Madonna of Sheafe Street

By Robert Israel

Donella stood at the window squinting as summer sunlight danced on laundry strung between tenements like tattered flags of surrender. Leaning on a pillow, a kerchief around her head, she tossed breadcrumbs to pigeons that flocked beneath her windowsill like locusts.

Lilly, my next door neighbor, met Donella thirty years before when her husband rented a flat across the street. Donella was pregnant with their daughter Maria.  She spoke no English. A month before the baby was due, the husband announced he was stepping out for a pack of smokes. He never returned. Lilly said everyone suspected his disappearance had something to do with unpaid gambling debts.

Facie brute,” Lilly called the husband. “I don’t blame her, she’s just a peasant from the mountains. But him!” and she lobbed a mouthful of spit onto the sidewalk. “If I got my hands on him he’d be dead before that spit had a chance to dry.”

Lilly never married. Dressed in black that matched her jet black dyed hair, she smelled of lacquer and perfume. Her voice was raspy from years of smoking. Her family – brothers, nephews, nieces — visited her daily, their footsteps trudging down the long linoleum corridor to her rooms.

Once a week a van from the church parked on Sheafe Street. Two nuns trundled up the stairs to fetch Donella and Maria from their flat furnished only with a toilet and a kitchen sink. The nuns brought them both to the public baths at the North End Union on Parmenter Street so they could be bathed and groomed.

“But sometimes, when it’s cold outside the old lady can’t make it down the stairs, so Maria boils water for her on the hot plate and washes her hair, like she’s making pasta. I used to go over there to help them, to bring them things, but not lately,” Lilly said. “If I go over there now it’s too much for me, it just gets worse, it breaks my heart.”

Women from the neighboring streets would appear holding plastic boxes of food or spuckadellas from the bakeries on Prince Street. They’d rap on the window pane. They’d call Donella’s name aloud, twice, maybe three times. Donella would raise her shades, pull back her curtains, prop open the window and smile her toothless grin. She’d lean over, accept their food, hold up her rosary and bless them.

Most summer weekends the neighborhood closed for the feasts. Crowds strolled beneath colorful lights strung between tenements and light posts. Vendors sold pastries, meatball sandwiches, clams on the half shell, curbside shot glasses of grappa.

Photos of North End, Boston
Margaret Street, Sheafe Street at the top, Boston’s North End

At the Feast of Madonna della Cava, men from the social club on Battery Street displayed a banner depicting Mother Mary as she had appeared in a mute boy’s dream from a 13th century Sicilian folktale. They paraded the banner through the streets on a stretcher covered with plastic flowers. The crowd cheered, “Viva Madonna della Cava!” Greenbacks, tossed from tenement windows, cascaded over the procession like confetti. Boys retrieved fistfuls of cash from the gutters and pinned the bills on the Madonna whose eyes gazed heavenward in blissful reverie. A priest, crucifix in hand, led the throng. A marching band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The smoke from the grilled sausages and the steam from manicotti bubbling in aluminum trays blanketed the air like fog.

I had moved to Sheafe Street without a job. After three months I had not found work. Lilly wormed it out of me that I was skimping on buying food and threatened to give me a sciafo unless I went shopping. The next day, and every day thereafter, she “cooked coffee,” as she put it, delivering it to my apartment sweetened with sugar and evaporated milk. She’d leave a pan of stuffed peppers on my doorstep covered with foil paper. When she went to buy calamari from Frank Giuffre’s, the fish monger on Salem Street, she’d prepare an extra portion for me, the squid’s tentacles and darkened eye sockets poking up through the gravy.

There were food bargains aplenty, day old spuckadellas for a quarter, free pizzas still warm at the close of business from restaurants on Hanover Street, overripe fruits and vegetables at Haymarket Square Fridays and Saturdays.

My luck improved two weeks later. Temporary agencies telephoned in the morning with assignments. I’d report to work at the office buildings I could see at night from my Sheafe Street windows, skyscrapers that towered over the tenement with blinking red lights on their roofs and rows of illuminated windows that glowed like grinning teeth.

One Friday morning I spied Maria lumbering down Salem Street past butcher shops where carcasses of lambs hung from meat hooks and slaughtered pigs, pink hooves folded beneath them, looked as if they had just finished some kind of morbid ballet.

I caught up with her at the Haymarket’s open stalls. She fingered tomatoes and argued with the men at the pushcarts. I approached her, offered to carry her bundles back to the North End. She didn’t comprehend. So I did a pantomime: I hunched over, swayed back and forth on the balls of my feet, pretending to be an ox. She shook her head and said aloud, “No, boy, no help me, boy.”

A few days later, when I stumbled out my door late for yet another temporary job, Donella and Maria stood at the window, waving. I waved back. Donella gestured for me to approach, insistent I cross the street. I stood beside the pigeons. Donella held up a rosary. I lowered my head and received her blessings.

Crossing Blackstone Street where the drunks of Haymarket Square were sleeping it off in the chill morning air, I emerged onto Government Center plaza squinting. The city was drenched in brilliant sunlight. The Madonna was smiling.


Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at


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