St. Bartholomew Apostle Italian Catholic Church


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They Sacrificed All And Built A Parish


Most of those who formed the Norwich Italian Colony came shortly after the start of the 20th century from Lipari, the southernmost island of the seven comprising the Aeolian Islands, the "Islands of the Winds." They came and found themselves "strangers in a strange land," but not for long. They came with a deep Catholic faith and high hopes for their new lives in the land of the free. Despite all kinds of hardships, including social, lingual, and economic, they built a strong community and St.Bartholomew the Apostle Church and parish in record time.

It took many pioneers to make it happen, but the name Natoli recurs in past accounts. He was John Natoli "who settled in Norwich and the Oxford area," at first working at Clark's Oxford bluestone Quarries. In a radio interview, Msgr. Guy A. Festa, pastor for more than 40 years, described Natoli as a "natural stone man." After all, the Lipari people were natives of a seafaring land, known for its pumice. While in Oxford, Natoli stayed with the Testa family during those early days. His success enabled him to encourage and bring others from their native land. Natoli, as did others, sent back news of their new home, and soon the Italian colony began to grow as many followed in his footsteps.

In a short time, Natoli owned a boarding house on a street that today is known as Natoli Avenue, off Sheldon Street. He not only helped arrange for newcomers' passage and papers, but provided a place for them to stay and helped them find work. Many early settlers, like him, did the same. Natoli also sponsored many for citizenship, seeing that they had instruction in preparation for naturalization. The allegiance of those under his tutelage was implicit because they respected and admired him so much.

In that regard, a humorous story is still occasionally retold today about a citizenship class that was asked, presumably by the court, this Question: "Who is president of the United States?" One candidate was quick to reply. lumping to his feet. he answered proudly: "John Natoli!"

Many of the early Lipari men found work at Clark's Quarries in Oxford as well as the Clark-Conroy quarry atop Norwich's West Hill. for instance, Giuseppe Benenati came to Norwich at age 14 with an adult sponsor in 1901 got a job at the Oxford site as "a water boy" and rose to the position of foreman and interpreter. He also roomed at Anna Testa's rooming house in Oxford for S4 a month on a wage of 5O cents a day. Giuseppe Benenati later married Anna Testa's daughter and moved to Norwich and worked until retirement on the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad (The 0 & W). As did many of their peers. the Benenatis had a large family of eleven children including former Chenango County Sheriff Joseph J. Benenati Jr.. Louise Loscavio and Mary Coe. long time parishioners.

WITHOUT PAPERS  Sometimes it's almost impossible to discover how some immigrants ever got to America. For example. Jim and Kate (Nino) Rotundo were amazed that  his lather, Rocco Rotundo, ever made it from his home on the coast of Italy to Norwich.


 He apparently stowed away aboard a ship at age 14 and, like many immigrants could neither read nor write, but got through customs somehow. At a family wedding years later. the Rotundos learned from a 90-year-old woman guest that Rocco Rotundo came without a passport. He had "no papers." she told them. Yet, he had a career as a toolmaker at the O&W Roundhouse, was a respected citizen of his country and city. and married Jennie Giaquinto. a native of Lipari. They raised ten children. His son. Jim Rotundo. is presently trustee of St. Bartholomew's Church along with Julia Famolaro whose family roots are deep in the parish also.

Some might say Rocco Rotundo's admission to the United States was a mystery, while others might attribute itto changes at Ellis Island, which opened on January 1,1892, about 400 years after another Italian, Christopher Columbus discovered America. Five years after the opening, the crude buildings at Ellis Island burned to the ground, forcing many immigrants to a Manhattan Barge Office near Castle Greene. a site referred to in several accounts about the O&W railroad. The change in location must have caused disruptions at the customs offices. Some might say that is how Rocco Rotundo possibly "got in," but others would say it was "a miracle."

