Heavenly inspiration graces earthly garden

July 10, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The friends of God hail visitors to Little Italy from an Exeter Street rock garden, a baker's dozen of Catholic saints in a sidewalk shrine built to bolster people's faith at the end of a troubled century.

"The energy of the saints comes to people in many different forms," says Larry Fenaroli, a chef who made the garden in front of his house. "If people believe that this energy is still with us, it might give them hope as they pass by. We have no one to look up to today. Everything seems so self-serving."

Although not a practicing Catholic, Mr. Fenaroli is a spiritual man with a strong nostalgia for the traditions that shaped his childhood. Growing up at 209 N. Front St. in the St. Vincent de Paul parish in the 1950s, he helped the Rev. John Sinnott Martin build a churchyard rock garden.

"Working with stone and plants makes me happy," he says. "This is a talent I haven't been able to express well in the city."

When Mr. Fenaroli started his project in May, making a wall of flat rocks from a creek that runs through his friend Ty Hodanish's farm in New Jersey, he merely intended something to complement the Formstone on his rowhouse.

But then his next-door neighbor thought it would be nice to have the Blessed Mother in with the flowers and gave him a white ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary. By the time the garden was finished in late June with shamrocks, lilies and passion fruit, everybody had gotten into the act.

"Someone said, 'Oh, you need this' and 'You need that,' " said Mary Sergi, who donated the statue of Mary, which is turned toward her house. "The next thing you know -- there it is!"

Mr. Fenaroli focused on saints especially beloved by the Italian people, and from their homes came an altar's worth of foot-high statues.

Frances Caliri on Trinity Street donated St. Gabriel, St. Francis and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

"I say prayers to all of them," said Mrs. Caliri, 74, who keeps a small altar at the top of her stairs.

Angie Guerriero, whose house faces the shrine, contributed a statue of St. Jude. Sts. Rita, Lucy and Rocco came from a gift shop at the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street. St. Gennaro landed in Baltimore's Little Italy from New York's Little Italy. St. Joseph and St. Teresa were bought at Joseph's Gift and Religious Goods on Harford Road. St. Anthony came from the Rev. James Purvey, a friend of Mr. Fenaroli's assigned to St. Michael's Church in Overlea.

And St. Vincent Pallotti was a gift of the Rev. Flavian Bonifazi, a Pallotine priest with St. Leo's church. "The saints are the friends of God," Father Bonifazi says. "If you need a favor of somebody, you go to their friends."

The only representations of Jesus, for whom these saints lived and died, are a babe in the arms of Mary and on crucifixes held by a few of the female statues.

"In the tradition of the Catholic faith, they are our bridge to Him," said Father Bonifazi, who is going to print brief biographies for the statues.

Mr. Fenaroli's favorites are St. Joseph, the carpenter and foster father of Jesus ("Because I like to work with my hands," he says); St. Francis, because he is fond of animals; St. Rita, for whom his sister was named; and St. Jude, who gives strength to those in bTC desperate straits.

An unfortunate but necessary cage rises up in front of the garden, protecting it from malice. "The fence takes away from it, but I know why he did it," Ms. Sergi says. "People would [destroy it] just to be mean."

When neighbor Arthur Gentile was helping Mr. Fenaroli put the fence up, Mr. Gentile's mother stopped by to give Mr. Fenaroli hell for not including St. Ann.

"I told her I didn't have room," says Mr. Fenaroli, who likes the way the painted plaster statues bring color to the street. "By the time she came by, we were filled up."

Just as pedestrians seem to be filled with a warm feeling when they stroll by the shrine after taking dinner in one of the neighborhood restaurants. From her house across the street, Angie Guerriero has seen tourists make the sign of the cross and stop to take pictures.

"You should believe in something," she says. "I think your day works out better when you start it with a prayer."

WHO'S WHO AMONG THE SAINTS

A. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (Francis Possenti, 1838-1862). Six years after joining the Passionist Fathers, he died of consumption in the Abruzzi region, from which many residents of Little Italy trace their heritage. A neighborhood favorite, Gabriel is feted annually in Little Italy, with this year's celebration scheduled Aug. 26 and 27.

B. Teresa of Lisieux (Marie Francoise Therese Martin, 1873-1897). Known as "The Little Flower of Jesus." Entered Carmelite Order at age 15. Died of tuberculosis. Patron saint of missionary priests, co-patroness of France with Joan of Arc.

C. Jude (Jude Thaddaeus, 1st Century). One of the twelve apostles. Tradition is that he preached with St. Simon in Persia and was martyred there. The St. Jude Shrine, 308 N. Paca St., began 54 years ago. Patron saint of hopeless causes.

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