Eugene Pavlico, all of 12 years old and 80 pounds, was the right fielder on the Little League team I helped coach when I was a teen. He was a right fielder and an uncle.
Eugene is the youngest child of a large family and his sister Maryanna Parrick would bring her little boy Bobby to the games. This was a good 50 years ago and I can still hear the innocent voice of that little guy shouting “Go Uncle Eugene!” from the bleachers along the first base line.
Few Little Leaguers can say they’ve heard such a cheer.
I’ve thought of Gene Pavlico as “Uncle Eugene” ever since and, these days, relive that old Little League experience in my head every Sunday morning when he sings at the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph Marello Church in Pittston.
Gene is blessed with a beautiful voice and I make it a point to linger after Mass just to thank him for sharing that voice with us.
But two Sundays ago, I hung around for a slightly different reason: to tell him he made me cry.
When I arrived at the church I could not help but notice a dozen or so men in white shirts seated in the first two pews. The statue of St. Rocco on display on the altar told me why. It was the Feast Day of St. Rocco and they were there to continue a tradition begun by their fathers and grandfathers some 80 years ago.
After Mass, a few of the men would hoist St. Rocco to their shoulders, shouting “Viva San Rocco!”, and process with him through the streets of the Oregon section of South Pittston, where St. Rocco’s church, now closed, once burst at the seams with Pittston’s residents of Italian ancestry.
St. Rocco’s parish was merged with Our Lady of Mount Carmel a few years ago to form St. Joseph Marello, named for the founder of the Oblates of St. Joseph order, whose priests originally came to this area to serve the large Italian population here.
It was good to see the old tradition of honoring St. Rocco continue.
But at the conclusion of Mass when “Uncle Eugene” began to sing the traditional hymn to St. Rocco, I lost it. I tried to say something to my wife, but the lump in my throat prevented me. Tears welled up in my eyes as I was overcome with the beauty of the tradition, the nobility of the young men who have taken up the responsibility handed down to them, and memories of the men, many fathers of some of my dearest friends, who are no longer with us. I thought of Tony DePhillips and Walker Mastruzzo and Johnny Casper and particularly Chuckie Giardina.
The last time I saw Chuckie was at a St. Rocco procession. I took his picture and he gave me a kiss. When I developed the film, there was St. Rocco right over Chuckie’s shoulder. He could have been saying to Chuckie, in the last days of his battle with cancer, “Don’t worry, Chuckie, I’ve got your back.”
I tried more than once to share this with my wife but could not. And Pacci’s Band, gathered outside the church, to play the original Italian national anthem as the statue of St. Rocco emerged from the front doors, only made matters worse.
I also choked on my words as I tried to tell Eugene what he had done to me. The best I could manage was to put my arms around him and whisper a “thank you” in his ear.
It might sound silly, but I truly was a mess. And so happy.