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A Little Italy

Tradition thrives in Bridgeport's Saint Joseph Club.



On Saturday, July 1, a life-size plaster statue of a bearded Saint Joseph holding a golden-haired baby Jesus rode through the streets of Bridgeport. Part of a parade commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Saint Joseph Club, a men's social organization headquartered at 28th and Union, the icon was on its way to mass at All Saints Saint Anthony Church.

Most of the Saint Joseph Club members attend All Saints Saint Anthony, and they hold a deep regard for the father-and-son statue, which usually decorates their meeting hall. At annual Christmas parties they pose for photos with it. Some allege that in a photograph taken several years back, the baby Jesus's head, normally facing Saint Joseph, is turned slightly toward the camera. "It's really just the lighting, maybe," says Carmen "Buddy" Megaro, the club's financial secretary, holding the snapshot. "Don't print that he moved his head or we'll have the pope comin' in."

The widow of a former club member believes the statue originally came from Saint Mary's at Mount Carmel Church at 67th and Hermitage, which closed 25 years ago, but a copy of the club history indicates that it might have been secured shortly after the organization's founding in 1926. This is the first time it's been moved since the last anniversary parade, five years ago. The club used to hold annual parades, and in the early years the men took turns carrying the 200-pound statue. But it's gotten old and fragile, and in more recent years it has traveled on a cart.

At one time the club had a women's auxiliary, whose members would walk the parade route barefoot as a sort of penance. "With each step they would throw rose petals, too," said Megaro. Now members of the Saint Joseph Women's Club, which distinguishes itself as a separate organization, walk in the parades wearing comfortable shoes.

Notice of this year's festivities spread by word-of-mouth and through flyers posted at local businesses and an ad in an Italian newspaper. The event drew the participation of several women's groups from local churches, another Italian organization called the Saint Angelo Club, and several Bridgeport expatriates, about 200 people in all. "There's no way you would find anything like this in the suburbs," said former Bridgeport resident Charles Massaro, who now lives in Joliet. "We're in a new subdivision. You've got to go to the old neighborhood to relive the tradition."

Saint Joseph Club members wore red shirts and carried the Italian flag, along with club banners paying tribute to "San Guiseppe." The Sicilian Band of Chicago played the Italian national anthem and a selection of marches. A trellis covered with ferns and red and white carnations sheltered the statue of Saint Joseph from the sun until it was rolled into All Saints Saint Anthony on a special platform, which required the strength of several men to remove from the parade cart. After sitting in the church for an hour-long mass it emerged, as a barrage of firecrackers sent a cloak of smoke over the crowd gathered on the front steps. Then it was put back on the cart for the procession home.

Sixteen-year-old Angela Ventrella, the daughter of a club member, rode on the cart as procession queen. Her blond hair was piled high in a rhinestone tiara, and despite chilly temperatures she wore a white satin gown that exposed her shoulders. "It was cold," Ventrella said later, "but I liked all the attention from the little girls who looked up to me like, 'I want to be like her.' It made me feel special."

Outside the church Ventrella was pinning dollar donations to a sash on the statue when someone in the crowd shouted, "The money's getting away!" A couple of fives and tens spiraled upward, but Ventrella remained calm. She also maintained her balance through the halting stops and starts of the men pulling the cart.

Italian flags and red and green crepe paper decorated homes along the parade route. People stood at windows and in doorways to watch, and one resident provided Italian cookies and lemonade. "There were so many Chinese faces," Megaro said later. "They stand there in awe because they don't know what's going on. We're just trying to keep that tradition alive."

The father of the procession queen, Joe Ventrella, is from Bari, near Naples. Seventy-five years ago the original club members, many from small towns in Italy, chose Saint Joseph as their patron saint and named their club the San Guiseppe Society. It was renamed the Saint Joseph Club in 1956.

"In the beginning you had to read and write in Italian to be able to join," said Peter Liberti, a member of the club who serves as a deacon at All Saints Saint Anthony. "It started with names like Candella, Seminario, La Coco, Consentino, Sabella, Amella." Old club rosters list names like Sam "Fatty" DiCaro, John "Half Pint" Scumaci, James "Corner House" Bertucci, and Phil "Flapper" Fasone.

Though the majority of club members are still Italian, several bear names like Krueger and Wagner, McQuinn and Sheehan. The club also has a Strugielski and two men named Rios. Some, like Ed Schmit Jr., are the product of mixed marriages.

Club membership has expanded from 52 in the late 1980s to 73 today, and there's a long waiting list. Sons of club members must wait too, but their membership is guaranteed. There is one stipulation, however. "We only want neighborhood people," said Megaro. "It's not a racist thing. We just want to keep it in the neighborhood. At one time we only accepted Italians, but now we're open to anybody a member can bring in of good character."

Prospective members must have a recommendation from an existing member. The club takes a vote, and then there's a one-year probationary period during which membership can be dissolved if the new member falls into disfavor. Privileges include keys to the club, which has a kitchen, seating for about 75 people, and a bar that's stocked on a BYO basis. Christening and retirement parties and family reunions have all taken place there, but simply socializing is more the routine.

Club officers meet on a monthly basis to iron out plans for annual activities: golf outings, a Saint Joseph's Day feast in March, and various fund-raisers throughout the year. The organization makes contributions to several local churches, a VFW post, a food pantry, and a Girl Scout troop and pays for scholarships to local Catholic grammar schools.

Following the parade, the club was open to the public, serving free drinks, Italian beef sandwiches, salad, and cannoli. Standing in the crowded food line were Patricia Girondi and her daughter, Cathy, who have attended club celebrations for at least 20 years, often dropping cash in the donation box next to the statue to pay for the lighting of prayer candles. With the plunk of four quarters, Patricia reflected on what has endured. "There are lots of Italians still here."

"We got the heritage," said Cathy.

"Got the heritage," said Patricia.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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