Italian Heritage in New Jersey: You!

For my last post for Italian Heritage Month, I felt I needed to highlight a very important person that is part of Italian heritage in New Jersey: you!

And when I say you, I mean the collective you; the Italian-American community in New Jersey.

All month I’ve shared stories of amazing New Jerseyans of our past and those who represent our future. Well, you represent that future as well!

There is a very specific reason I decided to make this post about our community. Not too long while scrolling through Twitter (yeah, I know), I came across a post from a woman who is a journalist and of Italian descent. She wrote an opinion piece about Columbus and how the holiday should be eliminated. I was curious as to what she had to say, so I clicked through to her article and read her piece. I disagreed with her premise, but hey, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the piece, there were links to her other articles. I checked out some of her other articles and I quickly noted a pattern. First, I don’t think she has written anything happy. From Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving, she hates it all. Second, just about every article painted her heritage in a very poor light. I really felt like she is a self-hating Italian-American. It made me sad.

You’ve read my laments about the continued stereotyping of Americans of Italian descent in the media, the disrespect we face from individuals who look to demean our heritage, and just through the simple passing of time, all that makes our community special is starting to drift away. Very few actually care what past generations have contributed to our great state of the meaning of what it means to be of Italian descent. Ask five people tomorrow if they know when Italian Heritage Month is. Maybe you’ll get one correct answer, if you’re lucky. Therefore, it is up to us to make sure we pick up the flag that was handed to us by the generations before us and lift it high.

As a Gen-Xer, I usually just embrace my inner eyeroll when someone says something stupid about Italian-Americans because I know better. However, that is no longer the case. And it shouldn’t be the case for any of us.

My Uncle Chubby used to tell us to never forget where we came from. While I have always tried to heed his advice, it has brought new meaning to me over the last year. As I mentioned in my previous post, this year I joined two Italian American associations: the Italian American Once Voice Coalition and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. I started listening to the Italian American Podcast, which provides fascinating stories and information about Americans of Italian descent. I am working on leaning Italian. Most of all, I make sure people are laughing with me, not at me.

As I have said, those of Italian descent is the last ethnic group that people not only make fun of openly, they are encouraged through negative stereotyping. Just as I started this blog to increase awareness to the wonders of New Jersey, I also am going to take a more active role in reminding people that our heritage is more than The Godfather and Goodfellas. And for the record, those idiots from Jersey Shore were from Staten Island.

So as this Italian Heritage Month comes to a close, I encourage all of us that are of Italian descent to make sure you preserve the history of your family and our collective heritage. Our future as a community depends on it.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Patrick O’Boyle

Now, I know what you are thinking. This is Italian Heritage Month. Why am I highlighting a guy with an Irish name? Stick with me and you will quickly see why.

So far this month, I have highlighted important figures who have been important parts of the foundation of Italian heritage and culture in New Jersey. But I worry about the future of what it means to be of Italian descent. It is up to us as a community to make sure we take what we have learned from the generations before us and carry it forward.

Enter Patrick O’Boyle. Yeah, I know. The name. Like I said, stick with me.

He may have an Irish last name, but he is exactly what we as a community need to make sure our history is not cast aside. To make sure our proud heritage is not forgotten or nothing more than a stereotype in movies. Even better, he is a true Jersey guy.

Originally from North Arlington, he has a strong Catholic faith. He attended Queen of Peace High School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University (another reason I like this guy) and received his J.D. from Seton Hall Law School. He has his own private law practice in New Jersey and is a professor of law at Montclair State University.

He may be an attorney, but I am convinced he is a teacher at heart.

As part of the ensemble that makes up The Italian American Podcast, his knowledge of Catholic history and canon law is simply impressive. His knowledge of Italian history is equally impressive; from food to culture to all that is Italian. Listening to him and the ensemble of the podcast is like sitting back and enjoying a cross between a lecture on Italian culture and eating Sunday dinner.

Patrick is working hard to protect our heritage and has been recognized for his efforts. He is the Vice-President for New Jersey of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) and President and Prior of the Congregazione Maria Ss. Del Sacro Monte di Novi Velia Salerno di Jersey City, NJ, a member of the Boards of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere and the Coccia Foundation for the Italian Experience in America, a Founding Board Member of the Sandumanghesi Del Cilento Society, the former New Jersey Area Coordinator and Member of the Youth Activities Board and Young Professionals Council of NIAF, and the Past National Youth Committee Chairman of Unico National, the nation’s largest Italian American service organization. He is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of Savoy, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Knight Official of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George and the Order’s Vice-Delegate for the United States.

