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A Century of Italian-American Life

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Discover a Rockford-area church that’s been a sanctuary for the city’s Italian heritage, as it celebrates a proud century, and looks forward to the next.

St. Anthony of Padua Church, Rockford.

Italian immigrants were neither the earliest nor largest group of people to settle in the Rockford region, but their influence has been enormous. Italian-Americans have greatly enriched the professional, political and economic life of our region, occupying the highest positions in government, law enforcement, education, the arts and business leadership. They’ve distinguished themselves as American war heroes; spearheaded endless charitable works; and contributed greatly to the cultural life of the community as a whole.

Although some Italian families came here in the late 1800s, a larger wave arrived in the early 1900s. Many entered the country through Ellis Island, NY; many came through the Port of New Orleans, sailing north on the Mississippi River. About 65 percent of Rockford Italians came here from southern Italy and Sicily.

The first wedding at St. Anthony of Padua Church was in June 1909, when Thomas Crapese wed Antonia Migliori.

While few spoke English upon arrival, the determination to learn it quickly was strong, as was the desire to practice traditional Catholic faith and family life. Hence the founding of St. Anthony of Padua Church in 1909, under the leadership of Fr. Anthony Marchesano, who came to Rockford for the sole purpose of assisting Italian immigrants. The church not only met spiritual needs, but also helped newcomers to learn English, find housing and jobs, prepare for naturalization and otherwise assimilate into American life. Most Italians settled in south Rockford or the Madison Street area, and by 1915, the church had opened a grade school serving 250 children. By 1930, when the present Italianate-style building opened, membership was 1,100, a number that holds steady today.

Immediately after WWI, there would have been another wave of immigration had it not been for legislation passed by Congress, which set the Italian quota at 5,666 immigrants per year. The Immigration Act of 1965 abandoned the quota system. About 20,000 persons of Italian descent once lived in south Rockford.

While the ethnic composition of the neighborhood has changed, the Italian-American membership of St. Anthony of Padua Church has remained steady. This is partly because it is a national parish, meaning that any stateline area Italian-Americans may join, even if they don’t live near the parish.

When St. Anthony of Padua celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, with numerous special activities, the occasion was not only about faith, family and common roots, but also about gratitude for a century of accomplishment in America.

The naming of the church was prophetic, says Fr. John Grigus, who spent four years serving the church, including its centennial year, together with Fr. Anthony Labedis. “St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Great Saint – Il Santo – in Italy,” Grigus explains. “Fr. Anthony Marchesano was invited to establish a parish in Rockford by Bishop Peter Muldoon. The saint and priest shared the same first names.”

One reason the church has been at the core of the Italian community is its traditional structure and design, says Grigus, who now serves a parish in Peoria, Ill. The original church building was completed in 1909, but the congregation quickly outgrew it. “St.Anthony has remained true to its original design since it was built in 1930,” Grigus explains. “So many of its statues and stained glass windows were obtained at great sacrifice, because it was built at the onset of the Great Depression. Parish families actually went around the community collecting pennies to purchase sculptures of favorite saints.”

At the school, located in the original church building, many friendships were forged, even as parents learned together about American life and culture. In the 1920s, the “Americanization Center” was hoisted onto logs and pulled by horses down Ferguson Street, to be incorporated into the St. Ambrogio Club, the only Italian club in south Rockford still standing today.

“Church leaders felt it was important for newly-arrived Italian immigrants to learn English quickly, so they could be integrated into American society and the workforce smoothly,” Grigus explains. “Still, a sense of their origins remained. Most of those born here have visited the region in Italy from which their families came. Coming to America brought many changes in their lives, but some things can never be changed or touched. They are the essence of the Italian community.” Traditions such as large religious street processions with marching bands and St. Joseph Altars inside homes, piled high with unbelievably elaborate pastries and other foods, were commonplace in the church neighborhood.

That continuity carries through every season and celebration within the church. Members believe that their patron, St. Anthony of Padua, raised a grieving mother’s daughter from the dead. In return, she gave him her daughter’s weight in wheat which, as a Franciscan, he was not able to accept. He ordered the wheat ground and baked into bread for the poor. Today, in memory of this event, small loaves of bread are blessed, distributed to the needy and shared with church families on the Feast of St. Anthony.

Today, Fr. James Ciaramitaro leads the St. Anthony of Padua congregation, along with associate Fr. Robert Melnick and Brother Jim DuFresne. (Dustin Waller photo)

Over time, as Rockford’s Italian-Americans prospered, their descendents began assimilating into other neighborhoods, an indication that the church had done its job well.

“As the economy improved, they scattered throughout the greater Rockford community,” says Grigus. “Still, the parish has nearly 1,100 registered members today, a figure that has not gone down. This is their church, the roots of their culture and heritage. They come to attend Mass from a wide section of the area.”

