Italians have been coming to North America since the original discoverer, Christoforo Colombo, in 1492, however, only a mere handful of Italians had migrated by 1820. During the years between 1880 and 1920, approximately fifteen million people left Italy, which was one of the greatest mass population movements in history. By 1920, more than one-third of the population of southern Italy had already immigrated to the United States. Many would never return to their homeland. After the first settlers arrived, and those who followed, settled in various areas where their ancestors made their new homes. As in other ethic cultures, Knightsville, an area in the City of Cranston, Rhode Island, began the melting pot of a great majority of the Itrani immigrants. These early immigrants came from a little town named Itri, located in southern Italy between Rome and Naples. Suffering from economic turmoil, they left Italy and made incredible sacrifices in order to give their children and their grandchildren a better life and more opportunities in a country of the American Dream. These newly arrived immigrants suffered ethnic discrimination; however, they worked together similar to a big family and helped each other in times of needs. These early settlers brought few material possessions with them, however, most important than anything else, they longed to maintain the religious festival that was at the core of their collective identity, the deep-seeded devotion towards their Patroness, La Madonna Della Civita. In 1905, keeping with their life long traditions from their homeland, they banded together and organized a special committee and named their group, “Comitato Festa Di Maria SS Della Civita” which is now called the St. Mary’s Feast Society (Comitato Festa Di Maria SS Della Civita). Some of the family surnames included, but not limited to, were the following: Agresti, Cannella, Capirchio, Cardi, Ciccarelli, Ciccone, Ciano, DelBonis, DiBiase, DeLuca, DiNola, DiSegna, DeSimone, DiVona, Fabrizio, Ialongo, Iannone, Fusco, Lepizzera, Maggiacomo, Mancini, Marino, Manzi, Manzo, Meschino, Notarianni, Paliotti, Palumbo, Pezza, Picano, Ruggieri, Saccoccia, Saccoccio, Schiappa, Schiapo, Sinapi, Soprano, Soscia, Spirito, Squizzero. This group selected Mr. Antonio DiBiase to serve as their first president. The Feast committee conducted a fund-raising drive to have a statue made of the Madonna Della Civita. Finally, sufficient funds were raised. Mr. Michael Saccoccia was appointed in making these arrangements which was completed in time to celebrate a mass at the old St. Rocco’s Church which was built in 1903, located at 50 Clemence Street on July 21, 1905. The Itrani faithful were jubilant and carried the statue of their Madonna throughout the streets of Knightsville. Families and friends joined together in spirit and friendship as the tradition continued in their new country. This was the first known celebration of the Madonna Della Civita in America. The early documents of the purchase are on file with the society. The annual feast of the Madonna continued through the years despite very difficult financial times, however, these early immigrants would make sacrifices to ensure its success. In the early days, meetings of the “Feast Committee” were held in many homes. Later in years, the meetings were held at the former Victor Emmanuel Society located on A Street and then at the former C.P. Itrano Chapel on C Street. During the mid-sixties, a major reorganization of the “Comitato Festa Di Maria SS Della Civita” took place. Although organized in 1905 and well recognized throughout the state, this group never obtained a State Charter. After much publicity in promoting a larger membership in the neighborhood, this group obtained a State Charter on May 19, 1966, under its official name, “St. Mary’s Feast Society, (Comitato Feast Di Maria Santissima Della Civita). The membership of 61 were 27. recognized as official “Charter Members.” However, it was understood that all those who were members since its formation in 1905 would never be forgotten for all their sacrifices and efforts in establishing the current “Feast Committee.” After the reorganization, the membership grew in great proportions. With the influx of many new members, the society realized that more help was needed in order to function. In December, 1967, then President, Frank J. Manzi proposed to the membership that the establishment of a Ladies Auxiliary would be a great help to the society. The membership approved the proposal and the Auxiliary was established. The Auxiliary elected Josephine Cataldi to serve as its first president. At once, this decision to establish an Auxiliary provided great support. With the growth of many new members, especially of many other Roman Catholics who were not of Itrani ancestry but who still venerated Mary, our Blessed Mother under other titles, it was recognized that the society needed headquarters of their own. Eventually, a parcel of land with