When Italian immigrants arrived in Auburn in the early 1900s, they not only faced discrimination from some of the other ethnic groups in Auburn, but they also struggled against a language barrier, since they spoke primarily Italian, said Ted Cheche.
Devoted Catholics, these immigrants soon tired of holding their Masses in the basement of a neighboring church. They established their own parish, St. Francis of Assisi Parish, in 1907, Cheche said.
“What they had to face was just unbelievable,” said Cheche, who first heard this story when he was a young boy.
His grandfather, Ralph Cheche, was one of the 300 or so immigrants who established the parish, and he said he’s proud of their passion, dedication and courage in the face of obstacles. Like his grandfather and father before him, Cheche is an active member of St. Francis of Assisi, and this weekend he and his fellow parishioners will remember the contributions of those early immigrants as they celebrate their parish’s 100th anniversary.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark was scheduled to visit the parish Sept. 30 to concelebrate the 9:30 a.m. Mass with Father Eugene Dobosz, pastor of St. Francis and neighboring St. Hyacinth Parish, before attending a brunch with parishioners. The parish also has planned an anniversary dinner dance for Nov. 4 at Auburn’s Holiday Inn, and parishioners hope the bishop might be able to join them at that celebration as well, Cheche said.
After Cheche’s grandfather and the other immigrants formed the parish in 1907, the parish’s first church building was constructed in 1908 under the direction of founding pastor Father John Robotti. Another pastor who helped the parish grow and prosper was Father John Nacca, who served the parish for nearly 40 years, said parishioner Paolo Saltarello.
“We hold him very dear. He was one of those priests that was very devoted spiritually, and people respected him,” Saltarello said.
Father Nacca became assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi immediately after his ordination in 1941. He remained in that position until 1944, and in 1949 he returned to Auburn as St. Francis of Assisi’s new pastor. He served there until his retirement in 1985 and currently resides at St. Ann’s Community in Rochester.
Under Father Nacca’s direction the parish built a school in 1950, a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes in 1951 and a new church building in 1958, Saltarello said. Parish officials renamed the parish hall the Rev. John J. Nacca Parish Center in 2005.
Saltarello has belonged to the parish since 1964, when he arrived in Auburn as a 16-year-old immigrant. He left Italy with his mother and sister to join his father, brother and other sister who were already living in Auburn.
“I remember being in Italy and they wrote saying how proud they were when the first Mass was said at the new St. Francis Church in 1959,” he recalled.
Although Saltarello’s family members were not part of the first wave of immigrants who established the parish, he is grateful to those first parishioners for persevering in the face of opposition and clinging to their faith.
“I have a lot of respect for the old Italian immigrants. They actually paved a better life for us with their hardships and their sacrifices,” Saltarello said. “They brought up families to respect the church and respect the God in others and be involved.”
Parishioner Lena Misuraca’s grandparents also were Italian immigrants. They originally settled in Auburn, where they joined St. Francis of Assisi. Even after they left Auburn and moved to Port Byron, where Misuraca grew up, the whole family still continued attending Mass at the parish, she said.
“We always did, from my grandmother down. We even just drove the six miles to come there. I was baptized there, confirmed there, married there,” said Misuraca, who now lives two blocks from the church.
Misuraca belongs to the parish’s Sacred Heart Society, which helps put on the parish’s annual Food Festival. The festival is held each year on the weekend closest to the feast day of the Assumption of Mary and features a procession and a wide variety of Italian foods, said Cheche, chairman of the festival committee.
“It’s a day dedicated to (Mary), and yet it’s a great deal of fun and the whole city turns out,” said Cheche, whose grandfather was chairman of the first festival committee many years ago.
The women in the Sacred Heart Society work hard to raise money for the parish, and this year they raised more than $2,800 by selling pizza fritte, macaroni, eggplant and meatballs at the festival, he said. Everyone who volunteers for the festival knows what they have to do and works hard, and this year the festival brought in $13,000 in a mere seven hours, he said.
St. Francis of Assisi parishioners also preserve their Italian culture by holding special Masses and traditional dinners to mark the feast days of St. Joseph and St. Anthony. Although parishioners celebrate the parish’s Italian heritage, at the same time they welcome in the many non-Italians who have joined the parish in the 100 years since its establishment, Cheche and Saltarello agreed.
“We still try to keep the Italian traditions, but we still try to keep it so everyone is welcome. It’s definitely not a totally Italian parish,” Saltarello said.
“It’s like being home away from home,” Cheche added.