Patrick has inspired me to take a more active role in cherishing my heritage. I’ll be honest, when my Grandmother passed away, I felt like a lot of my connection with what makes me Italian was lost. A part of me died with her. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. Every few years I made a half-hearted attempt to learn Italian. Needless to say, it hasn’t gone well. I just started up again.

I recently joined the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. As I mentioned, I am working on learning Italian. I’ve picked up on my family history documentation in Ancestry. Years ago I made a family recipe book with all the recipes written out by hand. I’ve been adding to it with recipes that weren’t documented anywhere at the time. I joined the Italian American One Voice Coalition. I am making a conscious attempt at rediscovering and preserving my family heritage as well as my ancestral heritage.

So my lesson to you is this; regardless of your heritage, take a page from Patrick’s playbook. Embrace and celebrate it.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: St. Lucy’s Church

If someone asked me what is the most important location associated with Italian heritage in New Jersey, I would say without hesitation St. Lucy’s Church.

Since its cornerstone was placed in 1891, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark has been a source of pride and devotion for the millions of Italian immigrants and the generations that followed. In 1998, St. Lucy’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish namesake, Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia), martyred in Sicily in third-century is the patroness of those afflicted with diseases of the eyes.

St. Lucy’s Church is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. Every October, tens of thousands of the faithful flock to pay homage to St. Gerard. St. Gerard Maiella of Avellino was born on April 6, 1726. He was the only son of Benedetta and Comenico Maiella. Because of his frail health he was not immediately accepted into the Order but, due to his insistence and persistence he was finally accepted in May of 1749 and became a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. St. Gerard passed away on October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine. While it was never made official, he is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of Mothers.

The third pastor, Msgr. Joseph Granato, served the parish with dedication and faith in God’s providence for 54 years, until June 2009. For those of us who have met Msgr. Granato, he borders on rock star status. His dedication to St. Lucy’s and the community has earned him a spot on many prayer lists of families of the parish.

At its height, over 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around the church, known as the First Ward. For over 80 years, that neighborhood thrived and supported their beloved church. Sadly, the neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood came in 1953 thanks to developers and the city government. They forced people give up their homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took over eight decades to build. City officials often referred to the First Ward as a “slum.” The Newark Housing Authority claimed its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good (including my family) the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist. Those homes were replaced with large buildings providing low-income housing. As the years continued, they were a great source of crime and an example of all that was wrong with Newark. Unfortunately, the damage was done at the point. The First Ward was destroyed and one of the most vibrant Italian communities in the country was history. All in the name of progress.

People with a connection to the area, and St. Lucy’s specifically, still return regularly for church. I am the fourth generation of my family that returns to St. Lucy’s every October for the Feast of St. Gerard. It is one of only two churches in the entire state where I feel truly at peace and able to prayerfully reflect and enjoy the silence.

I tell everyone I know, if you have never visited St. Lucy’s, take the time to visit this amazing church full of beautiful art and history, as well as a strong connection to the Italian community of New Jersey.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Joseph Rotunda

Many of us have passed by Rotunda Pool in Newark on our way to St. Lucy’s Church or coming out of Branch Brook Park and have not given it a second thought. It is, however, an important location in the community and New Jersey Italian heritage.

The Rotunda Pool plaque
Source: Newark Historical Society

Rotunda Pool is named after Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. The dedication of this pool stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland. The official renaming from Clifton Pool to Rotunda Pool took place in 1966.

By the early twentieth-century, approximately 21,000 Italian immigrants made Newark the fifth largest Italian-American community in the country.

Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas for three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, dated June 9, 1943, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

On June 16, 1943, the Newark Evening News reported on an announcement from the War Department which listed the death of Private Joseph R. Rotunda, Jr. as one of four soldiers from New Jersey to lose their lives in combat. In total 229 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in action in North Africa and 630 more wounded, 11 of whom were from New Jersey.

In February 1944, after seeking permission from Joseph Rotunda, Sr., officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) designated the Pvt. Joseph R. Rotunda Jr. Post (No. 848) in honor of the “first soldier from the First Ward to be killed in action in this war.” This post became the ninth V.F.W. unit in Newark.

So next time you ride past Rotunda pool, maybe take a moment and bow your head or tip your cap to the memory of Private Rotunda.

October is Italian Heritage Month

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am a proud New Jerseyan. I am also very proud of my Italian heritage. October in Italian Heritage Month and as I do each year, I plan on writing about New Jerseyans of Italian heritage that have made a significant impact on our state or our country.

Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have a unique history all our own. More than 1.45 million residents of New Jersey reported having Italian heritage according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town of Fairfield is home to the most residents with Italian heritage in the United States. Seven of the top 20 towns in the United States with the most residents of Italian ancestry are right here in the Garden State.

