On Oct. 29, 1945, 9-year-old Joseph Vitolo was visited by the Virgin Mary while standing on a rock ledge overlooking the Grand Concourse. Over the course of 17 days tens of thousands of believers and skeptics came to view the boy who claimed to be communicating with the deity. Writer Tom Clavin revisits the site, and the now 76-year-old Vitolo, and takes us through this Bronx tale.
This past Aug. 12, Joseph Vitolo walked to a pharmacy on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx to pick up a prescription. When he came out, he had the feeling he was being followed. When he saw a tall teenager studying him, he crossed the street and went into a Dunkin’ Donuts. When he no longer saw the kid, he came out and headed for his home on Villa Avenue. Suddenly, from behind, arms surrounded him, as though he were being hugged. “What are you doing?” Vitolo kept asking, then he went numb; it felt like he was paralyzed, he says (likely due to a combination of a heart condition, shock and cut-off circulation). A bracelet was ripped off his arm, then he saw the kid running toward the Grand Concourse.
For a moment, Vitolo thought of chasing him. Then he remembered he was 76 years old with a weak heart. What he could have thought next, especially given it was a Sunday, was: Where was God when I needed help? But he didn’t. That’s not the way he thinks.
Even if it were, why would he think God cared about some old man in the Bronx? Because many years ago, Vitolo had seen and communicated with the Virgin Mary, or so it’s said. In some ways, he is still that 9-year-old, frozen in time by a series of events that fascinated not just the community, but the nation. Only his body aged, not his memory—and certainly not his faith.
Every so often, the media reports sightings of the most revered members of the Christian roster. Mary has been especially active in the New York area lately. In July, some residents of West New York, across the Hudson River, noticed scars resembling the Virgin of Guadalupe in the bark of a small tree. Police had to cordon off that section of the block so pilgrims could worship there without stopping pedestrian traffic. A couple of Sundays later, someone spotted the Virgin Mary in another tree, this one across the street from a church in Westchester’s Sleepy Hollow. Mary reportedly told the awestruck man, “I want all my sons to come and see me.” Again, police had to barricade the area because by the end of July hundreds of worshippers were congregating daily.
But it was on Oct. 29, 1945, that the most famous Lourdes-like moment in U.S. history took place.
Want to read more of "Something About Mary"? Pick up the October issue of Manhattan!