Saint preserved, returned to Modesto church

July 4, 2009 

Call it the Case of the Traveling Saint.

In 1920, the first known photo of the downtown St. Stanislaus Church shows several statues in the building, including one of St. Anthony. The figure may have been in the building from the time it opened in 1913.

It's unclear whether in the next 50 years it remained in the sanctuary or was moved to the parish school; too bad Perry Mason and his detective sidekick, Paul Drake, can't be enlisted to nail down the saint's movements. All that is known is that after the reformations of Vatican II were handed down in the 1970s, priests often removed the statues of saints to help parishioners focus on the celebration of the Eucharist instead.

"Before Vatican II, the Mass was in Latin," said the Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus. "Because they didn't understand the Latin, people were praying devotions to the saints or saying the rosary during Mass. Some priests and parishes decided to move the statues out so people could concentrate and have active, full participation in the Eucharist."

The late Sister Loretta Fraitas of the Holy Family Sisters, who taught catechism classes in the parish, kept St. Anthony's likeness in her office at the parish school. She joked that she could work at night and no one would bother her because through her window, it looked like a man was in the office.

"It's like a normal person," Bejarano said. "It's 5 feet 6 inches or 5 feet 7 inches. I'm 5 feet 6 inches, so we're almost the same height."

The saint, he said, "is very popular, especially among Portuguese, Italians and Hispanics. I think Sister Loretta's mom was Portuguese, so that's why she wanted to rescue the statue. (St. Anthony) was born in Portugal. Later on, when he became Franciscan, he moved to Italy, and that's where he died.

"He is also very popular because he's attributed with helping people find lost items. Of course, all of us lose something all the time, so people will pray to St. Anthony and say, 'Help me find this thing that I lost.' He's popular with many Catholics."

Sister Loretta later decided to send the statue to her mother in San Jose because of her mom's devotion to the saint.

When her mother moved to Oakdale about 10 years later, St. Anthony's statue came with her. Sister Loretta took care of her mom until she died in 2000; the nun continued to live in the house until she had to sell it for financial reasons in 2007.

Enter Dan Costello. He bumped into Sister Loretta in an Oakdale bakery and the nun told him she had to find a new home for the saint. He offered to take it, "and she gladly gave it to me," he said. "She knew it would be in good hands, and because I live alone, it would be protected."

Costello said he and his brother picked up the statue just a few days before the sale on her mother's house was final.

"It was a sad parting because of the memories she had regarding the statue, especially with her mother," Costello said.

St. Anthony has had a place of warmth on the smooth brick hearth in front of Costello's fireplace for the past two years.

"I didn't want to put him on the rug and have him fall over," said Costello, a lifelong Catholic. He said that's what happened to at least one of the other statues the nun had given to someone else years ago. He's not sure what happened to a possible third statue.

A few months ago, Sister Loretta died. Costello talked with the Rev. Misael Avila, an assistant priest at Costello's church, St. Mary's in Oakdale, about the statue. Avila contacted Bejarano to see if St. Stanislaus wanted the statue back. Bejarano said yes.

"To me, it was important to rescue this part of the history of our church," the priest said. "I don't know how many families through all these years have prayed to St. Anthony asking for help or some favors."

Looking at that old 1920 photo, he said the church has three of the statues -- the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph and Isabella of Portugal. Still missing are statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Ann with the Virgin Mary.

He called the return of the St. Anthony statue a gracious act.

"It is very generous of (Costello) to give him back," Bejarano said. "Not everyone can claim to have a statue that big or of that beauty in their homes. He could have said he just wanted to keep it for himself. It's very generous of him to think of us and ask if we wanted to have St. Anthony back in St. Stanislaus."

The saint, wrapped in rugs and transported in a parishioner's Suburban, was taken home to a place of honor in the new church on Maze Boulevard on June 6, a timely arrival one week before the annual feast of St. Anthony. The saint stands just inside the main entry of the church, nearly four decades after he left the original sanctuary.

"It's almost like, 'Welcome back home,' " said Bejarano. I was joking to friends the other day: If only the statue could speak. What did you do in all those years? What did you find? It's kind of like St. Anthony became a tourist, going to all these places before coming back."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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