With downtown becoming fully gentrified, this group of Italian seniors keeps the neighborhood old school
By Anne Kristoff
Anyone who thinks people in New York City don’t know their neighbors has never spent any time with Carmella “Millie” Fazio. On the short walk from the Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua on to her nearby apartment, practically everyone she passes greets her by name—from the mailmen and the laundry delivery guy to the young children just getting out of school for the day and the old-timers she’s known for nearly all of her 83 years. This is Millie’s neighborhood, and she makes one thing clear, “You ain’t moving me out!”
St. Anthony’s stretches across Houston Street from Sullivan to Thompson. It soars upward of 10 stories high and has been a cornerstone in the community since its completion in 1888. It is the oldest existing Italian parish in the United States and was built by the Italian immigrants who once filled the apartments in the surrounding neighborhood.
The building is impressive—voted the second most beautiful church in New York City by Time Out—with slabs of green and white marble encircling the altar and a huge rose window framed by a unique Jardine pipe organ. But despite its magnitude, the church blends seamlessly with the adjacent low-rise former tenement walk-ups, many of which still house the women who make up the St. Anthony’s Seniors Club.
“What you see now in the seniors is the remnant of this very vibrant and active, primarily Italian community,” said Father Joe Lorenzo, who has served as pastor of St. Anthony’s since 2004.
While the church itself had always been the cornerstone of the community, the seniors have become its touchstone. “They were very active,” said Brother Vincent Ciaravino, who started the Seniors Club in 1974 and was at St. Anthony’s for 29 years before transferring to Catskill, NY.
“These were people who were part of the church, they grew up in the parish, their kids went to the parish school and life centered; around the parish. It was a very strong and important part of the people of that area.”
Now in their eighties and nineties, the seniors have outlived parents, siblings and spouses and have endured a variety of changes in the neighborhood, the continual infringement of NYU expansion and the profound scars of 9/11. But they have each other and, like Millie, they are not going anywhere.
“My daughter lives on 82nd Street in Queens and she wanted to fix me a room,” said Frances Ciotta. “But I said no! I’m going from here to the cemetery!”
“I love it here,” said Antonina “Nina” Stagnitta. “I know everybody and everybody knows me. We go here, we go there, we do this and when I don’t have anything thing to do, no place to go and the weather is nice, I either sit here or down by Millie.”
The here and there varies. Some gather at local parks or the supermarket; others have lunch every day at the city-funded and -run seniors program at longtime rival church Our Lady of Pompeii on Bleecker Street. Some even partake in Pompeii’s bus trips to Atlantic City. The seniors see each other on their blocks, in their buildings and at the weekly 5 p.m. vigil mass on Saturdays. From September through May, on the first and third Thursday of the month, they meet up at the St. Anthony’s Seniors Club in the hall under the church.
A centerpiece event for the group, however, is the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua, celebrated on June 13. For St. Anthony’s on Sullivan Street, it marks the final day of a nine-day novena and the culmination of the celebration of the patron saint, which begins 13 Tuesdays earlier.
“For the nine days before the feast, there’s a flurry of activity,” continued Lorenzo. “The oil, the water, the medals imported from Italy, the bread.”
The seniors are right there on the front line, manning the church vestibule and taking donations for the blessed items. The same ladies work the same jobs every year: Millie and Helen do the oil and water, M.B. and Catharine do the bread and Ellie does the medals and prayer books.
“If you look at them now,” said Ciaravino, “as old as they are, they’re ready to help out and do anything they can for the parish.”
At one time, their feast day was commemorated with a week-long festival that rivaled San Gennaro. As the Italians moved out of the neighborhood and newcomers moved in, noise complaints shut the festival down. But the procession still takes place and draws a jam-packed, overflow crowd to the church.
For this year’s 62nd anniversary of the feast day and street procession, it’s estimated that over 1,200 people filled the church pews, spilling into the aisles and necessitating the opening of the balcony, which is normally closed. Afterward, the threat of rain that hovered for the better part of the day gave way to a golden sunset as the crowd took to the streets for the procession. Led by the statue, which was placed in the bed of a pick-up truck driven by Lorenzo, and an old-timey Italian band, the crowd followed the statue of St. Anthony from Sullivan Street to Bleecker, down to Broome and back up to the church.
As Dotty Zullo walks the procession route, she gives a bit of an historical tour from her perspective. “I grew up right there on the second floor…That place used to be a restaurant and, when he was a little boy, my son took a picture there with Marilyn Monroe. That place [The Dutch] used to be a club with pool tables. And that laundromat, that was Virginia’s, where we all got our sandwiches.”
At 84 years old, Zullo is still a looker. Her nails and hair are always done, and she hates to take a photo without lipstick. Taking pride in how she looks is one thing she attributes to her longevity. “I wouldn’t go out if I didn’t look right,” she said. “I think that’s a good attitude to have.”
“These are people who live a long time,” added Lorenzo. “They’re very, very active, and I think a lot of it has to do with living on third- and fourth-floor walk-ups. People you wouldn’t expect in their eighties and nineties are out every day.”
Marching through the streets of New York City following a life-sized saint statue pinned with dollar bills and a basketful of prayers feels like something out of The Godfather Part II. And it should, since a similar scene in the movie was filmed here. The day’s events are a throwback to a time when “Up on the Roof” was not just a song to these women but a way of life. They reminisce about going up to sunbathe, fly kites, eat macaroni and drink wine.
The procession concludes under a shower of confetti with the Red Mike Festival Band playing a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Downstairs in the hall, food and religious artifacts are for sale and Fazio and the seniors are there to take donations for small plastic bottles of holy water and St. Anthony’s oil. There’s still a lot of St. Anthony’s bread left over and, since it’s blessed, it must be eaten and not thrown away. “Eat this bread and you’ll never go hungry,” M.B. advised earlier in the week.
As the day draws to a close, there’s a sense this is a special scene, but not one that will be happening forever. “These women are very strong, physically and mentally,” said Lorenzo. “There is a deep history in each one of them and it’s not something you find out easily—sometimes it’s not until you hear a eulogy, and then you go ‘Wow!’”
Until then, they still have the seniors club and each other. When asked what she thinks of it, Ciotta replied, “I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess.”
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