‘Don’t Angels have Wings?’

“For He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”    –  Psalm 91:11

Emily Avila“Christ is the center of the angelic world.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “They are His angels [Para 331] … They belong to Him still more because He has made them messengers of His saving plan: ‘Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?’” (Hebrews 1:14)

Our guardian angels are said to be with us throughout our lives, one assigned to each of God’s children. There are other kinds of “angels,” the ones we meet in-the-flesh. Angels  – either the human kind or those of the spiritual realm  – minister to us as God’s messengers of light.

This is a true story of a woman named Emily who saw one of God’s angels at the death of her beloved mother.  

Emily Avila has always been able to relate well to God the Father because of a good relationship with her own father, Frank Ragusa. At 13, Frank went to work at a bus yard near his home in East Los Angeles. He learned the trade and became a bus mechanic, the same job he kept his entire life. He never took time off work because he was never sick, and he barely took his earned vacations. “He had huge, strong hands that were always stained black from his mechanic work, not dirty – but black,” Emily remembered.

Frank was born in Louisiana, the son of Italian immigrants. His family migrated to East Los Angeles when he was 9 years old. He grew up in a very Hispanic neighborhood. His mom spoke to the neighbors in Italian, and they answered back in Spanish. “He was rather outgoing”, Emily said. “Dad had a great love for community. He could strike up a conversation with anyone! He smiled a lot and acknowledged every person, including all of my friends.  He was not a fancy man. He wore mechanic’s clothes six days a week. He didn’t own a suit, and he didn’t even have friends who had suits,” remembered Emily with a smile. “Because Dad worked six days a week, Sunday was his only day off,” Emily continued. “We would go to Mass at Saint Alphonsus Catholic Church in Los Angeles on Sundays, and even though he was a devout Catholic, he would sit at the end of the pew, throw his arm over the rest, and fall asleep, because it was simply his only time to relax.”

Her father was a “strong but humble man” who could lift or fix anything. On the contrary, she saw her mom as rather “delicate.” Emily remembered, “I felt torn about getting married, and leaving my mom. But, she was a strong, quiet lady, and she would say to me,

Well, when it’s your time to go, you have to go!’”


Emily’s parents talked to her about faith and about heaven, and they taught her, “’Anything is possible with God.’ Yet what I learned from my Father, I got by watching how he lived. Dad was always helping people,” she said. “My parents even took in a neighborhood child who needed a more stable home and raised him along with me and my brother, Gerard.”

With sadness, Emily reminisced about the unexpected death of her father six months before her wedding to her husband, Sal.  “I had already completed nursing school, and was working as a nurse in East Los Angeles at the Health Department.” Emily remembered the day her dad became ill, “I was surprised when Dad told me that he hadn’t been feeling well. My dad had never been sick.”

Emily took his vital signs and discovered he was experiencing an irregular heart-beat and then drove him to the emergency room.  The doctor told Frank to take some medical leave. After a couple of weeks, the doctor OK’d him to return to work. That same day, he went to the produce market on Whittier Boulevard to buy some strawberries for a family member who was in a convalescent hospital. “While at the market, he had a massive heart attack. It was May 6, 1971,” Emily said. “Dad died one week before the L.A. County Health Department instituted paramedic service for Los Angeles.”

Even though Emily’s mother was grieving, she had a rather positive attitude about death. “She encouraged me to wear a white dress to his funeral, and although I felt uncomfortable, she said,

We are going to be joyful!’”

Sal and Emily had been engaged for only a few weeks at the time of her dad’s death. “I felt angry about the timing of it,” she said.  “It wasn’t fair, I thought.  Planning the wedding became a healing experience for me. I felt happy and sad at the same time.”

