Exactly 100 years after a Christmas Eve tragedy, the author reveals the truth about his family and a three-legged dog.
by David Mattia
When I was 11-years old, an abandoned house behind the old railroad tracks had caught fire during the night and burned down. This was a great curiosity for me, so when school let out the following day, I walked home via the long route in order to see the rubble. As I approached what was left of the house, I saw a plain yellow dog darting about fretfully amidst the debris. She was a mangy and emaciated street dog, but in spite of her miserable appearance, she energetically ran back and forth toward me and then away from me — as if she wanted me to show me something or to take me somewhere.
As I followed her, I finally noticed that she had only three legs. You’d think her missing limb would have been the first thing to catch my eye, but she was very quick and agile without the leg, and the burned out house was the real focus of my attention anyway.
I followed her body-language-beckoning to a spot where she was pushing her nose against a fallen door. I lifted the charred, soggy door, and beneath it I found three dead puppies. She pushed the puppies around with her nose for a few minutes, and finally, exhausted from whatever she’d been through since the blaze, she laid down wearily. I reached inside my pocket and fed her the banana that Barry Smith forgot to steal from my lunchbox that day. I guess she understood her own sad situation better than I did, because when I slipped some rope over her neck, she did not resist. As I walked her away from the wreckage, she only looked back once. I took her home, and when my grandmother greeted us at the door, I assumed I was in big trouble. I was always bringing home stray dogs and cats, but this one was an unhealthy mess — and she was missing a leg, too.
For some strange reason, and to my amazement, my grandmother wasn’t angry at all. Instead, she started crying. She gathered the dog up in a towel and carried her to the basement where she gave her a warm flea bath in the big sink by the washing machine. She said, “When your mother gets home, we’ll take her to the veterinarian.” I was flabbergasted. This didn’t make sense. My grandmother hated dogs… didn’t she? Why was she crying?
“What do you want to name her,” my grandmother asked. Before I could think of anything, my grandmother said, “We’re going to call her Christina. She sure looks like a Christina to me.”
Within a week, Christina was all fixed up and she quickly became my grandmother’s constant companion, although it still didn’t make sense to me. Apart from cooking for them, my grandmother never had much to do with my pets, and as far as I knew, she’d never had a pet of her own. I always assumed Grandma didn’t like animals at all, and that it was always my mother’s say-so that commanded safe passage for all the strays that entered our home.
The following Christmas, I overheard my Aunt Mary talking about something, but her words were quickly hushed by other grown-ups the moment I walked into the room. It was only a brief comment about a murder, but the fact that there seemed to be a great secrecy about it, prompted me to ask my mother a whole lot of questions. Finally, after my millionth question, mom sat me down and told me a story that pulled all the pieces together.
On a warm Christmas Eve in Avignon, France, Damiano, a man I never met, was murdered in the cathedral where he’d been commissioned to repair a marble depiction of the Crucifixion. The renowned artist Simone Di Nanni Ferrucci sculpted this incredible work of art in 1431. The life-sized effigy, considered to be a priceless antiquity, had been badly damaged by bullets fired into it the previous Christmas Eve by a deranged young man named Michaud who proclaimed to frightened churchgoers that his mission on earth was to assassinate Jesus Christ.
Michaud, known throughout the town as a crazy person, was promptly arrested, and, at the request of his humiliated family, he was confined to an asylum.
Exactly one year later to the day, Michaud escaped from his cell. Under cover of early morning darkness, he returned to the cathedral where Damiano had just begun to disassemble the scaffolding from which he’d worked his creative magic for nearly two months. The repairs he made were magnificent to the point where a visiting priest was inspired to write in his diary, “…and no blemishes or any hints of such malevolent intent could be discerned. It was miraculous.”
Unnoticed by anyone, and carrying a pistol he’d stolen from a jeweler, Michaud wandered into the church, pointed up at the scaffolding, and shot Damiano in the head. Confident that Damiano was probably dead, Michaud used a second bullet to shoot Damiano’s loyal dog. The bullet tore off the dog’s front leg and lodged in the marble wall beneath the crucifix. Seriously injured and bleeding profusely, the dog somehow managed to climb the ladder of the scaffold and sat whimpering atop the body of its dead master.
