Shoemaking family recalls unique tie to papacy

Paul Cento made shoes for Pope Pius XII before moving to Indianapolis.

One south side family has always felt a special tie to the Vatican. It's not that they knew or met any popes. It's what the family patriarch once made for one pontiff in particular.

So, on the day the cardinals chose a new pope, Mike Cento was hard at work repairing shoes and thinking about his father Paul who died last month.

"With (them) electing a new pope, you get to think about it, you know, dad made shoes for a pope one day," Mike said.

Paul Cento, who founded Cento Shoes on South Meridian in 1971, had a lot of well-heeled customers over the years, but none quite as prominent as Pope Pius XII.

"It made him almost holy," Mike smiled. "He would say 'I made the pope new soles.' He would joke around about that."

Paul's other son, Tony, said the papal request came when his father was in his early twenties and still in his native Italy, developing a strong reputation as a shoemaker.

"They just saw how special a worker he was, his talent and approached him and explained what they needed done," Tony said.

After the Vatican took notice, so did others. Paul also made shoes for Italian actress Sophia Loren. Not long after, he met his wife Lisa, got married in Italy and moved to Indianapolis, where the couple would raise their two sons and open a shoe store.

As much as Paul loved making shoes, Tony said the demand for repairing them was far greater.

It's a skill he passed on to Mike, who still uses the same tools his father did. In fact, little in the store has changed over the years.

As Tony says they still do things "the old school way."

The brothers say they learned a lot from their father.

"He used to tell me to do every shoe the way you would want yours done," Mike said. "That's how one little shop turned into what it is today," perhaps a blessing from above.

Even 50 years after Paul made shoes for Pius, Mike said customers would still tell him, "'If you fixed the pope's shoes, you're good enough for me.' So that's something I'd like to push, but I'm afraid the Vatican might come at me or something," he laughed.

Especially with new shoes to fill.