Salvation Stories: Tony Celota

September 6, 2017
David Dunlap

As told to Jabe Nicholson.

Anthony, son of Guiseppe Cetola, was born November 24, 1912 in Foggia, Italy, and raised in the hill country south of Rome. As a young man he worked as a shepherd there, but hearing of America, the land of possibilities, he saved his lire until he could afford the least expensive one-way passage to New York. After an arduous journey, Tony settled in New Jersey. Life was hard in his new country. Tony found a bed at the YMCA and a job working the graveyard shift, from 11 to 7.

One morning, as he wearily headed for his bed, someone offered him a small pamphlet. Its title read simply, “The Bread of Life.” Now Tony Cetola had been warned before he left Italy about people like this who wanted to brainwash good Catholics. He didn’t want to take any chances, but he had also been taught to be polite. What should he do?

He took the tract, but when he had a moment of privacy on the bus, he surreptitiously tore the tract into small pieces and slipped it back into his pocket. He would have to wait for a later time to dispose of it. But with his bed waiting, he completely forgot about the torn pieces in his pocket.

One morning some days later, Tony stood waiting for his bus. He was tired and cold. Rain began to fall. He moved to stand under the awning of a nearby bakery. The smell of fresh baked goods wafted to his nostrils. Tony’s stomach reminded him that he was very hungry, but he had no money to spare. To warm his hands he shoved them deep into his pockets.

And felt the gospel tract. He remembered the title: “The Bread of Life,” and couldn’t help a hint of a smile from sitting across his face. He knew God was speaking to him. The rain from heaven had moved him to stand near enough to the bakery to enjoy its smells. The chill wind from heaven had caused him to push his hands into his pocket at that moment. And the message from heaven was waiting, though torn in pieces, there in his grasp.

As soon as Tony arrived at his room, he began to reassemble the tract pieces until he could, although with some difficulty, read the message he now believed was sent from God Himself. On that cold, drizzly New Jersey morning, after a long night of manual labor, Tony Cetola realized his true hunger was in his heart, a hunger for God’s Bread, the Lord Jesus, and salvation through His name.

There in the YMCA, at the age of 22, he heard the words of the Savior as if they were directly to him, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51). He received Him, and his soul was satisfied. He found a group of believers, and for the next 67 years, Tony Cetola quietly and humbly served the One who had redeemed him. It could well be given as his testimony the words of 1 Timothy 6:6, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”

On his deathbed, the one-time shepherd boy from the Southern Apennines looked up at his son. Barely able to speak, he asked if they could sing one of his favorite songs:

I have a Shepherd, One I love so well,
How He has blessed me tongue can never tell,
On the cross he suffered, shed His blood and died,
That I might ever in His love confide.
Following Jesus, ever day by day,
Nothing can harm me when He leads the way;
Darkness or sunshine, whate’er befall,
Jesus, the Shepherd, is my All in All.
Pastures abundant doth His hand provide,
Still waters owing ever at my side,
Goodness and mercy follow on my track,
With such a Shepherd nothing can I lack.
When I would wander from the path astray,
Then He will draw me back into the way;
In the darkest valley I need fear no ill,
For He, my Shepherd, will be with me still.
When labors ended and the journey done,
Then He will lead me safely to my home;
There I shall dwell in rapture sure and sweet,
with all the loved ones gathered round His feet.
(Lyrics by Leonard Weaver)

This article originally appreared in Uplook magazine – as retold by Jabe Nicholson