By Michelle Ann Kratts
When I think of my great grandmother, Clementina Fortuna, during the holidays my memories are always framed in wonderful food and song. Of course, food…but there was also music. Tears would come to her eyes when one particular song would play and forever I will see her when I hear it. And in Niagara Falls, one does hear this song at Christmastime. It’s called “Tu scendi dalle stelle,” and it’s one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever composed. I never really thought of the significance of the words until now. It is clear why the Italians loved this song. This song celebrates the story of a king born of the stars into dire poverty. Of a child who gives his life as a result of his great love for the world.
Perhaps for the Italians of Niagara Falls, this song held some other significance, as well. For in the spring of 1920, one poor Italian child opened the gates of heaven. Literally.
The story probably began over the holidays in 1919/1920. Tomaso and Addolorata DiCamillo’s infant son, Antonio, would not live. Suffering from pneumonia, he barely made it through La Festa dell'Epifania - the Feast of the Epiphany. He breathed his last on January 14, 1920. There must have been much heartache from the little house at 565 14th Street. The Dicamillo family, an immigrant family that eventually would found a baking empire in the Niagara region, did not have much during these early years. A funeral was held from the home on January 15 and the child was moved to the vault at Oakwood Cemetery for a charge of $2.50. It was winter and the ground was probably frozen over so a burial was not likely at this time. It was customary to keep bodies in the vault until the ground was ready for burial in a plot. However, a plot in Oakwood was never chosen for little Antonio. Instead, there was another plan that would make history.
I had never heard about this other “plan” until a DiCamillo descendant approached me one afternoon in Oakwood Cemetery. He asked me if I knew anything about the baby who had founded a cemetery. I was ashamed to tell him that I knew nothing about this—but I would definitely look into it. After looking into his “story” it quickly became apparent that Mr. DiCamillo was correct. A child from his family had been the first burial at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Niagara Falls.
In fact it might be said that St. Joseph’s Cemetery was born in Oakwood Cemetery one starlit evening in April when Father Augustine Billerio took the child’s body from the vault and secretly buried it in the land that had been purchased by the Church—the eleven acres that is now St. Joseph’s Cemetery.
It’s hard to imagine today that the world was such a different place back in 1920. During this period there was a great amount of prejudice leveled at the Italian immigrants who had taken Niagara Falls by storm. Their dress and customs were strange and wild, they were full of passion and independence, they sang and they danced in the streets. They were outspoken and their superstitions and religious customs were seen as unusual. They were impoverished. By 1920, one of the most prominent of the Italian leaders, Father Billerio, purchased land for the purpose of consecrating a special ground for Roman Catholic burials. The Niagara Falls City Council responded by saying: absolutely not a chance and washed their hands of the situation. But Father Billerio was not about to accept defeat. For him, the establishment of a Roman Catholic Cemetery within the city of Niagara Falls was an integral part of his service to his people. So he took matters into his own hands.
It was recorded that on April 22, 1920 (some accounts say April 21) the body of little Antonio DiCamillo was removed from the vault at Oakwood Cemetery and secretly buried that evening in the “new Italeon cemetery.” Father Billerio believed that in burying little Antonio on the property the nearby property owners who were against the establishment of an Italian cemetery, and the city fathers, would be left without an argument as it would be impossible to disinter the child’s body. When called upon by the City Council, Mr. Angelo Scalzo, Father Billerio and others revealed the history of the land they had recently purchased—including the story of the burial of Antonio DiCamillo-- and again, insisted upon being granted the right to turn it into a Roman Catholic burial ground. The City Manager reported that the sanitary code had been violated with DiCamillo’s illegal burial and a permit would be necessary from the health officer—which would not be allowed. It was continually stated that the land was ill suited for a cemetery because of drainage issues, that the illegal burial would be a health risk to the community and that it should immediately be removed and reinterred at another location.
Finally, miraculously, on May 3, 1920, after much debate, the health officer, the corporation counsel and the city manager had a sudden change of heart. They had inspected the location, and after being informed of the manner in which the sanitary code would be met, finally agreed to allow for the establishment of a Roman Catholic burial ground within the city of Niagara Falls. St. Joseph’s Cemetery was officially established.
On Memorial Day in 1920, the opening of the cemetery was formally observed and the ground consecrated. All of the Italian societies marched from St. Joseph’s church on Pine Avenue to the new cemetery and were led by Scalzo’s band. The men from Niagara Falls (of Italian heritage) who had given their lives in the First World War were memorialized. By May 29, there were twenty five bodies buried at St. Joseph’s cemetery.
I have read that there is a stone in St. Joseph’s that commemorates the life and death of Antonio DiCamillo. My daughter and I tried to find him one autumn afternoon but no one seemed to know the location. One of the grounds workers told me where the oldest part of the cemetery is and that I might find him there. Luckily, it was near the area where my own great great grandparents are buried. We walked along the fence and marveled at the beautiful angels that paved our way. There are many graves from the 1920’s and 1930’s in this section. Graves with beautiful Italian engravings and ceramic photographs offering the passer by a glimpse into the soul of the dead.
We never did find little Antonio. I snapped a few pictures of tombstones that caught my eye. Some belonging to beautiful Italian children that left the earth too early. They probably keep our little Antonio company and honor him for opening the gates and letting everyone else in.