The Story of a Lamplighter

GUEST POST BY LAURA JOY PALMA

It is always a pleasure to share these pages with like-minded people. In celebration of Father’s Day, I am delighted to feature a piece penned by my sister, Laura Joy Palma. It is devoted to the memory of our great-grandfather Angelo Rubbo, a first-generation Italian immigrant and a Pentecostal minister. I was thrilled when Laura Joy accepted the invitation to share with my readers from her heart.

The gift of hospitality to me has always seemed an inherited trait preserved through a full-blooded third-generation Italian American cultural heritage that loves to open her home. My mother Joy has fostered relationships by hosting and feeding others, her father Joseph before her, and from what I’m told, his father Angelo before him. I’d never considered that our familial desire to serve had an origin story that went beyond genetics and Italian cooking… that the heritage I’ve boasted in wasn’t birthed in Italy at all, but on American soil. 

My great-grandfather Angelo Rubbo wasn’t born a man of passion or import on May 8, 1894. In fact, it’s difficult to reconcile the colorful man in my mother and grandfather’s stories with this little shepherd boy working in the fields of his small mountainous town Pietraroia in the province of Benevento, Italy where he was fortunate to have completed a third grade education before shepherding his parents’ flock fulltime. 

It was a simple, predictable life, built on labor, sacrifice, and discipline.  Not surprisingly, Angelo’s parents were devout Catholics.  His name reflects that devotion, meaning “a messenger of God.”  He served as an altar boy and even had the privilege of getting up early to ring the church bells that would summon villagers to mass.  Angelo worked earnestly through his adolescence, fostering the traits most necessary for this quiet, agricultural existence.  Piety and poverty were his companions from childhood. 

Though Angelo’s education may have ended too quickly to expose him to life beyond Pietraroia, his coming of age story began under the Campanian sun when he turned eighteen.  Many had already left the town for America, and Angelo wanted to join them.  I can picture the scene my Grandpa recounts like the backdrop for a classic immigrant film, in the kitchen of a tiny farmhouse, with Angelo telling his mother and father, “I want excitement.  I want something new.  I want to leave the humdrum shepherd’s life, to go to the New World and make my fortune.”  His parents managed to pull together enough money to pay for Angelo’s voyage overseas, and his ship landed in New York City in 1912.

What thoughts ran through young Angelo’s mind as he first laid eyes on the busy port converging cultures, surveyed the flat landscape and sprawling city development, navigated bustling streets through neighborhood pockets of diverse speech, dress, and cuisine?  Every detail of this New World loomed in stark contrast to his hometown in Benevento.  Nobody ever asked my great-grandfather what he was going to be when he grew up.  Angelo had tended sheep, worked fields, been a good Catholic boy, but I don’t think he had any career goals.  Agricultural underpinnings certainly wouldn’t serve him here.  However, Angelo’s old friends piety and poverty had encouraged a work ethic that, in this day, was perhaps more profitable than ambition. 

He adapted quickly and found work despite the language barrier and limited schooling. My mother was told that Angelo’s very first job was lighting the street lamps of New York City.  We might take that for granted now with our mental picture of the city that never sleeps, colorful arrays of billboards, signs, and lamps easily illuminating the nightlife without the help of a sliver of moon.  Until New York could be lit up with a switch, that was the job of the lamplighter, Angelo’s new work.

From the early days of our nation’s history, men were responsible for lighting the city.  Originally, they lit candles, soon replaced by oil lamps, and replaced again in the 1820s with gas fueled lanterns like my great-grandfather lit.  Though electric lights were being installed by then, gas lighting was still most prevalent. Angelo likely carried a long pole, and in the evenings, he would light the gas lanterns using a wick at the end.  At dawn, he would have returned to put them out using a hook on the same pole.  The city escaped darkness temporarily with the manufactured light Angelo carried.

I understand this was just one of the jobs Angelo worked before volunteering to join the US Army in 1917.  While in service, he almost died due to an appendix attack and operation.  Grandpa says God spared his life and Angelo was honorably discharged the following year.  Perhaps the near-death experience prompted my great-grandfather to seek another kind of fortune because in June of 1919, he returned to his native town in Italy, married his childhood friend Carmela Varrone, and made his second voyage to America.  From passenger records at Ellis Island, I know their port of departure was Naples, which today is about a ninety minute drive west toward the coast from Benevento.  The record reflects Angelo was twenty-five years old when he and his bride landed in New York, this time a US Citizen awarded from his Army service with a residence in Brooklyn. 

