Auburn chef's gingerbread castles highlight cause

AUBURN — A local chef best known for his massive holiday gingerbread creations at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, is, for the first time, creating one of his artworks at the Auburn Mall, despite having difficulties due to ataxia.

Chef John A. Mauro, 51, of 30 Goulding Drive in Auburn, was in food service for 16 years for Hanover Insurance Co. in Worcester, where he created his towering gingerbread works. In 2012, he made a 1,700-pound decorated gingerbread Christmas tree; in 2011, he built a 12-foot gingerbread man; and in 2010, he constructed an 8-by-7-foot gingerbread house with a smoking chimney.

Each year, his edible art decorated the Hanover Insurance Christmas party, then was carefully transported to the Hanover Theatre to greet holiday visitors.

This year, Mr. Mauro's creation at the Sears end of the Auburn Mall is designed to thrill those who enjoyed the Disney movie "Frozen," but it also has a serious purpose.

"I want to draw attention to ataxia. People ask why we are making the gingerbread castles here at the Auburn Mall, and that gives us an opportunity to explain why," he said.

He and a team of helpers have been working for weeks on the two castles made famous in the "Frozen" movie. His cousin Kevin Roy, a firefighter from Atlanta, and his wife, Patty, came up from Atlanta to help, and state Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, and Selectman Doreen M. Goodrich came on Saturday to add a little frosting and support the cause.

David Domenic, owner of The Compass Tavern at 90 Harding St. in Worcester, provided all the gingerbread for the creation, while Mr. Mauro is making the ice- and glass-like clear sugar pieces at the Pakachoag Church.

Westerman Store and Restaurant Equipment Inc. on Green Street in Worcester loaned Mr. Mauro a huge mixer for the hundreds of pounds of icing he is using on the ice castles.

"I couldn't do it without my friends and supporters," Mr. Mauro said.

It was eight years ago that Mr. Mauro, 51, a father of two boys, began having trouble coordinating his hands when he used a screwdriver. When he tried to toss a ball to his young sons, the ball would land on the ground in front of him, and he began to stumble when he walked.

"One foot wouldn't come up high enough, so I tripped," he said.

His wife, Dana Mauro, grew concerned and insisted he see a doctor.

A neurologist tested him for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and other diseases. All tests came back negative. Three other neurologists were also stumped, while Mr. Mauro's symptoms worsened.

"I had double vision. I couldn't swallow. I had problems walking," he said.

Finally, he saw Dr. Steve D. Massqauoi at Massachusetts General Hospital, who diagnosed Mr. Mauro with sporadic unknown ataxia within 15 minutes.

Contacted in Boston last year, Dr. Massaquoi said ataxia such as Mr. Mauro's "is not exceptionally rare."

Mr. Mauro began studying his disorder and said there are 30 types of ataxia, including some common in elderly folks, who have difficulty with balance or coordination, and a hereditary disorder that strikes children.

Ataxia affects coordination, speech and swallowing. It can strike anyone at any age, Mr. Mauro said.

He joined the board of the local chapter of the National Ataxia Foundation and is working to promote awareness of this progressive nervous system disorder, which affects an estimated 150,000 Americans per year. There is no known cure.

Mr. Mauro said his first visit to an ataxia support group meeting in Boston changed his life, and he is eager to reach out to others in Central Massachusetts who are afflicted.

He began the "Ride for John" in 2007, which grew into the New England Walk n' Roll for Ataxia, held each September.

At Mr. Mauro's request, Mr. Moore and state Rep. Paul K. Frost, R-Auburn, sponsored a bill passed in 2012 that made Massachusetts the fourth state to declare Sept. 25 "International Ataxia Awareness Day."

Mr. Mauro has spread his message all over the country, and this week is reaching out to shoppers at the Auburn Mall.

"I hope they will come enjoy the gingerbread castles and pick up a pamphlet about ataxia. We are not collecting money or anything. We just want to spread the word. Everybody has their thing. Ataxia is mine. It taught me about life and the true meaning of things. Helping others is what matters."

For information on ataxia, visit the Auburn Mall or go to or