Almost don't know what to say about this story. Here's a wonderful guy, very affable and funny, very much alive, very much appreciated by the people at St. Leo's in Little Italy . . . and he's gone in a puff of smoke rising from 30 years in his past. What can we say? Shell shock sets in after a while.
I've been to his celebrations of the Mass, been to a funeral or two, dined with Father Mike. I was there the proud day they installed the statue of St. Leo in the long-empty niche in the top of the facade of the church. ("My spirit's way up," Tommy D'Alesandro, the former mayor of Baltimore and brother of Nancy Pelosi, said that day in 2000. "Higher than it's been in years.")
In 1997, St. Leo's parishoners mourned the sudden loss of another
popular Pallottine pastor, the Rev. Oreste "Rusty" Pandola. Then came Salerno,
a mustachioed cross between John Travolta (as Vinnie Barbarino) and the comic
actor Nathan Lane. He spoke fluent Italian in a thick New York accent -- "I
have a habit of using five different dialects in the same sentence" -- and
spicing homilies with humor. He brought new energy to the parish, expanded its
community outreach and increased church activities for old and young. ("Under
35 -- for us, that's young," Salerno said.) Attendance at Mass grew. The
sanctuary got a new paint job. The outside niche got a new statue. Father Mike appealed to the older folks who spoke Italian, and to some of the yuppies who had moved into the neighborhood and other trendy places in southeast Baltimore; and more of the suburbanites who had grown up in Little Italy started to return to St. Leo's on the weekends.
"I don't want to say who it was," the Rev. Frank Amato, Pallottine provincial and Salerno's superior, kidded the crowd in the wooden pews on the day of the statue installation. "But at one of the [Little Italy] festivals, someone cutting dough pointed a knife at me and said, `You better not move him. If you move him, you better not set foot in Little Italy again.' "
Amato assured the parish that Salerno would not be transferred any time soon. To that there was great applause, and when someone asked for a special salute to Salerno, the applause was prolonged and spiked with "bravos," like a curtain call for an opera star.
And now this . . . . The Catholic hierarchy thinks they've weathered the worst of this scandalous storm, but as time goes by more of these allegations emerge. What a surreal and tragic nightmare.
I hear that a St. Leo's parish group will be holding a prayer service in a home in Little Italy this evening.