By Charlie Sacchetti
It was the summer of 1994, some 25 years ago, when I first experienced a special gift from God. My wife and I were attending the funeral of my Uncle Vincent Massari Sr. at the St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church in South Philadelphia. Uncle Vincent was a wonderful family man who now was being honored at his Mass of Christian Burial. As you would expect, all of the clan was there to lend support to his immediate family. As the somber Mass progressed, it was time for the first song to be sung by the cantor. There were more than a few tears being shed throughout the church, and that should be no surprise. I am proud to say and have always felt that we Italian Americans are among the most loving and emotional people in God’s creation.
As the song began, I was immediately taken by the beautiful voice that filled the church. As I looked around, I could see other family members glancing at one another, and showing facial expressions of appreciation and awe. It was as though the cloud of grief that engulfed the church was lifted or at least made tolerable. With each successive song, the realization that the deceased now rested in God’s arms became more apparent and a true comfort to the family. I found out, after Mass, that the lady who graced us with her extraordinary talent was named Juanita Perkins-Qui. In getting to know her, I found out more.
Juanita began her singing ministry at St. Nick’s in 1985. She had been girl all of her life, being raised near Broad and Christian streets. One of 11 children, she first realized that she had this gift at the age of 3. Juanita was listening to the radio and singing along with Tony Bennett to the tune of “Cold, Cold Heart.” When her mother entered the room, she was amazed at her child’s perfect intonation and her memorization of every lyric. Mom knew that Juanita had been blessed with something special and helped her little girl to realize it. Juanita was proud to become a parishioner and continue to sing at the St. Peter Claver Catholic church, at 12th and Lombard streets. This was the first predominantly black Catholic Church in the city and was established in 1892. She served as a school crossing guard, watching out for the kids at her post at 12th and Wharton streets. After 10 years of faithful service, she has recently retired.
I again had the occasion to experience her spiritually uplifting voice on June 20. This time, it was at the funeral of my cousin, and Vincent Sr.’s son, Vince Jr. As we entered St. Nick’s church, I could not help but remember all of the times Juanita had blessed our family since that Mass in 1994. She had helped us cope with our grief on at least 10 other occasions. The reverence she exhibited during the Mass made you realize the special appreciation she holds for her gift that God has provided. When she sang, “The Lord’s Prayer,” it was stunning. Later in the Mass, her rendition of the beautiful “Ave Maria” brought most of the attendees to tears. But these tears were not tears of grief. They were more the product of being touched by a talent that few people have.
At the end of my cousin’s mass, Juanita sang “Song of Farewell” by Ernest Sands:
May the choirs of angels
come to greet you.
May they speed you to paradise.
May the Lord enfold you
in His mercy.
May you find eternal life.
At that moment, I could not help but be filled with emotion and felt blessed to be there. Once I asked her how she regarded the precious gift that God had given her. She replied that she viewed it as His plan for her to help take people from the depths of despair and lift them to a place where they could feel the hope and promise of everlasting life.
How wonderful is that? IAH
Charlie Sacchetti is the author of two books, “It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change,” and “Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org