By: Raymond Guarini
On Palm Sunday during Lent, after one of the most difficult years for the world since World War 2, I decided to write a blog post about a long forgotten miraculous event that occurred on October 29th of 1945. The world was still in turmoil from World War 2 just ending a couple of months earlier. A nine year old boy, one of eighteen children born to immigrant parents from Italy, was playing in a vacant lot close to his family’s home on Villa Avenue in the Bronx, New York. Little Joseph Vitolo saw a figure floating in the air. The figure was the Blessed Mother dressed in pink. She called out to Joseph, knowing his name. None of the other children playing in the lot noticed Her. In describing the incident many years later, Joseph said he felt extremely calmed by this apparition’s words and virtually fell into a trance as She spoke only to him. She instructed Joseph to pray the Rosary for Peace each night at the location at which She appeared for 16 straight nights, and he did.
According to some accounts of this event, the apparition of The Blessed Mother also promised that on the 17th day following the 16th night, there would be a spring of water that would appear on the very site where She appeared. The spring never materialized but each and every night that Joseph came back to pray the Rosary as the Blessed Mother insisted, more and more people showed up. By the 16th night, 30,000 people, some as far as Cleveland were present to witness the child in prayer in what was being deemed across the country as “The Miracle in the Bronx.” Joseph was on the cover of Time Magazine and this was reported to have been the most popular story of 1945 only second to the end of World War 2.
In a world clinging to hope at the time, some within the throngs of onlookers came to receive graces for themselves and loved ones. The sick or relatives of the sick, and even parents of deceased servicemen showed up with personal requests from this miraculous boy. The Catholic Church never commented on this event, nor did they deem it an official Marian Apparition or Miracle; nevertheless, the property’s owner reserved the spot as sacred ground for the last 76 years in allowing a shrine to Our Lady of The Universe to remain for the public to venerate The Blessed Mother and use the location as a place for prayer-particularly for world peace.
The Shrine Today
The Neighborhood and the Church
Directly between The Grand Concourse thoroughfare and Villa Avenue, the shrine of Our Lady of The Universe finds itself in what was once a dense Italian neighborhood. Centered upon the Saint Philip Neri Church, the community referred to as just “Villa Avenue” maintained many Italians who settled there in the beginning of the 20th century and continued settling there well into the 1940’s. Only five blocks long, the Villa Avenue Italian enclave was and still remains, an obscurity to most. Onto itself and with its own church, the Italian American community of Villa Avenue didn’t need to be connected to the rest of the world. Along Villa Avenue, there were stores that catered to the locals as well as social clubs, one whose building still remains-the Saint Anthony Society clubhouse.
The neighborhood had a beautiful feast, the feast of Saint Anthony. Each year, one of the most beautiful Saint Anthony statues on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, would be processed along Villa Avenue and the Grand Concourse from Saint Philip Neri Church. The feast would attract not only the local Italians but relatives and friends from around the Bronx and beyond, but mostly only people from the neighborhood. It was one of New York’s best kept secrets.
Unfortunately, like most Italian enclaves in New York, people started to move away. The feast ended. Now, many of the buildings along Villa Avenue have gone vacant. Some of the old buildings and houses have been demolished to make way for condos. Despite the change, however, the shrine still remains.
The little boy who saw the Blessed Mother and heard her important message grew into an old man. A few years ago, he passed away. In May, there is usually a crowning of the statue of Mary. I am unsure if this tradition is still carried forth by anyone. The property’s owner lives in another state and its future is uncertain. I urge anyone who hasn’t seen Saint Philip Neri Church and the Our Lady of the Universe shrine to do so as soon as you can. It is a site to see and a place of serenity.In light of our world’s troubles today, it wouldn’t hurt to go there and ask for peace.