Homemade altar serves as powerful reminder for recovering alcoholic

Frank DeSimone, left, listens and prays as Father Augustine Puchner of St. John The Baptist Catholic Church blesses the altar at his home in Costa Mesa on Tuesday.
Frank DeSimone, left, listens and prays as Father Augustine Puchner of St. John The Baptist Catholic Church blesses the altar at his home in Costa Mesa on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Father Augustine Puchner splashed holy water on a 99-cent store plate imprinted with an image of the Virgin Mary.

The pastor sprinkled crucifixes, a kneeling cherub, stones with words like “faith” etched in them and a gold-colored cross attached to a small pedestal — the kind usually handed out at the end of Little League seasons with a tiny batter on top.

“It’s probably something that doesn’t mean anything to you, but it does to me,” said 79-year-old Frank DeSimone in a gravelly, Boston-tinged voice.

The items were arranged on three newly constructed wooden shelves, attached to the fence in DeSimone’s front yard.

Puchner prayed a Catholic blessing over the homemade altar and its contents before moving on to a 3-foot-tall concrete statue of Jesus, followed by a slightly smaller statue of Mary in a half clam shell.

Puchner, the pastor at St. John The Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, blessed each one before sitting at a patio table with the man who invited him.

DeSimone — better known as “Frank E. Dee” to his friends and anyone who listens to his Internet radio station — asked Puchner to bless the altar this week, sealing his decades-old pledge.

“I said, ‘If I ever get sober, I’ll erect the statue of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the angels,’ ” DeSimone said, pointing to the small winged figures that ring his fence.

DeSimone has been sober since 1985, when he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after moving to Costa Mesa.

After his last drink, he installed Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

“And the last thing I could do was that — the beautiful altar,” DeSimone said, “I had to do that. It was something that I wanted to do.”

DeSimone’s front-yard sanctuary is a monument to his sobriety and the God he credits for his recovery.

“I don’t care what anyone else thinks or believes,” he said. “That’s not important. What’s important is I’m sober, and I’ve got this home. I’ve got everything that I’ve never had before when I was drinking.”

When DeSimone left Massachusetts for Costa Mesa, he left behind a life of newspaper writing focused on music and night life — the drinking was next to go.

In Orange County, three no-nonsense friends guided him into A.A. They’ve since passed on, but DeSimone continues to attend the meetings.

For 10 years, he’s helped run the gatherings at St. John the Baptist.

To newcomers, he passes out a card with his phone number. It says, “Welcome: my friend, and a friend you must be! / For letting me help you — also helps me / Yes! I’ve had a problem — so you’re not alone / If you care to discuss it — pick up the phone”

“I don’t hang out with too many normies,” he joked, using A.A. parlance for non-alcoholics. He has two roommates who are also “in the program.”

Wednesday, DeSimone was by far the oldest of eight men and women in one of the parish’s classrooms, where those in attendance read about unity, the first of A.A.'s 12 traditions.

DeSimone’s hardbound copy of the traditions is yellowed and fraying but still in good condition.

He told the group a story from when he worked at a chain of Massachusetts newspapers. To make it into work, he’d have to have a nip from some small bottles that he’d throw under the seat of his car.

While driving his boss to get coffee, the pile of bottles would roll around clinking.

“I would say something’s wrong with the car,” DeSimone laughed.

At home after the meeting, DeSimone sips an RC Cola and shows off his prized wall of photos, where he’s posed with nightclub singers and Massachusetts politicians.

In the next room, his homemade radio station Golden Music Memories of Yesteryear is set to auto, sending crooners’ voices across the Internet.

“I’ve got a good life,” DeSimone said.