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Mom With 16 Children Had Devotion to St. Gerard Majella, Patron of Motherhood, Unborn Children, and Fertility

Sienna Napoletano, now 3, was “besties” with her great-grandmother, Josephine Spano, who died Dec. 6, 2023, at age 89. (Photo: Courtesy of the Spano family)

YONKERS — Sienna Napoletano is 3 years old, but she already knows about St. Gerard Majella, the 18th-century Italian lay brother who became patron saint of motherhood, unborn children, and fertility. 

Sienna’s great-grandmother, Josephine Spano, had a unique devotion to the saint. She made sure little ones in her lineage received St. Gerard medals. Sienna proudly wears hers on a chain. Her great-grandmother was 89 when she died last December. 

When asked about her, Sienna doesn’t hesitate. 

“I love you,” she said of the Spano family matriarch. “I miss you.” 

Sienna Napoletano presents her St. Gerard Majella medal, a gift from her great-grandmother, Josephine Spano. (Photo: Bill Miller)

They all miss Josephine: 16 children, 42 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren. Her husband, Leonard, a longtime Yonkers businessman and retired Westchester County clerk, died in 2019. 

It was a set of twins more than 60 years ago that started Josephine’s devotion to St. Gerard. 

After the birth of the Spanos’ first-born child, Nick, Josephine became pregnant again, this time with twins. But the premature babies died soon after delivery. 

“My mother was heartbroken,” said her fifth child, Lenny. “The doctor told her she wouldn’t be able to have any more children after she lost the twins. 

The doctor also recommended she ask for the intercession of St. Gerard, the patron saint of motherhood and fertility. 

Josephine made a pledge that if she had more children, she’d always be grateful to St. Gerard, Lenny said. 

Although none of the children were “planned,” their mother seemed to always be pregnant for 25 years, Lenny said.

Their father, son of Italian immigrants and a former Marine, worked for his family’s coal and ice business, which he later built into a heating oil supply company. 

Later he entered local politics, first as a Westchester County legislator for 22 years, followed by 12 years as county clerk.

Josephine, meanwhile, was excited about each pregnancy, said the seventh child, Rosemarie. Each time she went into labor the rest of the kids stayed with relatives in Yonkers.

“It was like a little adventure,” Rosemarie said. “And she always came home in a couple of days with a new baby.” 

With so many mouths to feed, Josephine and Leonard developed systems to make sure everyone was fed, clothed, and transported to and from school and Mass. 

Leonard and Josephine Spano at their wedding in 1952. They went on to become the parents of 16 children after asking for the intercession of St. Gerard, patron saint of unborn children and motherhood. (Photo: Courtesy of the Spano family)

Older sisters helped take care of the littler kids, especially in the diaper-changing department, Rosemarie said. 

Brothers were also busy in the kitchen, buttering countless slices of toast for breakfast and packing school lunches. 

“It just worked,” Lenny said. 

The Spanos’ last child, Vinny, was born in 1975 when Josephine was 42. 

Four of the 16 Spano siblings gather at the shrine for St. Gerard in the home of their late parents, Leonard and Josephine Spano. They are (from left) Lenny Spano, Vickie Smith, Rosemarie Gannon, and Loretta Spano. (Photo: Bill Miller)

“The doctor was advising her to get an abortion,” Rosemarie said. “Back then, they thought that something would be wrong with him when he was born, but she did not even think of it.”

The Spano political dynasty expanded to Nick, a former New York State senator. Mike, the eighth child, is a former state assemblyman and Yonkers’ mayor since 2012. 

Lenny, a retired police officer, now runs schools for special needs children. He said other family members have served Yonkers as cops, firefighters, teachers, and business leaders.

All but one of the 16 children still live there. Joanne, the sixth born, resides in White Plains. 

Mike is the eldest of the family’s second half of children. Among them are sisters Vickie and Loretta. They recalled being little kids when some of their older siblings had already left home and started families of their own. 

But Leonard and Josephine instilled unity. 

“They kept us together,” Vickie said. “We love hard, we fight hard, but all in all, we’re tight. And that’s because of our mom and dad. You don’t hold grudges, you respect, and that’s just how they brought us up. There was no other option.” 

Devotion to St. Gerard is another family tradition. Since 1971, the family has sponsored an annual Mass in honor of the saint. The 51st was in 2022 — Josephine’s last. 

The Spano family story made headlines over the years and inspired worldwide letters to Josephine from people hoping for children. For example, a Nigerian woman wrote about a blockage to her right fallopian tube. 

The shrine for St. Gerard still highlights the home of Leonard and Josephine Spano. (Photo: Bill Miller)

“I desperately want another child,” she wrote. “I need the intercession of St. Gerard to

make it a reality. I need his intercession to have healthy full-term babies without any complications.” 

Many of these letters will be included on a website that the family is developing to share the Spanos’ story and promote devotion to the saint. 

“My mother was passionate because for the expecting mom, she could relate,” Vickie said. “But my father was always right there with her, spreading the word about St. Gerard.”

One thought on “Mom With 16 Children Had Devotion to St. Gerard Majella, Patron of Motherhood, Unborn Children, and Fertility

  1. “Grateful to Current News and The Tablet for spotlighting my mom’s devotion to St. Gerard. Her story of faith and love inspires countless hearts. Thank you!”