Crane elevates a statue and spirits of Little Italy

Saint: A bronze of St. Leo the Great, fills a niche at the parish that bears his name, a reason to celebrate.

January 14, 2000

A crane lifted a 350-pound bronze statue of the patron saint of Little Italy's historic Roman Catholic church yesterday afternoon -- and with it the spirits of the old neighborhood. Tommy D'Alesandro III, the silver-haired former mayor of Baltimore who a decade ago sadly noted the aging of his parish and the low attendance at Sunday Mass, stood on Exeter Street as the crane hoisted St. Leo the Great to a long-empty niche in the face of the church that bears his name. "My spirit's way up," D'Alesandro said. "Higher than it's been in years."

And not just because of the handsome new statue.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Michael Louis "Father Mike" Salerno, has rejuvenated the parish, say D'Alesandro and other longtime communicants.

Three years ago this month, they were mourning the sudden loss of another popular Pallottine pastor, the Rev. Oreste "Rusty" Pandola. Then came Salerno, a mustachioed cross between John Travolta (as Vinnie Barbarino) and the comic actor Nathan Lane. He spoke fluent Italian in a thick New York accent -- "I have a habit of using five different dialects in the same sentence" -- and spicing homilies with humor. He brought new energy to the parish, expanded its community outreach and increased church activities for old and young. ("Under 35 -- for us, that's young," Salerno said.) Attendance at Mass is up. The sanctuary has a new paint job. The outside niche has a new statue.

At St. Leo's, they like their Father Mike.

Yesterday, when the noon ceremony for the dedication of the statue did not start on time, Salerno announced: "Everybody, we're just waitin' for the trumpet guy to come. I paid him $50 to play. I want my money's worth. He better be good. [Laughter] No, no, he's good, he's good. ... We'll get started in just a few minutes. It'll be real nice. It won't be long. There's no Mass. [Laughter]"

Parishioners of St. Leo's, who have seen Pallottine Fathers come and go with transfers, seem to want this one to stay.

"I don't want to say who it was," the Rev. Frank Amato, Pallottine provincial and Salerno's superior, kidded the crowd in the wooden pews. "But at one of the [Little Italy] festivals, someone cutting dough pointed a knife at me and said, `You better not move him. If you move him, you better not set foot in Little Italy again.' "

Amato assured the parish that Salerno would not be transferred any time soon. To that there was great applause, and when someone asked for a special salute to Salerno, the applause was prolonged and spiked with "bravos," like a curtain call for an opera star.

It was a big day for St. Leo's, getting a statue for a niche that had been empty for as long as anyone in the neighborhood could remember -- and possibly since the church was established in 1881. Victor and Pat Lancelotta donated the funds for the statue, which was cast at Baltimore's New Arts Foundry last year from a clay model by Stan Dacuk, a Pallottine employee from New Jersey.

The Lancelottas made the contribution in the memory of Victor Lancelotta's parents, Gioacchino and Elvira, immigrants to America from Fornelli, in the Abruzzi region of southeastern Italy. The Lancelottas settled in Rhode Island, where they were married in 1905. They moved to Baltimore in 1925. They had nine children -- Henrietta, Guido, Genarro, Frank, Edmond, Charles, Eleanor, Victor and Mary.

"Today, we celebrate one family's fervent faith and their generosity towards their church and their community," said John Guerriero, president of the parish council. "We celebrate the vitality and importance of this parish, and we celebrate the vigor and the strength of the Little Italy community."

Bishop Gordon D. Bennett, vicar of Baltimore, charmed parishioners by greeting and blessing them in Italian before switching to English. Bennett noted the story of St. Leo the Great, a fifth-century pope said to have kept barbarians, including Attila the Hun, from sacking Rome. Modern times, the bishop said, call for modern Leos, keepers of the faith and preservers of peace who stand up to the "modern barbarians" who worship power and money, and who hate others because of their race, class or sexual orientation.

"We are the ones who have to stand firm and be willing and courageous enough to put our lives on the line for the faith," he said. "We are putting up today a model, a role model, a mentor who calls us to deep faith and profound courage. Each of us needs to be St. Leo, to say, `Here is where God reigns, here is where Jesus Christ reigns, here is where love reigns, here is St. Leo's."

Amato, the Pallottine provincial, added: "You are the church -- not a building, not a statue. You fulfill the Gospel when you live your faith and do what you do, when you work acts of charity."

Outside, in the sun and wind, a crowd formed on Exeter Street -- priests, neighborhood residents, chefs and maitre d's from Little Italy restaurants, D'Alesandro, the Lancelottas and many others who had grown up in St. Leo parish. Bennett blessed the statue. Then a crane from United Rental, operated by Joe Mirabile, hoisted the statue to its niche four stories above Exeter Street. There was more applause as the statue settled into place and two workers bolted it down.

"I'm glad we're filling that hole up there," Father Mike Salerno said. " `Cuz I heard rumors they were gonna put me up there."

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