The great migration from Italy took place between 1880 and 1914; a total of 13 million Italians came to America and made it home.

At its height, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the United States with a population of over 30,000 within one square mile. The center of that neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, built by Italian immigrants in 1891. St. Lucy’s holds the National Shrine to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers.

That’s where the story of my family begins. The First Ward of Newark.

Like the countless other Italians that came to America, they came to build a better life for their family and future generations. They worked hard, many changed their names to sound American, they learned English, and became citizens. My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian Americans during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials. They were considered Enemy Aliens.

These Italian immigrants came to America looking for a new home and were ready to prove themselves as good Americans and work. Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find it. “Italians need not apply” was a common theme. We were looked down upon, no matter where we went in the country.

The lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 was the largest and most outrageous mass lynching in United States history. The lynchings took place on March 14, 1891. New Orleans Police Superintendent, David Hennessy was gunned down in October 1890. As he gasped his last breath, he supposedly uttered, “The dagos did it.” Officials quickly arrested numerous area Italian immigrants and attributed the slaying to “Mafia activity.” After a public meeting where people called the Italians “not quite white,” a mob gathered shouting “Hang the dagos!!” To avenge the murder of a popular police superintendent, unrestrained mobs went into the city jail and beat, clubbed, and fatally shot eleven Italian prisoners.

Dago. WOP. Guinea. Ginzo. Goombah. Just a handful of the names Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have been called over the years. Each of which gets a giant eyeroll from me. They are meant to hurt. They only hurt if you let them. I remember hearing a story from my Aunt who said when they moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor approached her mother (my Grandmother) and asked if they would be going to “our church,” to remind them they were outsiders. Without missing a beat, my Grandfather said “I though it was God’s church.”

From name calling, to lynchings, to being considered enemies of the state, to the stereotype that all Americans of Italian descent are “connected,” I say… whatever.

Let me tell you what it means to me.

Being an American of Italian descent is never forgetting where you came from and honoring it every day. It is about faith and family. It is recognizing our ethnicity is that last one it is “allowed” to be made fun of and not letting it bother us. Ours is a history of food, culture, art, and music that should be celebrated.

I am a New Jerseyan. I am an American. I am of Italian heritage. I hope you go on this historical journey on me for the next month.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Rose Fieramosca

You’ve probably never heard of today’s New Jerseyan of Italian heritage. She wasn’t famous, or rich, or any of the other things most would people consider noteworthy. She was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, an aunt, a great cook, and a devout Catholic. She was my Grandmother – Rosina Fucetola Fieramosca.

Like many of my friends growing up, I grew up in a multi-generational household. I had no idea if this was unusual or special; it’s just the way it was. My immediate family was downstairs. Upstairs was my “extended family,” although I never knew such a word existed growing up. It was just “family.” Upstairs were my Grandparents and my Uncle Sonny. Sadly, my Grandpa passed away when I was very young, so it was always my Grandma and my Uncle – her eldest son. There were there for every day of my life, until the moment each of them passed away at home.

Rose Fucetola was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 21, 1905, the daughter of Lucia and Gabriel. She married her one and only love, Pasquale Fieramosca, on November 8, 1922. Over her lifetime, she had five children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Me with my Grandma (left) and my Aunt Anna (right) at my wedding in 1994.

I don’t know if I really ever thought about it at the time, but it was an incredibly special way to live. Sunday dinners with the family upstairs. Dinner downstairs during the week, including Grandma and Uncle Sonny. If you were sick, she would make you pastina. If you were hungry, she would heat up leftover meatballs from Sunday. After spilling wine on a white top once, she was the only one who could make it look like it was brand new. Dying house plant? Bring it to Grandma. It would magically come back to life. When I made my Confirmation, I took the name “Rose” for her and my Sponsor – my cousin Rosanne.

In the late 90s, the book Newark’s Little Italy: The Vanished First Ward by Michael Immerso was published. If you ever wondered what it was to grow up in an Italian household in New Jersey, this book provides the perfect description. I took her to the Barnes and Noble on Rt. 46 in Little Falls for a lecture by the author. We arrived early so she could sit up front and make sure she heard everything. After his talk, people had the opportunity to ask questions. Whenever he didn’t know something, she would whisper the answer to him. He finally laughed and said “I’m being coached.” She had a memory that didn’t quit. At the end of the evening the line for attendees to speak with my Grandma was longer than the line to meet the author. It was a wonderful evening.