Jasper St. Angel, grandnephew to Marchesano, is part of the younger generation of Italian-Americans who still value the community of parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua Church. “I was born and raised with the church, baptized and married there, as were all my three brothers, three sisters,” he says. “My two children were also baptized there. My grandfather, my namesake, started Piemonte Bakery around 1908. He called on the parish rectory daily to deliver bread, and that’s how he met my grandmother. She worked in the rectory for her brother, Fr. Marchesano.”

The former alter boy says his late father, Frank, was instrumental in keeping the church going through thick and thin. His mother, Connie, still lives in the nearby southwest side home built by his grandfather. “St. Anthony Church continues to be part of my life,” he says. “It has helped me and my family through a lot of tough times and continues to be a bedrock in the community, not only for the Italian-American community, but for all who worship there together.”

St. Angel was chairman of the anniversary committee and wasn’t surprised to see that the year-long special celebrations were well-attended. Among the attendees was Valeri DeCastris, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. Anthony. Its neighborhood has always felt like home to her, even when she lived elsewhere.

“My father is musician Val Eddy, and we spent summers at Midwestern resorts where he performed,” DeCastris recalls. “When he was working near Rockford, like at Lake Geneva’s Riviera, or when my parents were touring the country early in his career, our family always made its home base at our grandparents’ home on Cunningham Street.”

Her grandfather, Orlando, was a local community leader who assisted many Italian-Americans with assimilation and jobs. He died prematurely in 1943, leaving behind Valeri, his sister Mary, and his mother, “Nona” Amalia, who, like many Italian women of the time, didn’t speak English or drive, and had never worked outside the home. In typical Italian tradition, their extended family pulled together to care for the women.

“Five generations of my family have lived on Cunningham Street – our relatives were either within walking distance or in Italy,” says DeCastris. “We had true community back then, with nearby services, commerce, jobs and historic institutions – much like today’s urban planners are trying to recreate in new neighborhoods.”

The exquisite stained glass inside St. Anthony of Padua Church.

DeCastris was involved in the church’s 100th anniversary, helping to author a commemorative book, We Are 100 and Growing. Of the many special events held during the centennial year, she found the marriage vows renewal ceremony, with a traditional Italian wedding reception, and the outdoor procession and Infiorata for the Feast of Corpus Christi, to be most memorable.

“The Infiorata is common to Italy and Sicily,” she explains. “Families gather flower petals, dry them and place them in special wooden frames made into elaborate and artistic shapes, like family crests or religious symbols. They’re laid in the streets outside their homes for the religious procession through town. This was beautifully recreated down the aisle of St. Anthony Church.”

Pride of heritage and neighborhood remains strong in the self-described “boomeranger.” In 2006, DeCastris initiated a Sister City agreement between Rockford and Ferentino, Italy. She describes St. Anthony as “one of the most beautiful churches in the city and maybe even the state,” and adds that its neighborhood is much safer than many people realize. She has helped to garner $30,000 in grants to help beautify and improve the area.

“The perception that south Rockford is unsafe is not borne out by the facts,” says DeCastris. “Home values have increased in recent years, and it’s full of families and retirees.” The church neighborhood is anchored by Tinker Swiss Cottage, Booker Washington Community Center, the St. Ambrogio Club, the Lithuanian Club, Maria’s Italian Café, Zammuto’s Drive-In, Salamone’s Grocery, Montague Branch Library, the Graham-Ginestra House, the Ethnic Heritage Museum, St. Elizabeth’s Center, the Poor Clare’s Convent, Roma Bakery, Gasparini Funeral Home, Marinelli Field and Klehm Arboretum, as well as historic churches and schools. In 2001, DeCastris worked with state and city officials, Commonwealth Edison, various community partners and Fr. Luke Poczworowski, St. Anthony’s pastor at the time, to establish a church memory garden on the grounds, where the school and gymnasium had stood before they were razed in 1984. Poczworowski designed the garden to feature lifelike bronze statues of children along brick pathways, surrounded by flowers, trees, shrubs, benches, fountains, urns and lights. He served the church in several capacities for more than 18 years.

“When I was a deacon, in 1963, I used to watch the children at play during the lunch break,” Poczworowski recalls. “Mother Modesta would blow a whistle, and the children would freeze in place. When she blew the whistle a second time, they would run to her, line up in classes and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When I returned to Rockford and lived across the street, I was saddened by the gap left in the church grounds by the removal of the school and gym. I felt that something should be done with the site where the school and gymnasium once stood. I asked the Bishop for permission to create the garden. At first it was considered a diamond in the rough, but now the Italian members call it a pearl in the church’s crown.”

The result is St. Anthony’s garden, where lovingly-sculpted children are frozen in time, poised to run to the 7-foot tall statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

Fr. Anthony Marchesano

“I was in Scottsdale, Ariz., and saw exactly the sculptures I believed would be perfect for the garden, created by L’Deane Trueblood of Utah,” Poczworowski says. “One is a little girl holding an apple out to welcome visitors. Another is a seated boy in knickers reading a newspaper. The contemporary statue of the Blessed Mother in one corner is dedicated to all the Italian women who helped to make St. Anthony the warm, caring church it is today.”

