Holy Ghost Church

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

The Wonder Of Italian Bread

crugnale

Deb and I had known each other for two months when she asked me a serious question: “Do you really eat bread with every meal?”

The look of astonishment on my face hinted at the mix of cultures that our marriage would bring. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t you?”

Deb was raised in Canton, Connecticut, up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads. The nearest Italian bakery was forty-five minutes away.

I grew up in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Our Father at catechism, give us this day our daily bread made total sense to me.

On Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery to grab a loaf of bread. “And don’t eat it all on the way back,” she’d say. As I walked the eight blocks home with the fresh loaf tucked under my arm, Pavlov’s Theory was proven once more. Salivating, I’d tear off the end of the bread and bite into its crust.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Driving home from the Hill, I’d sometimes stop at Amore’s on Valley Street if we needed a loaf. And if I didn’t get to a bakery in time – bread sold out! – I’d head to a neighborhood market where I might find a loaf of Crugnale’s (perfect crust).

After college, I lived in a tenement near Holy Ghost Church on Federal Hill, right next door to a bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

When Deb took her first job out of college, she worked in East Hartford – in a building that was right next door to a Wonder Bread factory. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s Sunday afternoon. My gravy’s simmering on the stove, but I need macaroni. I run to Dave’s Marketplace. As I deliberate over which pasta shape to buy, my phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a text from Deb: Don’t forget the bread.

Amen.

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