She was not just a woman proud of her heritage; she was a proud American. In my entire lifetime, I can only think of a handful of times I heard her speak Italian, even though she was completely fluent. When I was a child I would bring Italian books home from the library and beg her to read them to me and teach me. Her answer was always the same, “you are an American and you speak English.” She believed in the great American experiment. I remember her telling me of stories of singing patriotic songs during WWII and flying American flags.

Finally, she was a woman of faith and made sure we were all instilled with that same faith. When she wasn’t able to go to mass any longer, I became a Eucharistic Minister so I could bring her communion.

Today is her 115th birthday. And while it is ridiculous to believe so, I wish she was still here with her family that loves her. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.

This probably sounds like a typical life of someone who is far from noteworthy. However, I promise you, noteworthy is exactly what she was.. and still is.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Dr. Steve Adubato

A modern-day New Jersey native of Italian descent I feel is deserving of recognition is Steve Adubato, Ph.D. He is someone I have admired since I was a teenager. Born in Newark, he was the youngest state legislator in the New Jersey General Assembly at age 26. Dr. Adubato earned both his master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degree in mass communication from Rutgers.

Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Credit: steveadubato.org

I remember watching his program Caucus New Jersey on public access television when I was young. He asked probing and thoughtful questions and was always able to get a response, unlike what often happens in politics and reporting today.

Now he is an individual with a national presence. He has television shows, a podcast, and is often a guest speaker at institutions of higher learning across the country, including my alma mater, Seton Hall University, where he serves as a Buccino Leadership Institute Fellow and is teaching a master class in the spring 2020 semester.

With a focus on leadership and communication, his most recent book, Lessons in Leadership, Dr. Audobato focuses on self-awareness, empathy, and how to be a leader at home and work.

He currently anchors three television series produced by the Caucus Educational Corporation (CEC); State of Affairs, One-on-One, and Think Tank. They are available on multiple platforms, including PBS, NJTV online, and YouTube.

Dr. Adubato has taught many to think critically as well as ask important questions on behalf of his fellow New Jerseyans. He has certainly made his home state, and his home county of Essex, proud.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Msgr. Joseph Granato

If there is anyone who should be the first individual I highlight for Italian Heritage Month, it must be Msgr. Joseph Granato. Msgr. Granato borders on rock star status at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, home to the National Shrine of St. Gerard. He served St. Lucy’s for 54 years. It was the only parish he ever served. He was the third pastor of St. Lucy’s Church.

St. Lucy’s Church, Newark

Joseph Granato was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 9, 1929. His parents were Anthony Granato and Theresa DePiano Granato. The family moved to Newark during his infancy. His brother was Rev. Anthony F. Granato, Pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, East Newark.

On June 4, 1955, his day of ordination; he found his place of religious assignment was to be St. Lucy’s Parish.

Then Father Granato, was appointed Administrator in 1971 and shortly thereafter in 1977 was assigned by Archbishop Peter Gerety as Pastor of the Church he so dearly loved. On July 16, 1979, he was awarded the honor of being named Monsignor by His Holiness, John Paul II. He remained as Pastor of St. Lucy’s and served the community faithfully during his 54 years in the priesthood.

On October 29, 1999 Monsignor Granato was awarded the first Msgr. Joseph Granato Italian Culture Medal at Seton Hall University. The medal celebrates distinguished achievement in the promotion and preservation of Italian culture in the state of New Jersey.

St. Lucy’s Church is a place of wonderous art and offers a space for quiet prayerful meditation. Each October, St. Lucy’s celebrates the Feast of St. Gerard. The days of the Feast are filled with masses, celebrations, food, and a procession through the streets of Newark.

Sadly, this year almost all the events are cancelled, due to the inability to attain the proper permits from the city of Newark due to the pandemic.

This is an incredibly important time for the church, as most of their fundraising takes place during the few days of the Feast. If you are able, I urge you to donate what you can so St. Lucy’s can continue to do its good works in the community and carry forward its 100-plus-year history, which includes the tremendous contributions of Monsignor Granato.

National Italian Heritage Month

October of each year is National Italian Heritage Month. While my married last name is no longer Italian, I am proud of my heritage. It helped mold the adult I am today. I come from a line of truck drivers, beauticians, stay-at-home mothers, and police officers. The generations before me made sacrifices so I could grow up in a big family with memorable Sunday dinners that always included Grandma’s gravy and meatballs.

Throughout the month of October, I’ll be highlighting different Italians and Americans of Italian descent that have made a positive impact on New Jersey. There are many Americans of Italian descent that have made incredibly important contributions to New Jersey as well as the nation. I hope you enjoy my posts this month. May they entertain and enlighten.

Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto.
~Eat well, laugh often, love much.