Seventeen years ago, Peter Mattaliano found two letters to Santa, nearly a century old, when he was renovating the fireplace of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. The letters were written by 10-year-old Mary McGann and her younger brother, Alfred.
In his letter, Alfred asked Santa for a drum and a hook-and-ladder fire truck. Mary’s letter was more touching, showing her selflessness even at a young age.
She asked Santa for a wagon for her brother “which I know you cannot afford,” and for herself “something nice what you think best.” She signed off with the request: “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.”
Mary’s letter haunted Mattaliano, who is now 67, and an acting coach and screenwriter, The New York Times reports.
“For somebody to show that kind of humanity at that early age,” he said. “I just could not stand to see her be forgotten.”
Mattaliano had the letter to Santa framed and displayed above the fireplace. Every Christmas, he honors the brother and sister by putting up decorations and laying out their presents — a firetruck for Alfred and a doll for Mary.
Through online genealogical research, Mattaliano found that Mary and Alfred were the children of Patrick and Esther McGann, Irish immigrants who married in 1896. Mary was born in 1897 and Alfred in 1900.
He learned from historical records that the children’s father has died suddenly in 1904 and were being raised by their mother, a dressmaker.
Through his research, Mattaliano found that Mary ended up marrying a George McGahan and the couple was childless.
He discovered from cemetery records that Mary and George were both buried in Mount St Mary Cemetery in Queens. However, when he got to their grave, Mattaliano was upset to find that for whatever reason, Mary’s name was never added to the headstone under her husband’s when she died three years after him.
All of this hit home for Mattaliano, a bachelor with no children. He murmured a graveside promise to Mary that he would fix this.
The task proved to be tougher than he thought. He was told by cemetery staff members that to add her name, he needed permission from either the buyer of the plot or a relative. The buyer of the plot was deceased and Mattaliano could not find a living relative.
Then he heard from a distant cousin of Mary’s, a man living in Ireland. Brian Dempsey, 56, a schoolteacher from County Kildare, read about Mattaliano’s story in an Irish newspaper article. He agreed to send Mattaliano a notarized letter granting permission to add Mary’s name to the tombstone. He also sent a bag of soil from a field near the small farm in Lullymore where Mary’s mother grew up before emigrating.
However, even with the letter, Mattaliano still had difficulty getting the cemetery’s permission. Then a Christmas miracle had happened: the Metropolitan Cemetery Association held its annual holiday luncheon in a catering hall on Jericho Turnpike, a few miles from Mary’s grave site.
A board member of the association, Jan Neuman, had read about Mattaliano and Mary’s story in the New York Times and invited Mattaliano to the meeting to share the story with the group.
Mattaliano attended the meeting and told the story of Mary’s big-hearted letter to Santa and where she wound up. He then decided to plead his case in a room filled with cemetery officials.
In attendance to hear his plea was Stephen Comando, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries, associated with the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Mount St. Mary Cemetery. Comando said the group was unaware of the problems Mattaliano had faced.
The necessary approvals were obtained and within two weeks, a stonecutter had finished engraving “Loving Wife Mary” and the years 1897 and 1979 into the modest gray granite headstone at Grave 108.
Mattaliano sprinkled the small bag of Irish soil in front of it.
“Even if there’s no family to visit,” he said, “at least she’ll be acknowledged.”