In 1973, Sal and Emily settled in Temple City, Calif. They raised their five children at St. Luke’s Catholic Church, and participated in the Christian Family Movement. Emily’s mom, Antoinette Ragusa, continued to live in East L.A. but stayed often in the Avila home, “My mom was such a good grandmother,” Emily said. “She would come over to help and stay half the month, washing dishes and giving the kids a lot of attention.  She really listened to them.” Emily recalled how her mom taught the children to play creatively, making games out of dry rice and beans. “In the evening, she would say prayers with them.” Emily noted, “Although they never knew their grandfather, we kept his memory alive with pictures and stories told to the kids.” Their youngest child Frank Jr., named after him, also became a mechanic and business-man “who just like his grandpa, can fix anything!”

At 77, Antoinette (a.k.a. “Granny”), broke her hip and recuperated at the Santa Anita Convalescent Hospital. At that time she started to experience increasing dementia, so her stay was extended for five years. In the early 1990’s, Emily’s children were becoming teenagers. “At ages 19, 18, 16, 14, and 13, their lives were generally full and happy, except that they missed their Granny,” Emily recalled.

Visiting Granny Antoinette on Sundays after the ten O’clock Mass became a family tradition. The entire family remembers eating burgers with Granny, “We would pick up In-in-Out burgers and eat lunch with Granny on the patio of the nursing facility. It always had to be In-in-Out, and I can still remember the order — A burger for Granny with tomato and onions, cheeseburgers for all of us girls, plus one for Sal and two double-doubles for the boys.” Emily laughed.

On Dec. 4, 1992, Emily’s mother had a stroke. She was confined to her bed in a coma for a week. “After a visit to our mom, my brother, Gerard, rang my doorbell, and at the same moment the phone was ringing — It was the nurse calling to tell us that she had died,” Emily recalled. “I am pretty sure that my mom had been waiting for my brother to come and say good-bye. We all piled into the car to go to the convalescent hospital, knowing that she, in spirit, would wait for us to say our final good-byes.”

All eight of them drove over to the convalescent hospital and were met kindly by the staff-members who made it private for a last visit.

“After lots of hugging and kissing, and reassuring the children of how happy Granny and Grandpa were going to be, reunited in heaven, my 18-year-old daughter, Anne-Marie, indicated that there was something she needed to say to me. My brother, Sal and the other children left to wait for us in the lobby because Anne-Marie wanted to say a special good-bye. She and I were left alone in the room at Granny’s bedside. Once the others were gone, she turned to me and asked a startling question.

Mom, who are those two men standing at the end of Granny’s bed?’” Anne-Marie asked Emily.

“I had been glancing at them since coming into the room, but I was focused on my children,” Emily said. “I told Anne-Marie, ‘The man standing in front is my dad, the Grandpa we have always talked about.’

Both of them clearly saw the spirit of Emily’s deceased father  standing very near the foot of the bed.  “At the moment that Anne-Marie and I stood alone, I finally really looked at my dad,” Emily recounted. “I was startled to notice that he was wearing his blue suit. I knew that it was the only suit he had ever owned because he bought it just before he died, for my wedding. I also noticed that his hands were dark, just like in life, from his hard, manual work.”

Anne-Marie inquired again about the other man, “But who is the other one?”

Emily answered with confidence, “He’s an angel that God has sent to accompany your grandparents to heaven. God is letting us see him so that we know that Granny is going to be well-cared-for and happy.”

The angel was standing about 2 to 3 feet behind her dad. “He was slightly shorter than Dad, who in life was about 5’10”.  He was peeking around my father, watching us, but in an unobtrusive way. He had brown hair and looked just like he could be another member of our family,” described Emily.

Anne-Marie then asked, “But don’t angels have wings?”

Emily knew enough to tell her “Angels don’t always appear to us with wings. We can see the angel because sometimes, when we least expect it, God surprises us with these blessings.”

Reflecting more on the experience Emily shared, “This visit was as normal as you and I getting together with friends. There was nothing scary about it. Everything about it was rather matter-of-fact. And in that way, there was nothing to worry my teen-aged girl. I knew it was God’s gift to me. It was a subtle, peaceful experience. One that I knew would add to Anne-Marie’s faith journey.”


“From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by [angels’] watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” 

 [Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 336]

© Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Wing Atencio, all rights reserved.

This article was featured in:

the National Catholic Register: Best in Catholic Blogging and Big Pulpit.


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