All the parishioners of Christ the King in Northeast Philadelphia knew Massimo “Max” Natali. That is because he could usually be found in the first pew of the church where he would sit close to the pulpit and under the gaze of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
His prayerful holiness was evident right up until the day he died on June 27 at age 98.
On what would have been Max’s 99th birthday on Sept. 19, that first pew of his beloved parish church was dedicated with a brass plate in his name during the Saturday evening vigil Mass. (See the dedication prayer below.)
“He was very devotional,” recalled Christ the King’s pastor, Father James Callahan.
In addition to going to daily Mass for as long as anyone can remember, Max joined ladies praying the rosary after each day’s Mass, “leading devotional hymns with his deep voice among the women,” Father Callahan said.
A longtime parish sacristan, Max opened the church doors every day, prepared for Mass and closed after the daily rosary – working as an unpaid volunteer for at least 20 years.
He would show groups of parish school children visiting the church its behind-the-scenes operations such as the sacristy preparations for Mass and up close at the altar, and explain the sacred art in the church.
One aspect of devotional art is the church’s stations of the cross. After Mass, Max would go around to the panels and kiss each one – such was the piety that made an impression on his fellow parishioners.
When the parish adopted the Flocknote system of contacting parishioners with important information, Father Callahan was happy to have it, because without it, “if something happened to Max, I’d have no way to communicate with everyone,” he said. “Everyone knew him.”
Fran Williams, a longtime Christ the King parishioner and its director of parish services, said Max “was an inspirational person, very grounded.”
Originally Max’s family, including his mother and her two sisters, immigrated from Italy to Philadelphia, settling in the former North Philadelphia parish for Italians, St. Mary of the Eternal.
Max would go on to serve as a U.S. Army combat soldier in World War II.
Later Max, his mother, his aunts and their families all moved into Morrell Park and were among the first members of Christ the King Parish when it was founded in 1963.
He never married, but he enjoyed and enriched the young nieces and nephews in his life. Those kin include Gerald Vogwill, Elaine Vogwilll, Louis Vogwill, Rosemary Vogwill, Thomas Wireman Sr., Judy Wireman, Dennis Natali, Antoinette Greene, Geraldine Ashby, Sharon Wireman, Mary Wireman, Mark Wireman and the late Linda Vogwill and Ann Wireman. He was predeceased by his sisters Mary Vogwill and Josephine Wireman.
Today he is also survived by 46 great-nieces and great-nephews.
Although the faithful servant Max Natali no longer prays from that first pew of the left side of the church, as parishioners pass by it when returning from Communion, they are reminded that personal holiness isn’t only the preserve of departed saints.
Sometimes a faith-filled person living a very long life in relative anonymity outside his own neighborhood, like Max, can remain a sign divine grace working through each of us each day, no matter how many days God calls us to live.
Prayer of Dedication, Sept. 19, 2020
God our Father, in loving care your hand has created us, and as the potter fashions the clay you have formed us in your image. Through the Holy Spirit you have breathed into us the gift of life, in the sharing of love you have enriched our knowledge of you and one another.
We claim your love today as we remember the life and work of Max Natali — his family, friends, all of us the people of Christ the King Parish, his many accomplishments and especially his life of prayerful devotion in this church and in this pew. May this memorial placed in his honor be a constant reminder of all these things.
This plaque in his pew dedicated this September 19th, 2020 — the day of his 99th birthday, it reminds us of many things but especially his own words — how he answered all who greeted him: “How are you Max?”
“Wonderful, marvelous and terrific.”
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