The Italians of Penns Grove
Penns Grove Historical Society Meeting July 31, 2001
The immigrant story is the story of America. It is the story of Penns Grove. Today, we look at the story of one group of immigrants who settled in a new land with a new language, new customs, and new ways. They arrived and they brought their language, their customs and their ways with them. Over 100 years ago, PietroMontagnoli came to Penns Grove from his hometown village of Valle San Giovanni in the Abruzzi region of Italy. After his visit, hew returned to Italy to get his young family, wife, Cisera and Daughter, Maria, to bring them to their new home in America. In 1902, the Montagnolis became the first Italian family to settle Penns Grove. His daughter, Minnie Quatrini once told me that her father loved Penns Grove. To him it truly was the land of opportunity. Pietro wrote back to people in the hometown. There was fishing, shipping, railroad, farming … everything was here he said … Come! Come! And they did!
The Clemente’s who were cousins to the Montagnoli’s were the next to come and after them many other Italian families from Abruzzi followed and made Penns Grove their home. In 1910, the Montagnoli’s had built a stately brick home on Mill Street which looked much like the row home in South Philly. Attached to the home was an Italian bakery and a grocery specializing in fine Italian products. As the business grew, so did their family. And so did the number of Italians in Penns Grove. Although there proved to be plenty of opportunity in Penns Grove, life here was not exactly easy for the Italians. The first immigrants faced some difficult challenges overcoming a barrier of language and customs. Olga Banco, daughter of Mary Montagnoli, recalls her mother being shunned and even attacked as a child because of her Italian heritage. The Italians of Penns Grove had a lot to prove in America. And that they did!
Pietro Montagnoli died at the young age of 42, November 21, 1921. He did not get to see how important his coming to America, coming to Penns Grove would man in the lives of the Brutses and the other Italians who came. He did not get to see the contribution that the Italians made to Penns Grove in the fields of business, sports, construction, law and medicine. The Italians who built a thriving business community and who still carry on the family traditions today. Families whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are represented here tonight. What is your family name? Franceschini, Piccolomini, Mangiocco, Rappa, Furio, Macconi, Pomponi, Pratta, Garbini, Massari, DeSantis, De Frank, Domenico, DePalma, Dalessio just to name a few. Italians who made their living proudly and with the seat of their bow. Builders-Verdecchio, Martell, Massari, Nicolini; Doctors – Zappala, Caggiano,; Lawyers ¬DiNicola, Crecenzi; Policemen – Fonto, DiTeodoro, Spinelli; NJ Hall of Fame Boxer-FirpoBracale; Grocers – Quatrini, DeLuca, Traini; Businesspeople – Cataldi, Pelura, DiPrinzio, Baldini, Parente, DiPietro, Merendino. Leone, Ferrara, Banco, and how canwe forget the Food – Travaglini, DiPaolo, Bomba; Bakers – Campagnoni, Prioli. Who did we forget?
The Italians created their own neighborhoods like Pitman Street, Penn Street, Walnut Street and Mill Street. In the early 1920’s, there were already three active organizations of Italian Americans in Penns Grove – The Italian American Citizen league, the Lodge of New Rome of the Order of the Sons of Italy and the Mother of Grace Society.
In the small village of Valle San Giovanni, Pietro Montagnoli’s hometown, the Feast of the Mother of Grace continues to be a major celebration. Held the first Sunday of July, the feast day is preceded by a week-long gala carnival. The Italians from Abruzzi who settled Penns Grove wanted to carry on this wonderful tradition. The small Catholic church, Saint James would now be the center of religious life for the Italians. And kinda like we do, the Italians took over! They decided to bring the Feast of the Mother of Grace from their old hometown to their new hometown, of Penns Grove. To carry on the tradition, they commissioned an exact replica of the statue of the Blessed Mother Mary cradling the Child Jesus that was used in the hometown. There was much anticipation as the Italians waited for the wonderful Statue to arrive. It is said that it hadn’t rained in Penns Grove for weeks that summer, but on the day that the Mother of Grace statue arrived, the heavens opened and the rain poured down. That is what they say!