The bronze sculptures and landscaping are complemented by more than 4,000 commemorative bricks with contributors’ names on them, and names of all priests who have served the church. Original fountains, archways and mosaics complete the layout, which is unfenced and open to the public.

“In all these years, we’ve had only two small incidents,” Poczworowski says. “The Blessed Mother’s toenails were painted pink, and the dove of the Holy Spirit perched on her hand developed a case of red eye.” A committee led by Chris Sacco lovingly tends the garden.
Poczworowski now serves central Illinois parishes in Lostant, Minonk and Wenona, but says it broke his heart to leave St. Anthony and Rockford.

“St. Anthony of Padua is the saint of Italy,” he says. “The love the Italians feel for him, and the faith they have in their church, are simply incredible. They pass this heritage of awe and love down through the generations, based on their unwavering belief in God. I wanted their children not only to hear about their heritage, but also to actually see and touch it.”

Vito Addotta attended kindergarten and first grade at St. Anthony School. Today, he finds the garden to be a deeply meaningful place. “Except for statues of St. Anthony of Padua and Our Blessed Mother Mary, the bronze statues are all of children,” he says. “The school may be gone now, but it will never be forgotten.”

The church remains the foundation of Addotta’s life and faith. Although he lives in Boone County, he attends 7:30 a.m. Rosary and 8 a.m. Mass two or three times weekly.

“My children went to school at St. Anthony, which was consolidated with grade schools of St. Stanislaus and SS. Peter and Paul to become St. Francis Consolidated Grade School,” Addotta explains. “My sons were all baptized, confirmed and still belong to St. Anthony. Even though some of them went to other churches, they have come back. For Italian Catholics, even those who come to Mass only on holidays, St. Anthony is where they want to be married and buried. It’s deeply instilled in our heritage.”

Longtime church member Frank Tartaglia was born and raised Catholic in East Chicago, Ind. After six years at Our Lady of the Lake Minor Seminary, Wawasee, Ind., where he earned a liberal arts degree, Tartaglia moved to Rockford to be near family.

“I worked at St. Anthony of Padua Church during the summer months, when on vacation from the seminary,” he says. He was married in the church and served as chairman of the parish school board in 1973, during an especially difficult chapter of church history. It was the year before St. Anthony, St. Stanislaus and SS. Peter and Paul parish schools would be consolidated.

The memory garden at St. Anthony Church. (Dustin Waller photo)

“Bishop O’Neill formed the committee to consolidate,” Tartaglia recalls. “Many of the Italian people were very upset that their children would not graduate from St. Anthony, as they had done in their school years.”

In part, the schools were consolidated because Franciscan nuns were diminishing in number, Tartaglia explains. The parishioners dealt with the situation and moved on.

Even with professional obligations that took him out of state, sometimes for years, Tartaglia and his family always returned to St. Anthony for major holidays.

“It’s my home parish,” he says. “I had an apartment in Bingham Farms, Mich., and a home in Rockford. I commuted every weekend to be here for Sunday Mass. It worked extremely well.”

St. Anthony’s Holy Name Society, comprised of men age 16 and up, is now in its 65th year. Its purpose is to raise funds to provide whatever the church needs, from building and grounds maintenance to special events. It also helps to pay for the church’s considerable insurance premium. “Years ago, the stained glass windows were appraised at more than $1 million,” says Tartaglia.

The Holy Name Society once numbered more than 500 members, and still remains one of the largest groups of its kind in the Rockford Diocese, with 165 members.

St. Anthony’s current leader, Fr. James Ciaramitaro, OFM Conv., is no stranger to Rockford. Coincidently, he is the first Italian-American pastor to head the church since the Fransiscan Friars took over in 1933.

“I was here 22 years ago for six years,” he says. “I was happy to find more members from the neighborhood, and a few more Hispanic families. At one time, this was nearly a 100-percent Italian neighborhood.”

Ciaramitaro has observed that most members seem to gravitate back, even if they leave the church for a time.

“From my point of view, St. Anthony remains a charming parish and a beautiful church with a long-term sense of tradition,” he says. “The liturgy leans toward the traditional, although at the same time, our members are very open-minded.”

One thing that would truly sadden St. Anthony members is the removal of any statues of patron saints from the Italian towns where their families emigrated, Ciaramitaro says.

“The people of St. Anthony are like one big family,” he adds. “They have all known each other practically since birth, and they extend that relationship to the friars as if we were members of their families. We are always happy to be assigned to St. Anthony for that reason.”

Ciaramitaro describes his assignment as “coming home.” He serves alongside associate Fr. Robert Melnick, OFM Conv., and Brother Jim DuFresne.

After more than a century of change, St. Anthony of Padua Church continues to be a source of strength, faith, pride and stability, for both its members and its historic neighborhood. ❚

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