LAWRENCE — As a young mother, Santina Nicolosi Raymond would hold her babies Pierre and Alfio up to the sacred statues carried by members of the St. Alfio Society during their annual Feast of the Three Saints on Common Street.
It was an act of faith to seek blessings for her children and to preserve a centuries-old tradition rooted in the Sicilian village where she grew up.
Sunday morning, Raymond kissed a photo of Pierre before she left her Lawrence home to go to Holy Rosary Church of Corpus Christi Parish, where the feast was being celebrated. There during Mass, she watched her oldest son, Alfio, accept the red sash that marked his induction into the society. Then he clenched his fists twice, straightened his shoulders, and accepted a red sash for his brother, Pierre, an Army sergeant who died eight years ago in a mortar blast while serving in Ramadi, Iraq.
“I kissed his face and I said to Pierre, ‘This is a great day for you, too,’” said Raymond, 71.
Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, delivered a homily at the Mass in celebration of Saints Alfio, Filadelfo, and Cirino, brothers who were martyred when they refused to renounce Christianity in 253.
They are especially revered in Trecastagni, Santina Raymond’s hometown, where the saints stayed briefly before their deaths.
The Lawrence society seeks to honor the three saints through charity, worship, and fellowship.
Frank Mazzaglia, a member of the society for nearly a decade, said Pierre’s posthumous induction was unprecedented, but the 160 men in the group voted unanimously to admit him.
“In 90 years in the entire history of the society, this is the first time that happened,” Mazzaglia said.
Pierre joined the military in the late 1990s and served in Bosnia before he was discharged. He was home in 2004 for the Feast of the Three Saints, which his mother remembers as the time he made up his mind to join the society.
“He said, ‘For sure, next year I’m going to join,’” she recalled.
She said her son had always been charitable and a good Catholic. When he was about 8, Pierre asked for work and swept the floor at a business near his home. He came home beaming, a single dollar in his hand, Santina Raymond said. He donated it to the church.
In the spring of 2005, the National Guard recalled Pierre. He bounced between bases before he was sent to Kuwait, then Iraq. He called home often and phoned his mother one day in mid-September at 6 a.m. her time, when he knew she would be home.
His mother’s birthday was approaching, and Pierre wanted to wish her well and let her know he was safe.
“I want you to go out and celebrate life, and I want you to have a double drink – one for me and one for you,” Raymond remembers her son saying.
A day later the military called. Pierre was severely injured. The shrapnel had split her son’s heart in two. Doctors could do nothing but keep him alive for the family to visit.
The Raymond family flew to Germany to be with Pierre in his last hours.
Eight years later, Santina said she relies on her faith to handle the anguish that still rubs her raw.
“It’s always painful to remember, but I pray to God to give me strength and for him to be in heaven,” she said.
Alfio remembers his brother’s humor – he used to say he loved French toast, but not because of his French name – and his generosity.
“I just wish more people could have met him,” Alfio said.
The red sash, embroidered with a shimmering gold border, will be placed in a collection of mementos that includes Pierre’s war medals and the American flag the military gave his mother after his death.
“This is a great legacy to our homeland country,” Santina said. “And my son Pierre’s memory lives on.”