In 1955, the roller skating rink on Jefferson Highway in Harahan, located where Colonial Lanes bowling alley is today, was one of those pop-up operations: a canvas tent covering a wooden oval, with plenty of music blaring from the speakers and guys like Joe Sedita performing figure eights and using centripetal force to spin a buddy in circles at shoulder height, all to make the young ladies swoon.
Seventy-five cents went a long way. Skating rink protocol included something called the “spotlight” dance, where the boy in the front of a single-file skating line could encourage a friend with a flashlight to light up the face of a girl on the perimeter, the girl he wanted to dance with.
When Sedita, 20, spotted Margaret LaFrance, then an 18-year-old senior at St. Mary’s Dominican High School, he was the one blinded by the light.
The former running back at Holy Name of Mary High School in Algiers, whose only athletic claim to fame was getting his helmet ripped off by a defensive lineman from the Marrero High Mustangs, showed grace under pressure.
“I checked with her mother and asked if I could skate with her,” Sedita said. “I was just being a gentleman.”
Sedita’s father died when he was young, and he was raised by his grandmother, but he made it a habit of going to Mass every day. During his whirlwind courtship of Margaret, the two would chat on the phone in the evening about silly and important stuff.
“When I called her, sometimes I’d tell her I was saying my rosary, and she would tell me, ‘I’m saying my rosary novena thing; I’m going to get you a book,’” Sedita recalled. “I was just a young, punk kid, like all of us, just wet behind the ears. I used to pray that somehow or another, we would meet and stay together and get married. Every night, I’d kneel down in my room and say the rosary.”
A few days later, Margaret handed Joe the booklet, “Rosary Novenas to Our Lady,” which he still uses 63 years later to recite his rosary. They had a common pet name for each other.
“I called her ‘Sweet,’ and then she picked up on it and called me ‘Sweet,’ too,” Sedita said. “I’m still an old crybaby.”
They got married on July 30, 1955 – just two months after Margaret graduated from Dominican – and had three children, two boys (Joey and Chris) and a girl (Monica). Joey died of a heart attack in 2007, and Chris passed away from diabetes in 2011.
“How did we get through it?” Sedita asked. “We can’t question the good Lord. That’s how we got through it.”
Margaret worked for many years as a secretary in Dominican’s guidance office and attendance office. She heard every “dog ate my homework” excuse for being late. Mostly, it was “the bridge.” Late was late, so Margaret had to hand out the tardy slips. Five tardies would merit one detention.
“She’d help them blow their noses and tell them, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about it – you need five disciplines to get a detention. You’re like a cat with nine lives,’” Sedita said.
Last September, after she had retired from Dominican, Margaret came in from the backyard with a severe headache. The woman whose passion was exercising and jogging with her husband – they ran in 17 Crescent City Classics together – had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She was gone within a week at age 80.
“You just say to yourself – why? – but I always came back to, you don’t question God,” Sedita said.
Before she suffered her fatal illness, the Seditas sat out on their patio and talked about an idea Joe had – building a grotto in honor of St. Rita that could be placed somewhere on the grounds of their Harahan parish or maybe even in Lafreniere Park. After Margaret died, a sculptor talked Joseph out of the idea of a grotto.
While at adoration one day at St. Rita, Joseph found a calendar to Our Lady of Fatima left on a table. “It didn’t belong there, but I took it as another sign the Blessed Mother was giving me,” he said. “Two or three days later, on the sign-in table, there was another picture of Our Lady of Fatima. I said to myself, ‘Maybe she’s telling me something.’”
Joseph was reciting his rosary three weeks later at 6 a.m. when the idea of a “billboard” popped into his head.
“I thought, that might be a way to reach a lot of people,” Sedita said.
For the last three months, Sedita’s billboard – “America Needs Fatima, Pray the Rosary, In Loving Memory of Margaret ‘Sweet’ Sedita” – has shared the message of his love of the rosary and of his late wife at the corner of Dickory Street and the Earhart Expressway, heading toward Airline Drive. The billboard has been seen by 193,000 motorists a month.
“If it encourages just one person to start saying the rosary, it would be worth it,” Sedita said. “Everyone should say the rosary for world peace.”
Sedita still has the small rosary novena booklet his future wife gave him in 1955. He recites the rosary daily, with his beads in his right hand and the book in his left.
“The rosary is a pathway to God,” Sedita said. “If you’re like me, your mind has a tendency to drift to something else. I try to concentrate strictly on the pictures in the book. I hesitate to say this, but everything I ever prayed for, I got. I prayed to get married. Here’s this boy, coming from a poor family, coming here to Harahan to marry somebody that’s got a really good family. I prayed for that, and I prayed for our kids.”
When Margaret died last year, the family was searching for the best photo to use for her obituary. They looked through hundreds of pictures before settling on one that had been taken a few years earlier but had been hidden under the others.
Sedita was making the funeral arrangements, and knowing he had to pay the bill, he instinctively reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
“I opened up my wallet to get my credit card, and literally facing the credit card was that same picture,” he said.
A friend used another photo of Margaret to make a square pillow cover for Joseph. The pillow of Margaret’s smiling face rests in the middle of a handful of pillows on their marriage bed.
“I’m not ashamed to tell you I talk to her every night,” Sedita said.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.