The first Feast Day was held on July 2, 1925 with mass celebrated at St. James Church by Father Massey. A procession was held through the streets of Penns Grove, through the Italian neighborhoods. The St. James Church was crowded to the doors at the morning services which were conducted by Rev. H.L. Massey. The benediction was delivered and the sponsoring of the life size sitting statue of Madonna and Child took place when the replica of the original statue at Teramo was revealed for the first time upon the blessing of the Priest. Miss Catherine Clement and Mr. PietroDiFilippantionio acted as sponsors. Mr. Di Paolo had built the cart that would carry the Madonna and Mrs. DiPaolo made her beautiful gown. About noon, the procession formed in front of the Church while the Committee brought the statue to the door. The line of march was then on Beach Avenue proceeding to South Broad, to Willis, Smith, East main and State, Railroad, Oak, West Main, Penn Street, Pitman then on to Broad Street and back to the church. Great celebration surrounded the Feast Day. Music, a Picnic and fireworks made the Feast Day weekend a joyous time. The Feast Day continued for many years with all the faithful involved. The processions continued with each Communion class dressed in white, other children dressed as saints, the women dressed in all white, and that impressed me most as a child, was the members of the Mother of Sorrow Society, dressed in black and walking barefoot on the hot street payment. A tradition that came from the homeland and continued.
As a girl, I can remember my grandmother making sure that all her grandchildren were a part of the procession. She walked, so we walked. The traditions of home were then placed on our hearts. Today, the processions are not as elaborate, but on Feast Day, we still walk. And if my grandmother were here today, she would be walking too. The tradition lives.
PietroMontagnoli could not have known the legacy he would leave by making Penns Grove his new home. The new lives that would come from his simple decision and his call to come, come.
La Mia Famiglia
Daughter of Penns Grove’s first Italian family recalls Struggles, Striving and Strengths
Donna Federanko-Stout June/July 1995
He had a certain future ahead of him. A boot maker by trade, like his brother, he had spent 4 years in apprenticeship to learn the business. It would be a good living in his hometown in Italy…if he didn’t have the “wanderlust” and a feeling in his heart that something different, something better, something exciting was somewhere across the great ocean in the land of America! PietroMontagnoli wanted to go to America. He had “paesano” (friends from his hometown, Valle San Giovanni) now living in America. His young wife and their two children would stay in Italy until he found a home for them. With his cousin, Prospero Clemente, he came to America, stayed in Wilmington and venturing across the Delaware River, found his land of opportunity, Penns Grove. “My father liked it because it had the Railroad, the River (the Ferry) and the Steamboats,” says Filomena (Minnie) Quatrini, the daughter of Pietro and Soccorsa Montagnoli. In 1902, the Montagnoli’s became the first Italian family to settle in Penns Grove.
Life was not easy then. Pietro worked hard shoveling coal on the Pennsylvania Railroad, picking strawberries on local farms, just about anything in order to make a life for his family. They made their home in a small house on Church Street near the river. Despite the barriers of language and the prejudice that faced the Italians in his day, Pietro became a successful businessman. In 1910, he opened his own Bakery and Grocery store on Mill Street in Penns Grove. A little later, he built a beautiful new brick home for the family right next door to the bakery. Over the tears, Pietro had written of life America and more “paesano” came to Penns Grove. The second family to settle here was the Prospero Clemente family. Others followed and the Italian community grew. Many stayed with the Montagnoli’s until they got their feet on the ground. Pietro had paved the way.
