, Brother Michael was diagnosed with cancer.
“I refused an operation but I am taking chemo,” he said. “The doctor told me that the tumor is reducing,” he added, but, admitted that the treatment takes its toll.
At the Mass on Sunday, prayers were offered for his health, but his energy at the celebration was high.
David Nafari, a Village native and longtime parishioner at the church, told a reporter at the reception, “Brother Michael has always taken care of the church and taken care of us. Now we have to take care of him.”