Angelo and his wife Carmella, 1919

My grandfather was born so soon after their arrival that I’ll joke he was made in Italy but born in America.  Angelo and Carmela would have five more children after Grandpa Joseph, living in Brooklyn and then Queens.  In 1920, Angelo gained employment with the New York Transit system as a conductor, a job he would work the rest of his life.  He took pride in his job, a far cry from his childhood working the fields in Pietraroia. 

Angelo also took pride in being a good Catholic. He gave money to support the Catholic Church and sent his kids to parochial school.  These outward symbols of religion were motivated out of ritual and superstition.  If someone was ill, you gave money.  If someone sinned, you did penance.  The services were conducted in Latin, so my great-grandparents did not know what the Bible was really about.  My mother says they weren’t allowed to read the Bible, in fact, just to own one and record names of births, marriages, and deaths. 

Angelo, 1945

Perhaps that’s why this one particular passenger so fascinated Angelo in December of 1930.  My grandfather records the account this way: “Angelo observed the Bible that this man was carrying under his arm.  He was further impressed to watch him reading very earnestly.  This continued for several days.  It seemed that by divine providence, this godly man boarded the same train, the same car, at the same time every day.” The population of NYC in the thirties was nearly seven million, so it makes sense that when Grandpa considered the “thousands of people that board the numerous trains in the great metropolis of New York,” this repeat passenger would have seemed impossible. 

I’m told that Angelo intended to ridicule the stranger for reading the Bible in public, but when the two finally engaged in dialogue, the man told my great-grandfather the story of salvation contained in the pages of those forbidden, elusive scriptures.  Whereas in middle school I was teased for knowing John 3:16 by heart, nearly a century ago, Angelo was hearing that gospel message for the first time.  I can understand how he wanted to object to accepting Jesus Christ as his savior, having lifelong fostered a self-righteous religiosity that earned his way, like his father before him. 

But Angelo was to be a messenger of God. To fulfill his namesake, he needed the right message.  The man with the Bible might have shared another verse when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, ESV).  My great-grandfather may have only had a third grade education, but thirty-six years of earnest work primed him for this truth.  The stranger, John Saginario, would become a brother.  Shortly after Angelo accepted Christ, so did the rest of his family. 

It was after my great-grandfather was baptized that the gift of hospitality entered my blood in the authentic way that I now know it.  He’d been wrought in Italy of labor, sacrifice, and discipline.  He’d tended fields.  He’d shepherded flocks.  He’d served at the altar.  He’d rung the bells.  Then he’d struck out to find his own way, truth, and life.  He’d become a lamplighter, an expert in providing man’s temporary escape from the darkness.  He’d become a soldier, U.S. Citizen, husband, and father.  He’d conducted transit, managing the comings and goings of the masses.  Angelo was redeemed from well-intentioned, pious posturing, delivered from poverty and pastures to a promised land where all the desperate pieces of his work would find a true purpose. 

After his baptism, Grandpa says that Angelo had a burning desire in his heart to work for God, that life took on new meaning, and that material fortune was unimportant.  His saving faith was the treasure he wanted to share, and he began with his paesani. Angelo finally had a message of a light that never dies, but coming from similar Catholic families, many rejected his message.  Despite the disappointment, he essentially became a missionary, finding that working as a conductor during the swing shift allowed him ample time during the day to share the gospel.  He worked alongside other believers shepherding others in street and cottage meetings that eventually established churches in various parts of New York City and Long Island. 

And so you would always find my great-grandfather’s home filled with people, pouring a great jug of wine, breaking bread with them.  My mother remembers him as the life of the party with a passion that made him light up a room.   Angelo loved to open his home to men and women to serve them in the love of Christ, not out of obligation or a works-based plan of salvation.  After hearing the gospel from John, he truly was a new man; when God called him to fulfill his name, Angelo had all the work skills he’d ever need, the singular message for his life, and even newly-given charisma to accomplish his purpose. 

