Mt. Carmel Society preserves tradition, hosts upcoming Italian Festival
By Jennifer Holloway - Staff Writer
Enfield - posted Fri., Jul. 22, 2011
At the end of Park Avenue in the Thompsonville section of town is a building with a rich, 76-year history, but the story of the group that uses it began earlier, in 1926. In that year, Italian immigrant Luciano Aldino started the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society.
“The organization was founded as a religious order,” said Tony Troiano, whose father was one of the original members. “Immigrants with nothing came and honored the patron saint.”
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, as millions of immigrants surged into the United States, most through New York Harbor, it became especially important for those people to group together to preserve their culture in a new land. Aldino’s society was a way for Italians in the area to ensure their language, food, traditions and values were protected and passed on to their children. At the same time, immigrants had come to the United States seeking a better life for their families.
“Their greatest object was becoming Americans,” Troiano said. While the goal may have been citizenship, Troiano said keeping the Italian heritage alive was of utmost importance. That desire is what continues to drive the Society in the 21st century. “The people have changed, but the purpose has not,” Troiano said.
After the founding of the Society, members secured the land on Park Avenue to build a meeting place. Money was not in abundance, so the immigrants collected bricks from demolished buildings around town. According to the Society’s current president, Enfield Police Chief Carl Sferrazza, the children would use hammers to clean the old cement from the bricks so they could be used again. The building was completed in 1935.
To walk into the hall today is almost like entering a time warp, Sferrazza said. The downstairs area still resembles the ’50s, complete with an original jukebox that still works, playing the sounds of Patsy Cline, The Duprees and Roy Orbison.
“We work hard to keep it that way,” Sferrazza said, joking that Miley Cyrus or 50 Cent cannot be found there.
Upstairs in the kitchen, the Society’s refrigerator is a testament to one of its top priorities: food. Labeled ‘Fort Knox,’ the fridge holds all of the group’s sauces and meats, and is padlocked - just in case.
The club has seen some ups and downs through the years. The bar they started more than 50 years ago became an economic burden in the '80s. Membership also waned during that time, but under the leadership of Sferrazza, who became president in 2000, things turned around.
Sferrazza led the way in closing the bar, and he also recruited new membership. His cousin, Frank Pillitteri, said Sferrazza is the reason he and other relatives joined in the late '90s. In fact, as many cultural social clubs in New England close their doors, about 75 percent of the Society’s active members joined in the last six to eight years. They have approximately 85 active members, but total membership exceeds 120.
“The club prospered and flourished with Carl,” Troiano said of Sferrazza.
The Society also has several junior members, the youngest at 13. Most are the sons and grandsons of current members. Frank Ruggiero’s three sons are members, and he hopes his grandsons will one day join as well. Ruggiero has been the parade marshal for the Sunday processional of the annual feast for more than 20 years. His youngest grandchildren still come out to march with him.
“Talk about tradition,” Sferrazza said.
Kyle Bass, 16, has at least one biological relative in the club, but he refers to many more of the men as "uncle," a sign of the closeness of the group. Bass showed up last year to help with the preparations for the annual feast. He joined the Society soon after, saying it was a way to “connect with my heritage.”
He and several of the other junior members are helping again this summer to prepare for the Society’s 86th annual Italian Festival, which takes place this year Aug. 5-7.
Fedeli Carrieri, Luciano Aldino’s grandson, said much of the preparation is the same as in the old days, only accomplished differently. “They did the same thing we do,” Carrieri said. “Hanging the lights - they used ladders, we use trucks. They dug the poles by hand.”
For many of the current members, the Society is a special place - more than just a building or a social club. It is where their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers raised their families, where they met to play cards on Saturdays, where they worshiped on Sundays, where they played as children.
Regardless of whether their ancestors came from the island of Sicily or the mainland of Italy, whether they can still speak the language, a spirit of camaraderie carries on.
“Everybody here is family,” Bass said.