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On North Clinton: an innocent's masterpiece

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Like a Russian doll, Anthony J. Bovenza's replica of St. Michael's Church sits within that church on North Clinton Avenue. It is a meticulous model, including everything from stained glass windows constructed out of cellophane to tiny bells inside the church steeple.

Seated in a coffee shop in Chili, Bovenza's niece, Kathleen Acton, wipes tears from her eyes. Her uncle, who died six years ago from cancer, was a deeply religious man, she says. Not that he talked about it --- or talked much at all, for that matter. Suffering from a severe stutter and excruciating shyness, Bovenza never married, never learned to drive, and never spoke to those outside his large family. "He was afraid of his own shadow," says Acton. "And so innocent."

Once, she says, when her uncle was with his older sister, Theresa, a prostitute propositioned him. Bovenza froze. His sister, just 11 months his senior and his lifelong protector, was furious. She rolled down her car window and hollered, "He doesn't want you. He wants pizza!"

Acton's memory is like an old family album. She can replicate her uncle's speech, his mannerisms, his uncanny ability to memorize lines from television sitcoms. But nothing, she says, captures her uncle's essence more than his love of churches. He had a photographic memory, she says. He would go to St. Michael's Church and observe it, and then go home and duplicate what he saw using scraps of wood and a razor. The family can't understand how he did it. "He had very chubby hands and everything," Acton says.

Nor was St. Michael's Bovenza's most difficult project. That title belongs to his 4 by 4-foot replica of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Bovenza, who never visited the Big Apple, would take the bus to Rundel Library and analyze picture after picture of St. Patrick's, committing each pew and window and architectural nuance to memory, says Acton. Her uncle never completed that almost four-decade long project. He got sick before he could shellac the wood, Acton says.

Three years ago, Acton's family donated the St. Michael's replica to the Rochester church. St. Patrick's, however, declined to put that model on long-term display, and Acton's family is still looking for a suitable home for it.

So for the time being, St. Patrick's remains in Bovenza's old home, surrounded by his supplies, filing cabinets chock full of newspaper articles, and his rosary and Bible. This, says Acton, is her brother's "unfinished symphony."

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