COLONY 'ADOPTED'  The early success of St. Bart's parishioners did not conic easy. In radio interviews by retired county Historian, Mae Smith, Msgr. Festa paid tribute to St. Paul's parishioner, the late Kate Griffin who "adopted" the new residents of Norwich. not only teaching them about their new country and instructing them in the Catholic faith and preparing them for the sacraments, but also seeing after their material needs. Msgr. Festa said she walked the streets of Norwich to make sure no one else was walking around without shoes. Times were so hard, he explained, that sometimes those in economic need would ask the priest for permission to skip Sunday collection in order to take care of some material need. Fie referred to a parishioner who wanted to forego a Sunday envelope "because he needed a new suit of clothes."

HISTORIC PHOTO  One of the most graphic testimonies of the Lipari colony's love for its heritage and religious faith is. an enlarged group photograph taken in 1915 of the members of the Sons of Italy who met for years at the former K of C Hall on Birdsall Street. The photo was taken four years before the Mission School arid Chapel was acquired and blessed by Fr. Tiernan in 1919.

In the photograph were about 120 neatly dressed Sons of Italy, standing in a line that stretched from Norwich's busy corner at East Main and South

Broad streets (where the Triple A travel offices now are located) to the former Norwich Club Building near the post office. With their eyes focused on the camera, 120 men and three auxiliary members made a live testimony to their dedication and love for their church and community. It was almost the time of World War I, when St. Bartholomew's was in its pioneering days. No doubt many of these were working at the Quarries in Oxford or Norwich for the railroads, the knitting company, and even the Norwich Pharmacal Company, founded about 30 years earlier in 1885.

A copy of the picture hangs in the dining room of Grande Pizza.

SHARED CHURCH  The Italian colony had to attend St. Paul's Church on "Catholic Hill" when they first came. That parish had suffered the loss of its first church, St. Patrick's, in a raging fire on or about St. Patrick's Day during the historic snow storm of 1888, not long before the members of the colony began to arrive and attended Mass at the newly named St. Paul's.

Despite any friction, attempts were made to welcome the newcomers from Lipari. The Norwich Sun reported on July 1, 1912 that a Fourth of July ceremony — the blessing of the American and Italian flags — took place with hymns and prayers that Sunday afternoon at St. Paul's with the two flags arranged in "a yoke" over the vestibule as people entered.

The Norwich band, present at the service, led the congregation in a procession afterwards to West Park where Village Mayor Silas W. Berry gave "well chosen remarks" in front of the County Court House.

NEW PASTOR URGED  But more vital issues were on the minds of the Italian colony_ They longed for their own parish. Public school principal Kate Griffin, in seeing the need for belongings for the newcomers, got approval for a classroom to- teach Christian Doctrine, and St. Paul's Fathers Edward Prendergast, pastor, and Clement Shaughnessy, assistant, rented a store on Ross Avenue for classrooms. That action later helped pave the way for the colony to ask the new pastor of St. Paul's, Fr. Tiernan, to arrange for a church of their own, and "a frame dwelling" at Birdsall and Clinton Streets was acquired in 1919. The makeshift house of worship was blessed on St. Bartholomew's Day on August 24th the same year.

As Fr. Walter Sinnott later wrote, "The Italian colony was not content with having (only) a house of worship." They wanted a pastor of their own, one who would devote all his time to their care." As a result, they petitioned Fr. Tiernan to try and persuade Bishop Grimes to name a pastor. But nothing happened.

TIME OF FRUSTRATION  "The next four years were years of Quarreling and writing letters to the apostolic delegate and to Rome itself," a 1939 history reported. The Norwich newcomers were not to be ignored.

As a result, Fr. Walter Sinnott, who was fluent in Italian as well as English and Latin, was named pastor in February 1920 when he "stepped into the disturbance, most of which could have been avoided," according to the account.

Before Fr. Sinnott could be appointed, however, there was "a catch." The new bishop of Syracuse, Daniel Curley, after meeting with parish trustees Frank B. Natoli and Frank Rando "to get their side of the story," agreed to name Fr. Sinnott as the first pastor providing the people bought a Text Box: 17 
rectory and furnishings first. That was "no problem" for the enthusiastic parishioners. "Not a moment was lost to meet these conditions," and Fr. Sinnott accepted the appointment "to the joy of the colony and the whole city."

