Our Lady of Itatí

William Henry Hudson will have to forgive me for borrowing the wonderful title of his novel. There is a reason for the brazen plagiarism because this time I am sharing what I can remember of something that happened the year of 1958, early in the autumn of the southern hemisphere.

I was barely four years old at the time. My parents had just bought a small house with plenty of backyard for a four year old to play. Of that house I remember but a few details: the ample kitchen with an oak table where I sat to read and draw, my room, and a Crucifix made of bronze above my parent’s bed—my parents were nominally Catholic and the Crucifix was a wedding present of my very Catholic Irish grandmother— and the yard where I played daily. The yard had an incline of sorts and it was my pleasure to climb to the top and allow myself to roll down all the way to the edge of the lot. Simple pleasures of an age with much less electronics to entertain the young ones. There was a small front yard that I used to visit from time to time when the weather was fair.

The summer before the accident. Behind the fence our little neighbor Kelly. Standing, Grandma (Rosary barely visible in her left hand). Sitting left to right cousin Carmen, yours truly —ever robust and sporting the now lost mane— cousins Helena and “Chiche” Pilatti. Photo taken in the backyard.

A low wall and three pillars separated the front yard from the sidewalk. From time to time I used to climb to the top of the pillars and stand on the flat surface. Of course, that was forbidden but I did it anyway until one morning, while my parents were away at work, I had an accident. Something scared me and I tried to jump off the top of the pillar (about 5 or 6 ft.) I ended up tripping and hitting the edge of the stone-slab entrance with my young disobedient head. The hit knocked me unconscious. My nanny, Graciela, found me there bleeding profusely from a two inch wide wound on my forehead. I was told that I had cracked my skull and lost some gray matter. Graciela washed the wound, wrapped my head in a big towel, lifted my limp body in her arms, and ran a block or two to Dr. Korn’s office where I was fixed, returning home after a few hours.

Nanny Graciela was in her late teens or early twenties. I remember she was the sweetest nanny one could have. She was from one of the northeastern provinces, Corrientes. Her home was a tropical paradise compared to the cold and unforgiving Patagonia of my infancy but Corrientes was different also in one important thing, the devotion to Our Lady of Itatí (pron. ee-tah-tee) the Queen of the mighty Paraná River that flows majestically from the Amazonian rainforest to the South Atlantic.

By the time I had my accident, my parents had cut even the flimsy connection they had to the Catholic Church. They were very vocal about it also. As other members of the extended family asked about the date of my baptism they were quickly dismissed with the phrase “he will get baptized in the religion of his own choice when he grows up!” (which I did!) Graciela, who was a devout Catholic, given her northern roots, must have been quite scandalized. Back then, the country was very Catholic compared to its present state. I am sure my baptism or lack thereof was a topic of conversation when my very Catholic grandmother visited in the afternoon while my parents were away.

Parish of St. Therese of Lisieux, on Quirós St. in Buenos Aires

Many years later, in 2001, I was baptized, confirmed, and received my first communion many miles away in London, England truly half a world distant from my quaint Patagonian hometown. But even after my official baptism I always had the strong suspicion that I had been baptized before. I imagined that perhaps my auntie Julia or my Grandmother (both faithful Catholics) could have done the deed in secret. I thought I would never know for sure until a few days ago. I was telling the anecdote of my falling from the pillar to a friend. I was explaining the scar on my forehead to her when all of a sudden the name “Graciela” came to mind very strongly. Through the decades I thought of sweet Graciela when reminiscing about my happy childhood in Patagonia but I never called to mind her devotion until a few days ago. I recalled from deep in the recesses of my mind asking Graciela about a medal she was wearing. “Es la medalla de Nuestra Señora de Itatí” (it’s the medal of Our Lady of Itatí) she explained showing me the medal and letting me hold it in my hand. I think that was the first time in my life I heard someone pray a Hail Mary aloud. She told me some marvelous stories afterwards but I can’t remember them. How I wish I could! By the way, Graciela means favored, grace, blessing.

Sixty three years later the memory of the accident came to me somehow along with the day when Graciela let me hold the medal. Everything except the scar on my forehead seem like a dream now, so distant are those days both in the calendar and in my heart. Where is Graciela? She should be in her late seventies or early eighties now. God knows. I hope we see each other again one day.

From  the sudden burst of those early memories in my mind I had the certainty that she decided to baptize me. Canonically she was in the right: a head wound on a four year old is something deadly serious. She quickly washed the wound under the faucet and wrapped my head in a towel before running to the doctor’s office. She only had to say the words: “Yo te bautizo en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo” (I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.) And it was done. Would I have died that day, I would have gone straight to Heaven. Did she do it? I am almost certain she did. Some would say is only my imagination, wishful thinking, etc. and it may very well be but … there are some hints.

About four years later, my family moved to Buenos Aires, the big city. Graciela did not come with us. By the age of ten, I was going to a school that was only a few blocks from home. I was old enough to walk back home by myself every morning before noon —those were gentler and safer times— On the way back from school I had to walk past a Catholic church. It was the parish of Santa Teresita (St. Thérèse of Lisieux) where the priest, Fr. Roque Chichidimo, kept the doors of the temple wide open during the day. Every time I walked by the entrance I looked inside to see the big Crucifix behind the altar. Every time I looked into the church I felt the impulse to enter and see the bleeding wounds of Christ, I wanted to see Him from up close but I never dared. Perhaps that impulse was related to my emergency baptism only a few years before. Perhaps it was Him simply calling me. I will know one day. But there is more, there is a strange coincidence.

A few years ago I paid a visit to the old parish and I found out it was inaugurated in 1930, on the day of my birthday, October 10. In pre-conciliar times that used to be the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. After the II Vatican Council it was moved to October 1st. For those who play with numbers and dates: October 10, 1930 —the day when the church was inaugurated— is (to the day exactly) 24 years before my day of birth. St. Thérèse of Lisieux lived only 24 years. Of all places in Buenos Aires, my parents decided to move to a house across the street from that parish. Talk about coincidences!

I bet I am not the only one who wonders sometimes if our lives are not being guided by an invisible hand that proposes to us a turn here or there. Perhaps one day we will be able to see our life path from above. I bet it will make perfect sense.


The house in Esquel as it stands today. Pillars and fence were removed long ago. The stone slabs are still the same.




A beautiful little haunting song from Corrientes