A baby Jesus' statue's long journey

·5 min read

Sep. 18—SCRANTON — The day Sarah Notarianni first set foot in Scranton in 1947, she accidentally broke the fingers on her baby Jesus statue's left hand.

She had long hoped for a baby Jesus, but no store carried one in her small hometown, San Mango d'Aquino, part of Italy's Calabria region.

Every Christmas, they raffled off a baby Jesus in her town, and every Christmas her mother, Josephine Epifano, bought a chance for her. Someone else's number always came up.

She finally got her baby Jesus after her mother bought it in a Naples shop. It was just before they and her brother, Antonio, 14, boarded the ship Saturnia on May 8, 1947, to cross the Atlantic Ocean and join her father, Frank, in Scranton.

Notarianni, then 15, clung to her baby Jesus the entire train ride from New York City to Scranton. Her father was born in Lackawanna County before his family moved back to San Mango d'Aquino. It was there, years later, he met and married her mother and they started their own family.

Fearing he would lose his American citizenship, he returned to Scranton as he approached his 21st birthday; Notarianni was just 1 year old. He wrote regularly, visited occasionally, and sent them money from his coal miner job before joining the Army Air Forces to fight in World War II.

After the war, he convinced his wife to come to Scranton.

"If you come here with the children, they will have a better future," he would write to them. "They will have a better life because everything is better than everything in Italy."

As he showed them around their new home in Scranton at 1224 Diamond Ave., Josephine Epifano succumbed to emotions.

"She got very sad and that bothered me so much, you know, that I tried to put the baby (Jesus) on the table to comfort her," said Notarianni, now 90. "And when I put the baby down, his hand hit the edge of the table and broke."

Her father tried to calm her, telling her he would get the fingers fixed. He had someone try, but the hand never looked the same.

"He didn't do a good job because the one arm was bigger than the other, but I took it as he was. But a little at a time, it deteriorated and it was crumbling down," Notarianni said.

She didn't care. She never parted with that statue.

It was on her dresser the day she married John Notarianni in 1958. It was always on her television in their home at 1433 Dorothy St. where they moved to in 1961, back when televisions were so large you could put things on top. It was there through all the births, deaths and other events that dot a life. Sometimes, she talked to her baby Jesus, but she never played with it.

"It was holy," she said. "I had dolls."

She forgot about fixing the statue.

"I forgot about it because I figured if that guy couldn't fix it, what am I going to take up?" Notarianni said. "I don't know anybody, you know? But when she saw it, she asked me about it. She's like, 'Oh, I could have this fixed for you.' "

She is Cassie Kobeski, a volunteer coordinator for Compassionate Care Hospice, who came to visit a few months ago and spotted the statue.

"It just sat with me and I just kept thinking, you know, part of my job is to do special things for people and really listening and thinking about what's important to them," Kobeski said.

She knew someone, an artist in Vestal, New York, who had done previous restoration work. Kobeski then shared the statue's story with that artist, Melissa Restuccia.

"And I was like, well, of course, I'm going to do this," Restuccia said. "Unfortunately, at first they were like, 'Well, she doesn't want it (the statue) to leave.' "

About two months ago, the warmth of and trust in Kobeski and Carol Burti, another hospice aide, prevailed and Notarianni agreed to temporarily part with the statue that never left her since the day she arrived in America.

In her home, Restuccia went to work. She filled a crack in a shoulder and fashioned new fingers.

"Part of the face was very chipped, like the paint was missing, and the paint was very faded," Restuccia said. "A lot of times, the gold paint that they use has tarnished over time. It turns kind of a greenish copper. So I regilt it as well."

The restoration took about a week. Kobeski thought it might cost $300. Restuccia charged $30, enough to pay for the materials. Kobeski and Burti split the cost.

"I mean, I'm not going to charge a 90-year-old lady very much," Restuccia said.

Baby Jesus now rests in a wicker basket under the living room television, now a flat-screen on a shelf. Notarianni, always smiling, beams more when she looks at it.

"I was happy. I was happy to see the hand. I couldn't believe she did such a job. Look at it," she said.

It looks better than the day her mother bought it, she said, more than 75 years ago now.

"Much better," Notarianni said. "It's perfect."

Contact the writer:

bkrawczeniuk@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9147;

@BorysBlogTT on Twitter.

Contact the writer: bkrawczeniuk@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9147; @BorysBlogTT on Twitter.