PHILADELPHIA -- James Lombardo's hearing is failing a little, he has an ornery knee and a squinty eye, but otherwise, time appears to have done little to weaken the oldest altar boy in the history of St. Mary's Manor retirement home.
When he kneels on the red velvet pad to ring the brass bells during Mass, Lombardo sometimes leans against the marble pillar to ease his descent. When he carries the cut-glass pitcher of wine to fill the priest's chalice, his steps verge on a shuffle.
He is 94. These are the small concessions he must make to his age.
Lombardo was somewhat mature to make a start as an altar boy. He was 77 and had just moved into St. Mary's Manor in Lansdale, Pa. Lombardo had been a faithful Roman Catholic ever since he was baptized in St. Anthony's Church in Buffalo. But he had always worshiped on the congregation's side of the rail.
One day, as he was doing some volunteer work cleaning the St. Mary's chapel, the Rev. Garrett F.X. Murphy politely asked him to hand him something.
"He said, 'Hand me this, hand me that,' and the next thing he said, 'You're going to serve Mass.' "
That was 19 years and three priests ago. Lombardo said he loves the ritual and has rarely missed a Mass since.
On the mornings when Mass is celebrated early, he rises at 4:30 a.m. to shave and get ready for his religious duty. He meets the Rev. Charles Monaghan in the sacristy, the room adjoining the chapel, to help him prepare for the service.
At 7 a.m., Lombardo rings three brass bells. The high-pitched chimes reverberate through the chapel.
His voice occasionally can be heard above the chorus of nuns and elderly worshipers, when he prays. He may say "Amen" once in a while when the congregation is silent. He carries through Mass with movements spare and steady.
He accepts Holy Communion and returns to the sacristy.
"Okay," says Monaghan as he handed the last of his vestments to Lombardo. "Thank you, Father," says Lombardo as he hangs them in a dark wood armoire.
Lombardo proudly shows a visitor the chapel, which, with its gold mosaic altar, terra cotta swirls on its columns and frescoes of the Holy Family on the walls, is an exact reproduction of the 15th-century Church of Nereus and Achilleus in Rome. The chapel was built on the Lansdale site in 1922 by a wealthy friend of the late Archbishop Dennis Dougherty, said George Stauffer, administrator for St. Mary's Manor.
"That's a beautiful spot up there," Lombardo says, leaning back gingerly to look up at the winged mosaic angels in the dome above the altar.
The son of a Sicilian stonecutter, Lombardo says he was the second of 10 children. He worked in Buffalo for 55 years as a cabinetmaker. "The old-fashioned way of working," he says. "Without machines. Heck, machinery was a thing to dream about."
After his first wife died (they had been married 31 years), he met and married Mary, "a Philadelphia girl," he says. They have been married about 33 years, he says. She had a friend who retired to St. Mary's, and so 19 years ago, they did too.
Lombardo has the simplest of explanations for his vigor. "It's because the boss upstairs, He holds me this way. He's the master. When He stops me, I'll stop. Until then, that's it," he says.