A Winning Ticket (excerpt)

Shortly after ordination, I was assigned to St. Mary of the Eternal parish in North Philadelphia. The church was built to serve Italian Catholics living between Erie Avenue and Girard Avenue, from Broad Street to the Schuylkill River, who wished to belong where their language and culture held sway. My interest in the Italian language occasioned my being stationed there.

The Italian enclave of 1,800 families was like a supersized family. Many were related and many more were paisans, originating in the same town in sunny Italy.
At that time there was an illegal numbers lottery all over Philadelphia. Prevention of the activity was very slack. You could see the numbers salesman making his rounds like the mailman or milkman. Our neighborhood was no exception.
I had a hard time becoming accustomed to the prevalent use of nicknames in the parish. One man was called Ape. His last name was Petrone. Just now, I realize I never did learn his proper name. He was a mountain of a man with the heart of a lamb and handsome. How was I to call and say, “May I speak to Ape, please?” Then I saw that he had emblazoned APE in large letters on his jacket and felt at ease. Nicknames were not resented. A set of twins was known as the Weasel brothers, due to their wearing of thick-lensed glasses. One of them plays a part in the story I am about to tell.
An ex-boxer, Billy Trignani, known as Billy Day, was a volunteer in the parish, and he and I were good friends. He had heart trouble and died young. I, of course, celebrated his funeral Mass, at that time in Latin. I remember chuckling within as I saw many of his buddies sitting in the back of the church, near the door. It seemed as though they feared the church would close its jaws on them, and they were prepared to escape.
After Mass, when I went upstairs to our living quarters, the housekeeper asked me, “What number do you say in Church?”
“Number?” I asked.
“Yes, one of the Weasel brothers heard you say, I think it was something like 220.”
It hit me. He heard, “Ed cum spiritu tuo,” “and with your spirit.” His translation differed. Not only did he play the number, he won.
Shortly after, I passed 21st and Toronto where there were always a few of the local lads hanging out. A Weasel brother was there and told me with enthusiasm about the number heard at Billy Day’s funeral. I said, “You see? If you went to church, you would be lucky.”
Some thirty years later I met the winner at a parish reunion. He was now a regular churchgoer. However, it would be too much of a stretch to say this was a case of the Lord writing straight with crooked lives.

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