During the 1950s and 1960s, W. 69th Street, north of Detroit, was mostly an Italian neighborhood. Right after WWII, a new wave of Italian immigrants came to the U.S. escaping from the horrors of poverty and the desolation that brought the end of the war. Some other neighbors came before the war, and helped to welcome new immigrants. The street became a little piece of Italy where neighbors interacted with each other, where the aroma of fresh tomato sauce surrounded the atmosphere, and where values and memories of Italy were nourished in their hearts.
Today, Antonio Ruggiero is one of the oldest Italians in the W. 69th St. neighborhood. He came from Coreno, Italy in 1951 and, since 1959, has been living in the same house. In Italy, the members of his family were farmers and cheese makers. When he came to the U.S., he had to adapt to a new culture and a new language. Besides working and finding a way to survive in the new environment, Antonio and his wife, Rose, made a connection with the Catholic Church right away. The Catholic Church was the center of the Italian life in the neighborhood, and quickly became the center of the lives of this lovely couple.
In 1953, Antonio participated in the initiation of a chapter of the Holy Name Society at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. The mission of this confraternity is to promote reverence for the Sacred Names of God and Jesus Christ, obedience and loyalty to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and the personal sanctification and holiness of its members. The ministry of the members of the Holy Name focuses on performing Corporal Works of Mercy. During his active years with the Holy Name Society, Antonio never became the president. He told me, "I was Marshall. They wanted me to be president, but my English was not good enough." But, limitations with the English language did not impede Antonio to make a great contribution to the Church and the Holy Name Society. In fact, he was active and involved in many activities that were developed for fundraising and for the recreation of the parish community.
Rose, Antonio's wife, was also a very active member who helped to establish the St. Joseph's Table, an event that it is still celebrated at Mount Carmel during the Feast of St. Joseph, and, together with Antonio, helped every year in the festival selling fried dough, fundraising for the construction of Pope John XXIII Hall, and in many other events. Antonio pointed out, "At that time I was much involved because I believed in what was right for the parish and for the neighborhood, and I believed in teaching it to new generations who came along."
Antonio and Rose are a symbol of dedication and love to our Church and to our neighborhood. In addition, Antonio was also involved, for many years, in the Circolo Italo Americano Corenese founded in Cleveland in 1958 "to establish a more friendly and social relationship" among people of Italian origin in the neighborhood. This cultural organization has contributed in maintaining the Italian heritage, and of passing it on to the new generations.
Antonio shared with me that "The Holy Name Society was much stronger than it is today. There were 75 to 100 members. Today we don't have that many anymore." However, the society continues to have a strong presence in our Church, and collaborating with the pastor in many of the projects and events. Because of his age, Antonio is not as active as he used to be, but he acknowledges the commitment of the current members (Marty, Bob, and Dominic, among others) who continue helping the Church in many ways. Antonio believes that people should come to Church to have a good time and to share and interact with each other, because in order to attract "younger people to the Church, they need to enjoy and have a good time."
Our conversation ended with a glass of homemade wine. I also had the opportunity to sees Antonio's garden, a little piece of Italy in front of his house, with tomatoes, parsley and other vegetables and herbs. Antonio and Rose have a strong devotion for our Lady and they have a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of their house. Sharing with these pioneers of our neighborhood and guardians of our Church was a wonderful and enriching experience. They represent the genuine essence of the Italian heritage in the neighborhood. Antonio's sense of humor and energy, and Rose's simplicity and love for the Church and devotion to our Lady, gave me a sense of hope for our community.
This year Our Lady of Mount Carmel celebrates the Annual Italian Festival from July 8-12. This event brings our community together and it is an opportunity to celebrate the Italian heritage in our community and to receive people from other cultural backgrounds to our Church. Antonio Ruggiero will be around to enjoy an event for which he worked for many years, and the new members of the Holy Name Society, as well as many other members of the parish, will be there to receive all the visitors who come to our dynamic and growing neighborhood. We hope to see you all there!