an old house and garage, located at 15 Phenix Avenue became available. This site was the center of the current center of the feast celebration. With little funds available, a committee was formed to try and obtain a mortgage from the local banks. Without any collateral, it was impossible to obtain a mortgage. After several meetings regarding this issue, Joseph Manzi, a past president, came forward with a plan. The society would conduct two fundraising raffles and then he would grant the mortgage two points under the current bank rates. The raffles, both conducted by Mr. Manzi, raised $5,000.00. He then granted the society the additional revenue to purchase the property in August of 1967. Soon after this purchase, then president, Frank J. Manzi, son of Joseph Manzi, in conjunction with the membership, introduced a special fundraising drive which was named, “The St. Mary’s Feast Society Building Memorial Fund.” Under the conditions set forth in this plan, the membership and members of the community were asked to donate a minimum of $50 in cash, or services, materials, etc., payable within a five year period. If successful, at the conclusion of this special drive, all the names of those who contributed would be placed on a special plague around the painting of the Madonna Della Civita to serve as a lasting remembrance of their generosity. Enthusiastic support was received from not only the membership, but from throughout the community. After many meetings, it was agreed to proceed with the proposed building plan. The society was most fortunate in having among its members, masons, carpenters, painters, excavators, plumbers, electricians and others who were “jack” of all trades. Young and old alike, everyone did their share in this historic venture. Finally, the dreams of the membership and community were fulfilled when President Frank J. Manzi directed member Vinny DelBove to install the final cement block to complete the project. The decision to establish the Ladies Auxiliary proved to be very fruitful as they stocked the new building of many needs and conducted many fundraisers for the sole purpose of helping to pay off the mortgage. In 1970, the society purchased the adjoining lot on the Cranston Street side. Again, Joseph Manzi issued the mortgage. The membership was asked to loan the society a minimum of $100, interest free for a period of 5 years. The society established a weekly bingo on Monday evenings to help pay off the mortgage. In a three year period, the mortgage and loans made by members was paid up. The auxiliary played a major role in conducting the weekly bingo. On June 28, 1969, at a special dedication ceremony, the building was officially dedicated and officially named the “Civita Community Center” by the Reverend Oliver J. Bernasconi, pastor of the Santa Maria SS Della Civita Church. Father Bernasconi gave special praises to the membership for all their efforts in establishing the Center. A large plaque with a list of over 200 names that supported this special drive, now appears in the center of the Civita community Center as a lasting memorial. Throughout the years, the center has served the society for its meetings, charitable events, parties and community activities. The migration and settlement in the Knightsville area by the Itrani faithful continued as the years went by. At one time, more than 2/3 rds of the population were of Itrani ancestry. As the children and grandchildren of the early settlers advanced in their lives and education resulting in moving to other locations, one event in their lives was never forgotten, the Annual Feast of the Madonna Della Civita. This annual feast brings back thousands to the Knightsville area participating in family reunions with its famous backyard cookouts. The St. Mary’s Feast Society with its large membership of over 600 members that includes a Ladies Auxiliary has been and still is, the focal point in the Knightsville Community. Its headquarters, located at 15 Phenix Avenue, is the center of the yearly festival of the Madonna Della Civita and has served the many needs of its membership and worthwhile charitable events throughout its long history. Faith in the Madonna Della Civita has been shared by millions of people since St. Luke painted the Sacred Image of Jesus and His Mother, Mary, La Madonna Della Civita over 2000 years ago. This faith and devotion to the Mother of God, under this special title, still glows in the hearts of not only to the Itrani faithful, but to all other Roman Catholics, as she is the mother of all mankind. With trust in our Creator and confidence in ourselves, may all the faithful, love and venerate Mary and be devoted to this most powerful Madonna, as we pray for her intercession through her Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior, for all our needs.
HOVER UNDER HER MANTLE AND YOU WILL BE PROTECTED FOR ALL ETERNITY TO JESUS – TROUGH MARY
Compiled by Frank J. Manzi,
A Past President of St. Mary’s Feast Society