Before he could fire his remaining bullets into the statue — which was his ultimate mission — Michaud was tackled by a priest named Father Dimaud, and a “simple-minded” handyman named Fabrice who had come to deliver flowers and candles for the Christmas Mass.
When the poorly-trained police arrived, Damiano’s dog, uncharacteristically ferocious and protective, would not let anyone near his body. In spite of a badly damaged leg, the dog snapped and snarled angrily at anyone who attempted to climb the scaffolding. It was a 10-foot drop to the marble floor, and with footing so narrow and shaky, it was decided that Damiano, who was obviously quite dead, could only be removed safely if his dog, already gravely wounded, were to be shot dead, too.
While all of this was going on, a frantic woman ran through the local streets and alleys shouting wildly, “He killed the artist! He killed the artist!” A young woman named Julienne, sitting with her four little daughters in a nearby rented apartment, heard the frantic shouts and immediately knew that it was her husband who had been killed. Damiano was the only “artist” that anyone ever spoke about in town, so who else could it be? When Julienne tried to run to the church she was held back by Damiano’s cousin Elvira DeLuc, a large and powerfully-built woman who often travelled with the young couple in the hope of finding a suitable husband.
With Julienne being looked after by well-meaning neighbors, Elvira hurried to the cathedral alone. Once there, she forcefully pushed aside the bungling authorities and some curious onlookers. She climbed the scaffold and picked up the lifeless Damiano with one arm and his mutilated dog with the other. Carrying this cumbersome load, Elvira carefully maneuvered her ample frame back down the scaffold ladder where she handed Damiano’s body to men who laid him down on the ground. Elvira then continued on to the apartment with the injured dog in her arms.
Years later, in badly broken English, an elderly Elvira said, “Damiano… he was very dead. He was dead the way a person is dead when you know they are dead. The priest gave him the Blessings of the Dying, but he was already dead and with God. The poor dog walked every day to the church looking for him — like a crippled friend in eternal grief.”
While this story of a madman shooting up a church sadly sounds as though it could very well have happened yesterday, this tragic event actually occurred in 1917. Because of the Great War being waged throughout Europe, hardly any public records exist so as to better explain exactly what happened with any kind of professional or forensic detail. Instead, the story has been handed down using what little information could be gleaned from a few scraps of faded newspaper clippings, and by the stories of reliable people in my family from one generation to the next.
This year, on Christmas Eve, with no one who ever knew Damiano still walking the earth, I will mark the 100th anniversary of Damiano’s death because he was my maternal great-grandfather and he was a great man. If I don’t tell his story, no one else ever will. Keep in mind that this story gets very weird — almost implausible — but like all the stories I tell about my strange life, it’s absolutely true.
Born in 1890 to an Italian father and a French mother, Damiano, named after his paternal grandfather, grew up in the Italian city of Ventimiglia — a stone’s throw away from the French-Italian border. While still a child, Damiano showed great promise as an artist. In his teenage years, fluent in both French and Italian, he earned money wandering around France and Italy working diligently, albeit cheaply, as a portrait painter-for-hire. He was very well educated for a man of his time, and his inner circle of friends consisted mostly of Bohemian writers, musicians and painters.
In 1910, while plying his portrait-painting trade in the French city of Roquebrune-sur-Argens, Damiano met and began courting Julienne Sibilie, a young French girl who would go on to become my great-grandmother. Julienne, the only solid citizen in her immediate family, was the daughter of a shady lawyer named Dominique, and his kooky wife Adalyn, a self-proclaimed spiritualist and psychic, who masqueraded as a direct descendant of the blue-blooded House of Roucy. The undeniable fact that the ancestral line to which she claimed membership had been rendered genealogically extinct since the 12th century did not dissuade Adalyn from attaching herself to their illustrious ghosts. Gullible people with money to burn were enchanted by her schtick, and they handed over large sums of money to attend her séances. What this basically means is that my great-great grandmother was a grief vampire, and if she lived today, she’d be trying to pitch her own reality show.
