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Maria Remembers: Remembering Easter celebrations of yore

First Posted: 9:51 am - April 3rd, 2015

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Every holiday holds special memories of the way it is celebrated, with customs and traditions learned and shared with families. Accordingly, the dinner menu is carefully planned and then the shopping for the food follows. I was recently in a local super market at the deli counter where I met Loretta Forlenza Amico and her husband John. Perhaps, being at that particular location prompted Loretta to ask if I would be making the Easter Pizza.

I had to respond with a no, since it was not a Sicilian custom and Mama never made it.

Loretta related that she learned to make the Pizzacana as a young girl with her grandmother and has kept the tradition alive. Her family looks forward to that delicious treat.

Yearly, I, too, looked forward to receiving a taste of that Italian favorite from my neighbor, the late Vicki Moore, and also from a co-worker, Gloria Pupa, who brought the pizza to the Luzerne Intermediate Unit office staff. Both recipes were delicious and immediately devoured and appreciated.

Pizzacana originated in Naples, Italy and is made with eggs, ham, ricotta and various types of cheese. The recipe has been shared, adopted, altered, and revised according to taste. The richness of the pizza allows it to be considered a meal.

That conversation with Loretta jarred my thoughts as to what favorite food Sicilians prepare. I remember the Easter feast began with pasta (macaroni in our day) with a leg of lamb and all the trimmings. Mary LaMarca Policare told me that her father, Raymond LaMarca (my godfather), had a lamb dressed for the occasion. She also remembers the baking of the cookies and the sweet bread shaped into an Easter basket with hard-boiled eggs on top (Me too!).

The “Blessing of the Baskets” is a Slavonic custom that was celebrated by my good friend Columbia Stelma and her late husband John. The basket brought to church on Holy Saturday for the blessing and prayers contained hard boiled eggs, Pascha, a special Easter bread, kielbasa, baked ham, sirok (egg roll) sausage, sweet butter, horseradish, nut roll, poppy seed roll and a lamb cake.

The food was meant to be eaten on Easter Sunday as a cold meal; however, Columbia deviated from the custom and chose to share the food as a hot brunch on Holy Saturday afternoon with her family and close friends. It was a special afternoon — not only was the food delicious, but the hospitality was genuine and warm. Chet and I were grateful to share this beautiful custom, now a treasured memory.

Speaking of food, I remember a conversation with Dr. David Scalzo, sharing a custom that began with his grandfather and grandmother. On Good Friday, all the family gathered for the evening meal of pasta con sarde, fresh endive salad and warm Italian bread. “Sitting with my grandfather in my grandmother’s kitchen cleaning the endive is a memory I won’t forget. When my grandparents passed on I did not want the custom to die so my wife and I prepare the meal and share it with the family in our home,” he told me.

Preparing for Easter Sunday is more than the planning of a holiday. It is a spiritual journey affiliated with our churches that begins on Ash Wednesday and the 40 days that follows. It a time of awareness of the sacrifice made on the cross and a time of reflection, whether it be at daily mass, bible study, scripture readings, or personal prayers.

Religious traditions of past years are so vividly remembered. Following mass at St. Rocco’s Church on Holy Thursday, we visited the churches in Pittston as a symbol of keeping watch with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. The route of the visits began at St. John the Evangelist Church on William Street, the fortress for the churches in Pittston. We then crossed William Street to climb the double tier of stone steps to enter St. John the Baptist Church for a few minutes of prayer. Next came a trek up Church Street to visit St. Casimir’s Church, in which the interior resembled a cathedral. The large bisque like Stations of the Cross were works of art that will never be seen in this area again.

Upon leaving St. Casimir’s Church, we crossed the street to visit St. Mary the Assumption Church. It was a little welcoming church that had an outside appearance of a Swiss chalet and an interior feeling of church.

Upon leaving the church, a major decision had to be made. Whether to cross the street again for a stop in Grablick’s Ice Cream Parlor or continue on to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, which was quite a distance and an upward climb on William Street. Walking or riding was the decision-maker for that visit.

The beautiful custom of visiting those respective churches can never be repeated again, for St. John the Baptist Church and St. Mary the Assumption Church no longer stand, while St. Casimir’s and St. Rocco’s churches stand empty and stripped as shadows of the past.

Good Friday was a day of worship in Greater Pittston. Most of the businesses in the city were closed from 12 to 3 p.m., giving worshipers the opportunity to pay their respects. A hush was felt on Main Street, and the hustle and bustle of traffic was almost nonexistent as people walked to church with a sense of solemnity.

A scene that is etched in my mind since the age of 8 or 9 is entering St. Rocco’s Church on Good Friday to see a replica of Jesus hanging on the cross with a statue of the Mother of Sorrows angled to the right. Prayers were heard from the front of the church recited in Italian and English by the elder women in the parish. People entered and left the church very quietly.

In the 1940s era, when Rev. Vincent Bonomo was pastor of St. Rocco’s Church, outdoor Stations of the Cross were enacted. The Road to Calvary began at the church, as the First Station where “Jesus Was Condemned to Die” and continued through Tompkins, West, and Elizabeth streets, stopping at various houses to recite the prayers of each station.

A large turnout lined the streets and followed the procession in prayer. I remember when we began the walk it was daylight and night had fallen on the journey back to the church. Tired and holding a lit candle, I stumbled and bumped into my cousin who was walking in procession in front of me and accidentally singed her hair. That did not go over too well. Could be the following year that there were no candles.

I am being reminded that on Holy Saturday, in preparation of the big day, the gentlemen in the city ventured into Main Hat Cleaners located on South Main Street for a first-class shoe shine. In those days, shined shoes were a class of distinction. The proprietor, Chester Montante, my husband, charged 10 cents a shine.

Easter Sunday — what a fashion parade. Fifth Avenue had nothing on the ladies and children of Greater Pittston as a new outfit from head to toe was worn to church with the crowning glory being the Easter Bonnet. And what hats they were adorned, with ribbons, flowers, netting, and pearls in beautiful pastel colors. Chances are they came from Field’s Millinery Store on South Main Street.

Gone are the days but not the memories. They are ours to keep tucked away close to our hearts, revisited at will, and to share with family and friends. Happy Easter.

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