Anthony DiMurro thinks cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Before the sickness, he was, by his own reckoning a “rogue.” He took chances and shortcuts. He dabbled in the wrong side of the law.
As a teen, he was a street tough from Jersey City and Hoboken, running with a crew of unsavory characters, despite the best wishes of his mother, Lily DiMurro, a shopkeeper whose grocery store doubled as a charity for needy neighborhood families who would buy with credit that would later be forgiven.
“I had the strength of my mother behind me,” DiMurro said. “That kept me out of real trouble.”
He never did anything unforgiveable, in the long run, but flirted with the dark side for most of his life. He became a Teamster. Cargo had a tendency to fall off the back of his truck. FBI agents, he said, knew him by his first name. He was a three pack a day smoker and lived on coffee and booze.
He married, had three children and bought a house in Springfield. After driving a truck for 35 years, he retired. He quit smoking when he turned 50.
Then the news came: he had cancer. A tumor stretched 21 centimeters across his lung. Doctors couldn’t cut it out without cutting out his heart with it. DiMurro's wife grabbed the doctor by his lapels and threw him across the room when he broke the news. But for him, it wasn’t a surprise. He saw it as something he brought on himself.
“People don’t believe me when I say this, but I said ‘why not me,'” DiMurro said. “I smoked for 35 years.”
Then the lifelong Catholic turned his attention to his soul.
His time was short. He had, by his own assessment, lived a life outside of the grace of God. He was ashamed of his shortcomings and afraid of his fate in the afterlife. He wanted to use the time he had left to make up for his sins, but wasn’t sure how.
“Being a Catholic Christian, I said I had to atone for my life,” DiMurro said. “I didn’t know what I could do. I would go to Mass every day. At first I prayed for my life back. Then I prayed for my soul.”
So out of that selfish motive—wanting to keep himself out of hell—DiMurro embarked on a second life for himself, one devoted to making life better for other people. He volunteered at the soup kitchen operated by his former Parish, St. Paul of the Cross in Jersey City until the Archdiocese closed it down.
Unsure of what to do, DiMurro’s remembered how his mother Lily, would operate her store.
“In those days, black people were given a very hard time,” DiMurro said. “They’d come in and my mother would give them some bread or milk. She’d put on the books for when the welfare checks came in. Then she’d just take it off the books.”
He started a food pantry, and named it Lily’s Pantry for his mother, who died in 1968, the year his first child was born. He only had a single refrigerator and could only store what he could fit into his garage, but thanks to his mother’s influence, he took to it naturally.
He clipped coupons and scoured supermarkets for sales. He enlisted the support of churches and soup kitchens. Word started to spread and support rolled in.
He made deliveries to the food pantry at St. Anthony’s of Padua in Union City. Then he added St. Nicholas in Jersey City to his circuit. Other soup kitchens and shelters followed. Then he started delivering aid directly to destitute and needy families and individuals. Opportunities to help presented themselves often.
"When I was at St. Paul I came across one elderly man who was wearing sneakers with holes in them walking in the snow," he said. "I walked up central ave in the snow and bought him a pair of boots. He asked me why I did it. I said you needed it."
From those acts, people started to recognize something inside him that he had not seen in himself before.
"Another man said 'I know you,'" he said. "You’re just like your mother. I had to turn away because I started to cry. But hearing him say that, yeah, it made me feel great."