July 15, 2016

A life of love: Matriarch’s legacy to family includes always being there, sharing the faith

Nearing her 94th birthday, Santa Constantino Bayt shows her love for the Blessed Mother by lighting candles every day in her honor, asking for blessings for her family that extends to more than 400 people. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Nearing her 94th birthday, Santa Constantino Bayt shows her love for the Blessed Mother by lighting candles every day in her honor, asking for blessings for her family that extends to more than 400 people. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a challenge to try to capture the essence of a person’s life in just one story, but Antoinette Dullaghan believes she has the perfect one about Santa Constantino Bayt.

The story unfolds on Santa’s wedding day, a day when Santa was 28 and Antoinette was her 5-year-old goddaughter.

The godmother and godchild had been close ever since Antoinette’s mother had died when Antoinette was just 6 months old. That closeness was reflected in a ritual they often shared in the home where they lived together, a home where a statue of the Blessed Mother was featured prominently. Santa would approach the statue with Antoinette and implore Mary, “Bless this little girl and watch over her.”

“She poured her love into me, and she didn’t have to,” Antoinette says. “I was always important to her.”

Yet on the day Santa was preparing to get married at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis, the little girl warily walked into the room, worrying that their bond was about to end.

“She was so radiant,” Antoinette recalls nearly 66 years later. “She looked down at this little 5-year-old girl and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll always be there for you.’ ”

Antoinette wipes away a tear and says, “It was such an emotional moment for me. And she has always been there for me.”

A life and a legacy of love

As Santa prepares to turn 94 on July 27, those words—“she has always been there for me”—could be the defining legacy of her life. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed repeatedly by the members of her extended family that has grown to more than 400 people.

They share how she still lives with and takes care of her son Michael, who has Down syndrome.

They add how she cared for her father when he lost a leg to diabetes, and for her mother when she was crippled in an accident.

They mention how, at 91, she stayed by the side of her husband as he lost his battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and how she still found time to be there for her sister, Mary Nancy, as she struggled with dementia before she died.

They also offer another insight about her as they point to the shrine to Jesus and the Blessed Mother that she keeps in her home.

“She lights a candle there every night,” says Gina Battiston, Santa’s niece. “And for all the kids in the family who are sick, she puts their picture up there, and she’ll pray for them.”

Then there’s this tribute from Thomas Sarfaty, who is married to another niece of Santa. He looks at Santa and says, “I wasn’t Catholic before I married into the family. The main reason I converted was because of her faith and the way she talked about and cared about people.”

‘Family is most important’

Everyone is shaped by the family they grow up in, and often by their birth order in their family.

For Santa, those truths came to life during a fun, memorable tradition in the near south side Indianapolis home where she grew up—a home built on the foundations of faith, family and food.

The evening tradition began with the overflowing, multi-generational Constantino family sitting together for a dinner of homemade spaghetti and sauce.

Next came the praying of the rosary. And when the last prayer was said, the kitchen table was moved to the side, the radio turned on, and Uncle Joe—an Arthur Murray instructor—shared the latest dance steps with anyone willing to try.

It could be a joyous, breathtaking time—but not for Santa, the oldest of the five children of Antonia and Demetrio Constantino. As others danced, Santa joined her mother in cleaning the dishes and the kitchen.

“The culture she grew up in is that the family is most important, and you have to take responsibility,” says Antonia Zunarelli, one of Santa’s eight children. “You were taught you had to help one another, to work hard.”

Yet while Santa never made it to the family dance floor, there is no hint of bitterness that her steps and moves were always partnered with hard work and responsibility.

She smiles when she talks about how she took care of her siblings when her Italian immigrant parents headed to the City Market in Indianapolis in the early morning to work at their produce stand—and how later in the day, she led her siblings to the market where she began to work at the age of 8, selling shopping bags.

She also talks with pride about operating her own produce stand when she was 15. She ran it on Saturdays during her high school years at the former St. Mary Academy, and added Tuesdays and Thursdays during her summer breaks.

Besides, there were other times when she danced, including a dance that changed her life.

Memories of joy, heartbreak and a home

“The Catholics had a dance at the Indiana Roof Ballroom,” Santa recalls about her life in her early 20s. “You’d go over there and play cards and dance. That’s where I met him.”

Henry Bayt was always more of a golfer than a dancer, but one of his friends convinced him to come to the dance with this enticement, “We’re going to meet a lot of girls.”

He met Santa, and that meeting led five years later to their wedding at Holy Rosary. They had eight children together, living in a large double next to her sister Jay and Jay’s husband Jack Hawkins—a couple who also had eight children.

“Jack died when he was 39,” Santa says as she sits at her kitchen table, just a few blocks from Holy Rosary Church. “Five years after he died, my sister died. That left their kids without a father and a mother.”

Santa started caring for 16 children.

“I did not go to bed,” she says with a smile. “I stayed up at night and made sure everyone was home and didn’t get in any mischief. It was a job. When I didn’t find them at home when they should be, I’d get in the car and go get them.

“It was hard, but it didn’t bother me because I wanted to make sure they grew up and did the right thing. They all turned out pretty good.”

‘She did it with grace’

As Santa’s 94th birthday nears, her children and the family members who became her children think of the gift that she has been to the generations of the Bayt, Constantino, Corsaro, Hawkins and Page families whose roots extend to her.

“Her life has been an example of self-sacrifice and selfless duty,” her daughter Antonia says. “Faith was a given for her. You believed, and you loved unconditionally. You had fun along the way, but you also had these tenets to live by.

“We all went to Catholic grade schools and Catholic high schools. Faith was an extension of your everyday life. It was something you were taught to live by. And when we had a choice to raise our kids with Catholic values, we did.”

Her goddaughter Antoinette adds, “When I care for people, I think, ‘My godmother did this, and she did it with grace. She never complained.’ ”

As for Santa, she just has one major wish for her birthday celebration. Naturally, it’s a wish that focuses on her family.

“I want everybody to enjoy themselves, and be nice to one another,” she says. “I want everyone to treat each other right—as brothers and sisters—and to think of how nice it is to have a family like this.” †

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