Sunday, December 14, 2008

Remembering What It Was All About in Youngstown

Our visit to my parents' house coincided with the Feast of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the church where I was baptized, made my First Communion and Confirmation and was married. The president of the Men's Society of St. Lucy wanted to bring back the traditional "festa," including a procession with the Italian and American flags and part of the liturgy spoken in Italian, as well as a small dinner with music after the Mass.

Even my mother was a bit perplexed by this. "Nobody speaks Italian in this church anymore," she complained to me the other day. But I had a feeling that most people in that beautiful church still recalled the wonderful Italian traditions and songs, and would be happy to relive them.

The service brought tears to my eyes, especially the priest's homily. He talked about the beginnings of the 70-year-old church, and the dedication of the people who founded it and made it strong. These were the same people who labored in the steel mills and fought in world wars. They spoke Italian in their homes and in their church, but they were Americans through and through. Their dream was to build a foundation in Campbell, Ohio, that could be carried on to their children and grandchildren.

But, as the priest said, by the 1970s, their dream began to crumble, through no fault of their own. The steel mills began to close, and young adults moved away in search of their own American dream. This, of course, was good on some levels. First- and second-generation Americans who otherwise might have stayed close to home were able to move to new locations, get a higher education and build their own foundations. At the same time, little Campbell and the other suburbs of Youngstown still stood, proud as ever, but gradually shrinking in population and in opportunities.

Through the decades, schools have closed, churches have closed and people find themselves traveling to far-off areas to visit their children and grandchildren. But the foundation is still there. Not everyone recognizes it, because they are so busy with daily issues. Yet every time I return to Campbell, Ohio, and that church with the elegant stained-glass windows (some bearing the names of my relatives who helped establish the church), I see the foundation, and I still believe.

At the Mass for the feast of St. Lucy, the priest said that the parish was still there for its children, even though they now live far away. He said the church still stands ready to greet them and welcome them home. I feel at home every time I enter that little town and that church. In their own small way, Campbell and St. Lucy and all the other ethnic Catholic churches that dot that landscape act as beacons guiding everyone toward family and worship, patriotism and charity. Inside St. Lucy, there is no disdain for one's country or fellow man; there's no rush hour traffic or pressing business meeting. It's as though life is like it was 70 years ago, full of hard work and simple pleasures. It is, I think, the way life was meant to be, although it didn't last.

Looking back on my eagerness to flee the Youngstown area in 1982, I feel a sense of sadness and guilt. Sadness because I gave up the comfort of that small-town love and hard work in search of something else. Guilt because maybe if I had stayed there, I could have carried on the dream that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents helped to build. I wasn't the first or the only one to leave, of course, but I carry my share of the responsibility of what happened to my hometown like a heavy cross that I'm forced to shoulder alone.

And so I try in my own way to take a piece of that dream with me and share it with my children. We go back to my hometown often and visit St. Lucy for a dose of small-town humility and strength, and to be hugged and kissed by people who have known me since I was a chubby, shy, (natural) red-headed girl. I'm determined to teach my kids the bits of Italian I know, and to impress upon them the significance that communities like Youngstown once held in our country.

And then there's the message of St. Lucy herself. As children, we would sometimes giggle at the statue of St. Lucy, who holds a dish with a pair of eyeballs. The story goes that the young Lucy refused to marry a pagan and refused to forsake her Christian faith. Roman guards tortured her and gouged out her eyes. What they couldn't take away from her was her clear vision of what was good and true.

Martyr stories today don't seem to hold our attention. How can we relate to someone like this? The priest put it into perspective. Lucy, he said, is a symbol for us to see what's really important, and to realize that what we're looking for is within our reach. "We're all searching for the same thing," he said. "Happiness."

I've lived in large cities and traveled to places around the world, and it turns out that the "happiness" I seek always leads me back to my hometown and my hometown church. Small towns like Youngstown may be shadows of what they once were, but their basic values, principles and dreams are things we should never forget and instead try to emulate.


John Ettorre said...

Lovely stuff, Diane. This is the finest thing I've ever seen from your pen. But then, I'm sure I've missed some of your greatest hits.

Diane DiPiero said...

Thanks, John, but I think I have to give the credit to Fr. DeLucia, who gave the inspired sermon at the church :)