The Sibilie family was hardly thrilled with their daughter’s love for a wandering artist, but when there was a reversal of fortune within the family, they had an instant change of heart. With their money running out, the family encouraged their daughter to marry Damiano. After all, his talents were putting food on the table, and he had overwhelmingly charmed their well-heeled friends who would have otherwise ditched them completely for being broke.
Uninspired by his own work — which he considered to be mediocre — and prompted by his new society connections, Damiano devoted his artistic talents to the restoration of treasured artwork which was either privately owned, or displayed in churches throughout France and Italy in those early, war-torn days of the 20th century. He was a pioneer in his field. Somewhat frail and asthmatic, Damiano was denied military enlistment where he’d aspired to be an officer. For that reason, and to keep safe from danger throughout the war, he and Julienne spent the duration of the war moving from place to place.
From 1912 through 1917, the marriage of Damiano and Julienne produced four daughters. Their first-born was my grandmother, Nancy. Neither Damiano nor Julienne chose that name for their new baby girl. Instead, my grandmother was named by a Belgian nun who helped to deliver her at a convent located behind Église Saint-Sébastien de Nancy, in Nancy, France where Damiano had found good work and a brief respite from his money-grubbing in-laws. Mounting tensions on the French-German frontier, forced the couple back to the area around Avignon where Damiano was ultimately killed.
For several years, Elvira helped Julienne raise her four young daughters, and when their crippled dog eventually died, the family gathered together to bury it on a hillside near an olive tree grove. The dog was the only thing the children could connect to their father. They simply had been too young to remember him. Even my grandmother, who was almost five when her father was murdered, only remembered that he was a painter and that there had once been a great commotion with people screaming, “He shot the painter! He shot the painter!”
When Julienne and her daughters came to the United States with Elvira still in tow, my grandmother would tell people that her father was a famous painter who had died during the great flu epidemic of 1918. When I was a little kid, I too was always told that my grandmother’s father had died during the great flu epidemic. It wasn’t until I overheard my Aunt Mary’s comment that my mom finally told me the truth.
Why was this such a secret? I don’t think I’ll ever know. Perhaps the family, as one would expect, was so damaged by this murder that they tried to pretend that it never happened. What made this entire story even more bizarre was the fact that Damiano’s loyal dog, the dog that refused to leave his side, even with one leg shot off, was named Christina. Of course this explains my grandmother’s tears at the sight of my three-legged stray, and why she named her Christina, too. The death of my grandmother’s father had come around full circle and brought peace to my grandmother in the form of another three-legged dog who’d arrived as a prayerful proxy for the three-legged dog who came before her. From then on, there were no more secrets in my family.
Nearly twelve years later, with my grandmother in rapidly declining health, she told my mom that she wanted to die at home. My mother obliged and prepared a special room for her on the ground floor where she was attended to by a woman named Maria.
Christina, by this time very old herself, would lie down next to grandma from sunrise to sunset. On a Monday morning, Grandma reached over, put her hand on Christina’s head and said, “He shot the painter, Christina. He shot the painter.” A moment later my beautiful grandmother Nancy was gone. When Mr. Bernardinelli, the man from the funeral home, came to take her away, Christina did not resist or object like the Christina who had come before her. As they removed my grandmother’s remains from the house, Christina hobbled away and looked back only once — the same thing she did when she had to walk away from her dead babies.
Epilogue: This past summer, I went to Avignon to visit my cousin Philippe and my Aunt Olympia. I went to the church where my great-grandfather Damiano was murdered. The marble crucifix had been removed during World War II, and its whereabouts are not publicly known, but beneath the spot where the cross once hung, there is a small bronze disc through which a screw is secured into the bullet hole so as to prevent the crack emanating from getting any bigger. On December 25, 2017, that bronze disc, which was put there by the simple handyman named Fabrice, will have been there for exactly 100 years. Elvira lived to be very old, and I knew her very well when I was a kid. She never had any success finding a husband in Europe, but while living out her life in the USA from 1921-1988, she was happily married… three times. Merry Christmas, folks.