By Tina Portelli
He had white hair and the heart of a saint. Father Joseph De Maria, we called him Father Joe. He was also my great uncle, in more ways than one. Father Joe grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900's. Because he was a dedicated altar boy at his neighborhood church, a priest, Father Schroder, took him under his wing and sponsored his education. He went on to become a Priest in the Palatine order and later Pastor Emeritus at St. Anthony of Padua in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He served fifty-seven years in the priesthood. His family was very proud of him. He was the first in the family to obtain a higher education.
Never forgetting his own poverty as a boy, he would visit New York, his family of three sisters, once a year at the end of August. One sister lived on Degraw Street, one on President Street and one on Sackett Street. His arrival was a big occasion for the family and the neighborhood. "Father Joe was coming to town". For each of the three nights, each sister would get one night of his company and prepare a large banquet for him at their house. My grandmother, his youngest sister, would enlist her daughter and daughter- in- laws for their help in preparing this huge special meal. A week of house cleaning, shopping and cooking was done. The silver would be polished and the "good" dishes would come off the shelves. Father Joe was their Prince and they were his subjects. Grandma would delight him with the traditional Italian dishes of his youth, missed in Milwaukee.
He would sit at the head of the table surrounded by his sister and her growing family. At the end of the meal friends and neighbors would come by for coffee at which time Father Joe would take out his black leather bag. It looked like a doctor's bag and was filled with spiritual medicine. He would then proceed to bless and then give rosary beads, religious medals and prayer cards to all those who visited.
On the last day of this yearly visit, which was always on a Friday, he would take his nieces and nephews to Steeplechase Park in Coney Island for a day of fun. Going to Coney Island for these poor children was more than just a day outing, it was a vacation from the fire hydrants and stickball stoop playing of the hot summer days. It was their summer vacation squeezed into one whole day, which not only included thrilling rides, but cotton candy too.
This ritual started in the 1930's and continued until 1975. As young children my dad, aunts, uncles along with cousins and a few friends were the recipients of this special treat.
As the years passed, not only did the group of children going to Coney Island change, but the number of children did too. What started out to be ten or twelve kids eventually reached three hundred by the 1970's. It seemed our whole neighborhood was on this gravy train. Father Joe delighted in doing this for everyone. Parents were now needed to be chaperones because the group had grown so large.
We would all meet in the morning and line up at the subway station while Father Joe paid the subway fares. An hour ride on the F train from the President Street Station to Coney Island was a treat in itself. Once there, Father Joe wearing his plantation style Fedora and his white collar and black suit, would purchase the circular ride tickets for Steeplechase Park. Each of us kids would receive one and it would last all day. Father Joe would stroll through the park and talk to all of us, with a big smile on his face, not saying much but knowing he had made us all very happy.
The ride home, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, was topped off with a famous Nathan's hot dog. We would gulp them down like little starving animals and then sleep on the forty-five minute train ride home.
It was always on the following Saturday morning that Father Joe was scheduled to fly back to his parish in Milwaukee. My Dad would pick him up at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights to drive him to the airport.
It was on his last trip, in August 1975, that my Dad waited in the lobby for his uncle to come down that my Dad became concerned. It was taking his uncle too long to come down from his room. My dad proceeded to go and check on him.
Father Joe had died that night in his sleep. My Dad called 911, waited for his uncle to be taken away, and on his way out of the hotel room, he picked up the black bag of Father Joes and took it home. This was the very same bag my dad had carried for his uncle as a child in a most prideful way.
All the children competed for this honor. It is now a treasured heirloom to our family, a reminder that we once had a great man in our family.
Steeplechase Park is long gone, but Steeplechase Santa forever lives in our memories and our hearts.