As the Italian community grew, so did the Montagnoli’s - …to 10 children. Maria Guisseppe (Mary), Giovani (John), Vincenzo (James), Filomena (Minnie), Rosina (Rose), Fillipo (Phillip), Afonso, Gianona (Jennie), Pietro (Peter) and Alfonzo (Fonzi). Maria Guisseppe’s nephew, Harry Clemente, came from Italy at the age of 14 to live with them and was treated as a son. But all of the children did not live to see adulthood. Serious childhood illnesses took the lives of two year old Alfonso, eight year old Giovani and 13 year old Alfonzo. Once again, grief came over the Montagnoli household when Pietro died suddenly in 1921 at the age of 41 of a misdiagnosed ruptured appendix. “We had three doctors,” Minnie said, “but by the time they took him to the hospital, it was too late.” Pietro’s dream would now have to be carried on through his children, and their grandchildren. After Pietro died, Soccorsa became deathly ill and was confined to bed for months. She could not run the bakery and there were 6 children left at home to be cared for and fed. Minnie and her brother James were left to be the supporters of the family. Young 14 year old Minnie would get a job for $6 a week working in the 5 & 10. “I worked 6 days a week” Minnie says, “and Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm when the second show let out at the Broad Street Theatre.” “I had to leave school,” Minnie recalls, “My mother didn’t want me to, but it had to be done.” Thoughtfully she adds, “I didn’t mind (working and leaving school). It was my choice. I had to grow up overnight, but I did it. It kept our family together.” Minnie’s 15 year old brother, James, also went to work as a barber. “We never felt deprived,” she says, “because it (the struggle) kept our family close. Her grandmother helped care for them too and an uncle, who worked paving roads, helped when work resumed that spring. “Without them,” Minnie says, “I don’t think we would have made it.”
The children grew, and Minnie continued to work. After the 5 & 10, she worked at Banco’s Store on Walnut Street and later Nocon’s Store on the corner of Mill Street and Railroad Avenue. She was no stranger to hard work, just like her father. There she learned to be a female butcher. There she also met her future husband, John. Together they worked side by side and later in 1936, Mr. and Mrs. John Quatrini worked and saved enough to open their own grocery – Quatrini’s Market on the corner of East Main Street and Smith Avenue. In 1938, their grocery was the first in town to carry Birds Eye frozen foods. They grew so fast, that in four years they had to enlarge the store. Her sister Jennie worked at the store too. In 1940, Soccorsa went to be with her Pietro. “My mother and father were a great influence on me,” says Minnie. “They were the best set of parents,” she says, adding “They gave us a good foundation and they taught us the most important things in life…love and respect.” This past spring, Minnie Quatrini was selected to be honored as a “Woman of Achievement” by the Salem County Commission on Women. In a letter written by her close friend, Janet Caggiano, Minnie’s life was described as one of courage, strength, and hard work. She became a successful businesswoman, and an active member of many organizations in the community including the Library Association, the Salem County Soroptimist Society and her church. After her husband’s death, she continued to operate the store until her retirement in 1985 with almost 50 years of service to the community.
At 88, Minnie is still quite active. While learning the grocery business, she taught herself to make attractive Fruit Baskets which she still does today. She continues to drive, read, visit with nieces, nephews and friends, go out to dinner and remain abreast of all the current issues in the world today. Minnie and her brother, Pete, are the only surviving children of the “first family.” Pete, who seems to have the “wanderlust” like the father he is named for, has travelled the country and now makes his home in Las Vegas. He has a son, Peter, Jr. Mary’s children, Olga Stalcup, Albina (Bea) Lloyd, Flora and John Banco all still live in the area. Flora is the owner of Banco’s Riverside Pantry, a property that has been in the Banco family since the 1930’s. James’ son Charles, lives in Sewell. Rose had two children, Hilda Davis and Arthur (Bucky) Maconi. Harry Clemente’s children are Robert and Christine. On Sunday, July 2, as the daughter of the First Italian family to settle in Penns Grove, Minnie will be riding in the Mother of Grace Procession through the streets of Penns Grove. The Mother of Grace celebration is a testimony to the faith, hopes, and beliefs of the ones who have come before us. It came from the hometown that brought our first Italians. It brought the spirit and tradition of the celebration to Penns Grove. The spirit of faith, courage, strength and love that now lives in the ancestors of the Montagnoli’s and of all the families who came to call this town their home. Pietro would be proud!