Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - Updated: 1:21 pm
Among the saints who were canonized during a major celebration in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 14 was a young man who was the focus of intensely faithful devotions in Pittsburgh for more than 50 years.
Nunzio Sulprizio, who died in Naples, Italy, in 1836 at age 19, was made a saint alongside Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others last month. Many residents of Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood remember the feast day Masses and popular street marches that used to draw attention to his sainthood cause every year.
How those religious devotions and a family shrine to then-Blessed Nunzio became popular is the kind of story that is perhaps unique to Pittsburgh.
Delfina and Francesco (Frank) Cesarespada were married in 1946 in Italy and settled in the city’s North Side, attending St. Cyril of Alexandria Parish. Their sons, Tony and Peter, went to the parish school.
Tony, who lives now in North Royalton, Ohio, said that his mother’s first exposure to Blessed Nunzio was in 1963, when she met a cousin of the future saint named Agatha, who lived two blocks from their house.
“That summer of 1963, my mother Delfina was diagnosed with a large tumor that would require critical dangerous surgery,” Tony said. “The diagnosis/condition of the tumor (i.e. benign or cancerous) nor the survivability of this surgery were certain, but there was no other option at that time than to proceed.”
Prior to her hospitalization, Delfina visited a neighbor’s home and noticed a photograph of a boy hanging on the wall illuminated by bright lights. She asked the friend about it, who explained that it was a picture of Nunzio, who had been proclaimed “Venerable” and whose cousin lived nearby. Delfina saw later that there were actually no lights around the photo, Tony said.
Delfina finally met Agatha, who was attempting to promote Nunzio’s sainthood cause. Agatha, who was possibly in her 90s, Tony said, was seeking someone to carry on the cause. Delfina declined because of her uncertain health.
Tony said that, while his mother underwent surgery to remove the tumor, she had a vision of Nunzio, who told her, “Your time on earth is not over. You need to return and devote your life to my cause.”
Upon awakening from the anesthesia, Delfina learned that her heart had stopped beating during the surgery and the doctors were unable to find the tumor, Tony said. She took it as a sign that she needed to dedicate her life to spreading the news about Nunzio, who was proclaimed “Blessed” in December 1963 by Pope Paul VI.
Nunzio Sulprizio was born April 13, 1817, in the Abruzzo region of Italy near Pescara. Both of his parents died when he was an infant, and his maternal grandmother, who raised him, died when he was 9.
An uncle took him under his guardianship and had the young boy work for him in his blacksmith shop. However, the work was too strenuous for a boy his age and he developed a problem in his leg, which became gangrenous.
A military colonel took care of Nunzio, who was eventually hospitalized in Naples. The young teen faced tremendous pain with patience and serenity and offered up his sufferings to God, according to his official biography.
The Cesarespada house became a diocesan-approved shrine to Blessed Nunzio, Tony said, with statues, banners and other devotional items about him occupying 100 percent of the home’s first floor and 80 percent of the entire house.
Thousands of visitors from throughout the world registered at the shrine and received a newsletter, he said. In 1975, Delfina commissioned a hand-carved statue of Blessed Nunzio made in Italy that was displayed in the house and in processions through the neighborhood.
Tony said the feast day celebrations included fireworks, a marching band, the procession from the shrine to St. Cyril for Mass with priests and altar servers, Italian music and food. Anchoring the procession were statues of the Virgin Mary and Blessed Nunzio.
“This yearly event would draw bus loads from cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Youngstown, and countless people from all over the Pittsburgh area, such as McKees Rocks, Coraopolis, Monaca, Aliquippa and many others,” he said.
Father Brian Welding, diocesan secretary for clergy and consecrated life, remembers first witnessing the lively celebration when he was a student at the University of Pittsburgh and discerning a call to priesthood. He later presided at some of the Blessed Nunzio Masses at St. Cyril.
He said the Cesarespadas “always had a good number of people from the North Side who were very, very faithful to that devotion to Blessed Nunzio, and through the years have remained friends with the family.”
“It’s fascinating how the devotion came and sprouted in the city from immigrants. It’s beautiful,” Father Welding said.
Through the efforts of Tony, Peter and many other volunteers, the traditional commemoration continued after Delfina died in 1996 and Frank in 2005. The shrine permanently shut down in 2007, Tony said.
He and several friends from the shrine were blessed to attend the canonization in Rome, including Raymond Politowski of Golden, Colorado; Salvatore Sebastiani of Lewisville, Texas; Sam and Maria Segretario of Youngstown, Ohio; and Fred and Elena Avolio of Jeannette.
Tony said he was pleased that Msgr. Ronald Cellini, a former member of the Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio Shrine Committee who helped Delfina and her team promote Blessed Nunzio’s cause many years ago, was a concelebrant at the canonization Mass.
“He continues to be a great friend of the Cesarespada family, as is obvious through his great personal effort in being there in Rome on Oct. 14,” Tony said.
The presence of his mom and dad was felt at the canonization, he said. It was comforting to finally see the rewards of their enduring dedication.
“Without exception, I have to believe that those of us who were blessed to be part of the effort in promoting Blessed Nunzio through the last 55 years are simply grateful to have assisted in achieving the ultimate honor of the Catholic Church — sainthood for Nunzio Sulprizio.”
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.