I grew up in Oregon, one of the apparently “least-churched” states in the USA. Nonetheless, we were members of a vibrant Catholic church in Portland, dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo, the great Italian archbishop of Milan, cardinal and Church reformer, who lived from 1538 to 1584. His feast day is kept each year on November 4th.
Saint Charles parish had many Italian families in the 1950 and 60s, either first generation immigrants or their children and grandchildren. I presume they had come to the United States seeking employment and in order to join family members already in Portland. The fairly moderate climate of Oregon was presumably also a draw in the Italians sinking roots.
Some of the families of Italian descent in Portland ran farms not too far from the parish, where in those days there were still thousands of acres of open land. They raised cash crops including berries and beans. Some ran fruit stands, while others worked in factories or owned or worked in businesses in the city of Portland.
I was a student, along with my older brother Douglas, for most of the 1960s, at Saint Charles Grade School, operated by our parish. I began first grade there in 1959 and graduated from eighth grade in 1967. From there I went to public high school.
When I look back over nearly sixty years, I recall that nearly all the mothers of the students, including my own, were “stay at home” moms, thus easily able to attend “Mothers’ Club” meetings in the middle of the day once a month, held in the parish hall. My mom certainly never missed the meeting, unless she was ill.
On occasion, especially around Christmas, Easter and Saint Patrick’s Day, we students performed for the mothers, with song, dance or poetry recitals, usually done as a class. Other than that, we didn’t really see the mothers when they came to school for their monthly gatherings. With more than five hundred children in the school in those days, there were also hundreds of mothers to go along.
The nuns who taught us, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, were not of Italian descent, but mostly of Irish stock (hence the hoopla around Saint Patrick’s Day), though one our favorites, Mother Florence Mary, was definitely of Italian lineage. These women religious had come to our parish from Philadelphia in the early 1950s and ran other grade schools and a Catholic high school for girls in Portland as well. They were top notch, no nonsense, educators. I am ever grateful for their teaching and example of consecrated religious life.
Dedication was a hallmark of the nuns’ approach to everything they did and to this day I keep in touch with a number of these now elderly ladies who had a formative influence in my life. My first grade teacher, who just turned ninety-one, is still a mentor and inspiration. Long live Mother Mary Genevieve, now called Sister Agnes.
I bring all this up as I want to recall an event in second grade with a clear “Italian connection.” At the beginning of the school year 1960, though after having already begun the semester, so I will say it was late September or early October, a new student appeared one day at our second grade classroom, whose name, we were told, was Giovanni Rossi. He was Italian, through and through, though more or less looked like us (we all wore matching uniforms), but Giovanni didn’t speak a word of English. There he was, thrust into a mob of fifty English-only speaking second graders! I can only imagine the drama that this must have been for him.
I trust parents today would not inflict that kind of burden on a child, but the boy’s parents likely had wanted him in a Catholic school and the nuns undoubtedly told his parents, “send him over.” I am not sure if the parents and nuns hoped Giovanni would pick up English as he went along, but clearly he was in a very difficult situation.
Fortunately classmates where sympathetic to the youngster’s plight and overall treated him kindly. The teacher explained to us that his first name did not have four syllables, gi-o-vann-i, but only three: “gio,” as one syllable, pronounced like “joe,” then, “vann-i,” two syllables. That was my first Italian lesson. I still recall this when I hear Italians say, “Giovanni,” with three, not four, syllables.
Giovanni Rossi did not in fact stay at our school very long, and within months of his arrival we learned that he had returned to Italy, presumably with his parents. I am sure the immersion in our culture and language was a heavy burden on the lad and so his return to Italy, for whatever reason, was a merciful move.
My own ancestry is German and French Canadian, but being part of a heavily Italo-American parish in the 1950s and 60s didn’t seem to cause problems. We all spoke English, people basically accepted one another, and life went on. There were always the “more popular” and “less popular” distinctions among the students, (I among the latter), but that was about it.
An important part of our parish while growing up was the annual “Spaghetti and Meatball Dinner,” which had begun in 1950. At its beginning the dinner was prepared exclusively by Italian parishioners. Over the years more and more “non-Italian” members of the parish helped as well with cooking and serving the meal. Even I assisted with serving while in high school. It was and still is held each year on the Sunday closest to the feast of Saint Charles, November 4th. Stop in if you are in Portland at that time of year. The parish is at North East 42nd and Emerson Streets. Tell them one of their boys sent you!
The annual dinner was always a fundraiser and an indirect “Italian heritage awareness” event as well. The proceeds were used in the early days to help subsidize the parish school, since many who attended couldn’t afford to pay, or paid less than was adequate for a debt-free institution.
The great pastor in those days, Father John Laidlaw, never turned away students whose families could not pay. The spaghetti dinner was a great help in keeping the school solvent. Sadly, the school closed in the 1970s. Today proceeds for the dinner are used for the general upkeep of the parish.
Saint Charles Church continues the great spaghetti dinner tradition even with fewer parishioners of Italian descent as members of the parish. Demographics have changed, many baby-boomers are now grand or great-grand parents, and what was once for us a “little taste of Italy” in our parish, is more of an enjoyable feast for all who buy a ticket, probably costing a dollar per person when I was a youngster and now considerably and rightfully more.
Part of my choosing to write these words is to acknowledge the slightest of introductions to Italian culture and language, something I am now fully emerged in, but I would never have guessed so those many decades ago, as a member of Saint Charles Borromeo parish, Portland, Oregon.