My mother was just a toddler when her grandfather took his ministry overseas, travelling back to Pietraroia to evangelize in his home town in 1953, more than three decades since he’s last stepped foot on Italian soil.  A chapel was established in Carmela’s native home, where services are still held today at Chiesa Evangelica, but Angelo faced fierce opposition from the town parish priest and many of his own people who rejected his truth of treasure and light, calling him crazy.  He had a heart attack, returned to New York, recovered, then suffered another heart attack and stroke within the next year. 

On May 16, 1955, Grandpa Joseph recalled that he and his siblings, his mother Carmela, and John and his wife were gathered around Angelo’s bed “as his spirit departed from his body.  The presence of the Lord was so real, those assembled witnessed a glorious ray of light in the room.”   My mother was asleep in the next room.  In the morning, unaware that her grandpa’s body had been removed from the home, she’d asked her mother why he wasn’t in his bed.  Given the explanation that he went to be with Jesus in heaven, four-year old Mom exclaimed, “I know what happened!”  In her words, “I proceeded to describe how four angels tied beautiful ribbon sashes with great big bows to each of the four corners of Grandpa’s mattress and then whisked him away to heaven.”  She didn’t attend the wake.  My grandmother felt the image in my mother’s eyes was truer than what she’d have seen with his earthly body lying in a casket.

Angelo Rubbo was a messenger of God.  He wasn’t an angel; no, he was a lamplighter.  The light shone threw him when he entered the room was not lit by a wick on a pole, not manufactured, temporary illumination in need of his daily maintenance.  When Angelo embraced the “light of the world”, he could not help but share that message of eternal hope and salvation with anyone he could find.  In a nearby scripture, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5, ESV). Within a context my great-grandfather could have never understood, that meant there would need to be lamplighters like him after the resurrection to point others to the truth.  That he radiated light at his death or that angels would have carried him to heaven don’t seem as farfetched as John and his Bible on on that subway car, day after day.

Angelo was first born into the darkness and spent half his life searching through it for fortune across two nations.  While Italian hospitality may indeed be an inherited trait, saving faith is a choice for each child, each generation.  Angelo was God’s messenger even to me, ensuring I would have access to the gospel as a little girl, that I might have the Light of Life and seek that treasure above all.

My great grandfather didn’t just bring light to his paesani or to New York City.  His ministry wasn’t restricted to two continents.  It is enduring.  When Angelo was born again, my Italian heritage was altered.  It might be in my blood to encourage second and third helpings, but the servant-heart passed down to my mother was fostered by faith, not tradition.  When the scriptures were illuminated and Great Grandpa Angelo saw the only way, truth, and life, he lit a torch for me, yet unformed.  By God’s grace, when someone says I light up a room, I pray it’s in the same way as my mom does, and her father before her, and his father before him.

Author Bio 

In 2005, Laura Joy completed her BA in English Education with a Spanish minor and began teaching in the Nashville Public Schools. She has since instructed in English, Spanish, English as a Second Language, and World Geography.  She was awarded her MS in Instructional Media and Technology from Wilkes University in 2012.  She is a Level 2 Google Certified Educator and currently pursuing her gifted endorsement via graduate courses at Shenandoah University. Currently, Laura Joy serves as a sixth and seventh grade Language Arts Teacher at Spratly Gifted Center in Hampton, Virginia. Outside of the classroom, Laura Joy enjoys playtime with her nieces and nephews and in her garden beds. She likes reading, writing, and writing about reading and writing. She exercises daily, scrapbooks occasionally, and dabbles in media projects when creativity strikes. Her current pursuits include mastering new recipes in the kitchen and the Italian language on her Android.

Published by Paul J. Palma

Paul J. Palma is a professor of Christian history and theology at Regent University. He is the author of the books "Embracing Our Roots: Rediscovering the Value of Faith, Family, and Tradition," "Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity" (Routledge Studies in Religion series), and the forthcoming "Grassroots Pentecostalism in Brazil and North America: Migrations, Missions, and Mobility" (Palgrave Macmillan). He is also a contributing writer for CBN.com. Paul enjoys spending quality time with his family on walks together, going to the beach, fishing, and work around the yard.

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