JOY REIGNS  That occurred on the last day of October 1923, and the next day, "on All Saints Day, 1923, the national (Italian) parish of St. Bartholomew's began its independent existence" with a rectory —one of the finest houses" in the city at Birdsall and Front Streets. Amazingly, the debt incurred was cleared in a few months, by July, 1924!

SISTERS' HERITAGE  The Sisters of Christian Doctrine came after the death of Kate Griffin in 1937. Arriving from their mother house in Nyack, the teaching religious were from an order founded to instruct children of immigrants and were housed in a convent on Clinton Street. Sisters returned to St. Bartholomew's in 1966 with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Today Sr. Julie M. Eigo is our Pastoral Associate and has brought the love of Christ to every parishioner through administration of the Holy Eucharist and in her loving prayers. smiles and hugs. Sr. Marie Denise Monser is the Administrator at Holy Family School. They are both a blessing and a joy to have here.

PIONEERS LISTED   That history, written almost half a century ago, lists 237 families or 1,049 souls as its membership. It also records the "pioneers in forming the parish." They included: Frank B. Natoli, Frank Maiurano, Frank Rando, Felix DiLorenzo, Vincenzo Aloi, Nicola Marino, Frank Famolaro, John Paino, Angelo Paino, Giuseppe Famolaro, Francesco Paino, Antonio Natoli fu Giocanni, Angelo Natoli fur Domenico, Antonio Funari, Angelo Schecetano, Angelo Natoli fu


St. Bartholomew's Church boasts a long line of accomplishments and five pastors and several assistants as it approaches its first century of history. Obviously many, many examples of gifts and achievements were deserving of mention here, but were prohibited by length. Perhaps in a future parish book of record this account can be expanded and include the history of the "Little Cathedral," with its handsome bluestone exterior, its rugged bell tower and Indiana tile roof, and more about its interior, the people and priests who made the house of worship so beautiful. It seems that the names of three recent pastors should be recognized briefly here for their accomplishments: Fr. Robert Libera charmed the parish with his gentleness. After Fr. Libera's sudden death he was succeeded by 'Fr. Joseph Zareski who helped heal a grieving parish and gave it new life. Our present pastor, Fr. John Cramer, is carrying on in their footsteps splendidly, particularly in recognizing the parish's love for it's traditions, symbolized by two uplifting and joyous processions along the streets of Norwich honoring our patron saint on his annual feast day and spreading the Word through public devotion and witness! How proud those early pioneers must be of their people!

Giuseppe, Angelo LaGreca, Angelo Biviano di Giuseppe; Bartolo Taranto; Antonio Casamento; Antonio Paino; and Angelo Natoli di Giavanni.

The history said these men were cited as "pioneers" because back in the early days of 1919 they contributed 50 dollars or more so "that the first church might be built." That was at a time when a church was still a dream, yet these pioneers, as well as others, had the faith and perseverance to see their hope fulfilled. They were followed in the 1920s by those listed on the Bronze Tablet at the entrance of the present church —probably 60 or 70 of them — who were pioneers that followed the first ones. They were the forebears of members today such as Josephine (Jay) Famalaro, a parish octogenarian whose father Giacomo fu Angelo Famalaro, is one of those remembered there. Whether those listed are relatives or not, their names stand as an inspiration for a new generation of pioneers as the millennium approaches.

But it was still only a beginning. Parishioners and community have seen what faith and hard work can do. In a few years, the present church rose from the ground, excavated by hand by members after hard days at their own jobs. It is the "Little Cathedral" that those pioneers dreamed about, built from the same bluestone, like that unearthed and shaped by them so long ago. Like their faith, and their Church, it was founded on solid Rock. —Joe Quinn

They Sacrificed All and Built A Parish"


Festa, Msgr. Guy A., three transcribed radio talks on St. Bartholomew's history in interviews with Chenango County Historian Mae Smith, 1980. (from church historian Julia Famolaro)

"New York: The Empire State," by David Ellis and others, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1961.

"From Immigrants to Ethics: The American Italians," by Humbert S. Nelli, Oxford Press, New York, 1983

"Coming to America, A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, by Roger Daniels, Harper Perennial book, division of Harper Collins, 1991.

"St. Bartholomew Church, Its History and Progress from the Beginning to the Present" 1919-1939.


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