It was a tragedy about which she never spoke. Her life was a story of beating many challenges to become a selfless, loving mother of three sons and grandmother of four. And through it all, her faith played a role in her ability to be mentally strong, devoted, and steadfast in the leadership of her family.
Kathleen Virginia “Katie” (Espinola) Santos, a former resident of Chelsea and Lynn, died on Feb. 20, 2019 after a battle with leukemia. She was 59. When Katie Espinola was 2 months old in October, 1959, she lost her father and five siblings after a gas leak struck the family home on Ellsworth Street, Chelsea. The cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning.
Through the front-page reports in the Chelsea Record and Boston newspapers and the recollections of other family members, Joseph Santos, Katie’s oldest son who is now 37, was able to piece together the tragic events of that time.
“My grandmother (Katie’s mother) was having a procedure at Chelsea Memorial Hospital and because my mother was an infant, she was at her aunt’s house because it was hard for my grandfather to take care of the five kids. My grandfather worked for the Red Sox on the grounds crew.” Joseph continued, “Sometime between Oct. 23 and Oct. 25 (1959), there was a gas leak at the home. On Oct. 25, my grandfather was supposed to pick up my grandmother at Chelsea Memorial Hospital. That was the day they found the family inside the home.”
Katie lost her father, her four brothers, and one sister (all of the siblings were between the ages of 3 and 11) in the incident.
“Fire officials determined that a pilot light had gone out in the stack heater,” said Joseph.
Growing up in Chelsea
Katie Santos had a very difficult childhood, according to her son. “I can only imagine what her childhood and teenage years were like,” said Joseph. “And my grandmother’s mental health after such a tragedy – we do know that my mother’s teenage years were rough.”
Katie and her mother later moved to Franklin Street in Chelsea and eventually to an apartment near Bellingham Square. “When my mother was 19, she took off for New York City, worked as a bartender and a makeup artist and did what she had to do to find her path,” said Joseph.
Kathleen Espinola met Stephen Santos at Revere Beach and they were married in 1981.
The family lived in Lynn for 20 years before moving to Maine.
A devoted mother and friend to all Katie Santos was the consummate mother, raising her three children, Joseph, Adam, and Kenneth in a loving environment and a close-knit family.
According to Joseph, the Santos home became “the neighborhood home,” where children would congregate and find guidance and support from his mother. “There were so many of my friends who got some of their emotional support from my mother,” said Joseph.
Following his graduation from Lynn English High School in 1999, Joseph became a father when he was 19. He would go on to have full custody of his daughter. “My mother was basically my daughter’s mother, a parent figure for most of her life,” said Joseph. “My mother would show up at my house and help out in any way she could.”
Katie also devoted her life to her other sons, Adam, and Kenneth, doing what she could to help her boys enjoy a good quality of life and aspire to their goals. “My mother was a great mom, who set a great example for my brothers and me,” said Joseph. “In her quiet, unassuming manner, she just raised us well and made the right decisions. She instilled in us to do the right thing at all times.”
Joseph said his mother became a child advocate, especially for children with autism. She took courses in special education at Endicott College. “My mother was 100 percent committed to her family,” said Joseph. “It’s very clear that all my mother wanted at some point in her life was a large family – because she had tragically lost her opportunity to have one.”
Mrs. Santos’ faith also carried her through the adversity she faced. She was active at the former St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Lynn and most recently St. George’s in Sanford ME, and regularly participated in bible book studies and community service projects with fellow parishioners.
“My mother was a person who showed up for everybody else,” said Joseph. “She never felt shortchanged in her career or her leisure time. For her, what mattered most and what she worked towards was helping give whatever the person in front of her needed.”
A son delivers a beautiful eulogy
Mrs. Santos was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) on Jan. 6. She died on Feb. 20 from pneumonia, complications from AML. “My daughter graduates from high school in June and my mother would not let that go when she was in the hospital,” said Joseph. “That was the hardest part, that she didn’t live to see it.”
Joseph Santos delivered the eulogy at his mother’s funeral. “I spoke about the tragedy she endured as a child and how we couldn’t possibly understand how that might negatively affect a person,” said Joseph. “But either despite it, or in spite of it, she would go on to be the most selfless person that we would understand. She had a unique judge of character and could see through our hurt and frustrations. “I told the congregation that we were not here to mourn a life, but to celebrate a life,” said Joseph. “The lesson we all take from my mother is: in living for others, you will make a much larger, positive impact in the world than you could ever do living for self.”