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Holy Family Church
A cornerstone of the early Italian immigrant community in San Jose, CA
by Cookie Curci
Grandma Maria's heart beat fast with excitement as the moment of her wedding ceremony drew near. As a devout young Catholic, she had taken communion earlier that day at the rail of the Holy Family Church. Her impeccable spirit, now as pure and white as the bibbed collars worn by the parish nun's.
The year was 1910, and Grandma Maria and her betrothed, Antonio Curci, were about to receive the holy sacrament of marriage at the altar of San Jose's Holy Family Church. The splendid church was filled with well-wishers who had come to bestow their blessings on the handsome young couple. Community onlookers filled the church steps and crowded three-deep into the doorways to witness the holy sacrament.
A wedding among the young immigrant community was a welcomed event, for it represented a continuity of their people.
Maria and Antonio recited their marriage vows in the sanctity of the church. And there, for the next 60 years, their descendants would also attend Sunday mass and receive the holy sacraments.
Like thousands of Italian immigrants, my grandparents, Maria and Antonio Curci, came to the Santa Clara Valley in search of a new life. Word of the valley's fertile orchard lands had beckoned them to leave their impoverished towns and regions of Italy, and travel to the "Golden State."
The Santa Clara Valley received its greatest influx of Italian immigrants during the early part of the century. They came by the thousands, settling into neighborhoods in what was then San Jose's west side.
In July 1904, these conscientious immigrants began working diligently with one goal in mind: to construct a lavish church that would embody the spirit of their newly established Italian community. It would be a church that represented century old traditions and beliefs. It would exemplify hope and prosperity. The church would be constructed by architect Alberto Porta, in the heart of the community at River and San Fernando Streets. Its design would be a smaller copy of the great St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.
The donations for this monumental task came from the valley's prune orchards, fields and the emerging fruit industry. Grandma Maria and Grandpa Antonio, like their fellow immigrants, worked long hours in the orchards and canneries of the valley, contributing much of their time and earnings toward the completion of this grand project. Their dream for a community church was realized on October 6, 1905.
In later years, as did many young immigrants, Grandpa Antonio went to work laying track for the city railroad lines. Fearful of loosing his new job, he refused to miss a day's work even though he was suffering from influenza. His condition worsened and he contracted double pneumonia. At the tender age of 32, just 4 years after his wedding day, Grandpa Antonio passed away leaving Grandma Maria a widow with three children.
Grandma found her greatest comfort at the prayer rail of the Holy Family church. It was there she felt the closest to her departed Antonio, and where she would find the strength and courage to go on.
To support her family, Grandma went to work in the long, hot cannery lines of the fruit factories. After a few years on the job, a romance blossomed between Grandma and the cannery foreman, Tony Dinapoli. He was a widower with six children who greatly admired Grandma's dedication to her family. They were married in the Holy Family Church and together raised a total of 11 children.
Once, I asked grandma why it was so important to her people that they construct such a lavish cathedral when many of them barely had enough food to eat. Grandma answered with an old Italian saying. Translated, it means: "Out of our habits grow our character, on our character we build our destiny."
The church had come to represent the spirit and character of these hardworking young immigrants, who they were and what they would become. It stood for many years as a tribute to the good habits and fine character of a tenacious people.
Archbishop Montgomery was applauded the day he laid the corner stone for the church in 1905. But what the great San Francisco earthquake couldn't do in 1906, city planners did in 1969, when the church was razed by bulldozers to make way for the new Guadalupe Expressway.
In 1969, when Father Herold De Lucci conducted the final mass at the church, there were many tears. Grandma Maria wept, too, as she recalled the celebration of her wedding to her beloved Antonio, the family milestones celebrated there; her children and grandchildren baptized in ancient rite at the baptismal font (myself among them); the tragic loss of her young husband and how the church had been her strength and comfort.
She remembered the years during World War II and how she spent long hours at the church rail praying for the safe return of her five young sons who were fighting overseas. She remembered, too, how her prayers were all answered and each of her boys returned safely home.
But mostly, Grandma Maria remembered her people and how they pulled together, helping one another succeed.
"We were like letters of the alphabet," she would say, "Separately we had no meaning, but together we were part of a great meaning."
Like its namesake, the new Holy Family Church arose like a phoenix out of an orchard of prune trees on Pearl Avenue. Perhaps not as ostentatious as the original its spiritual foundation was equally strong.
The immigrant story is a familiar one. They shared a common purpose, struggled to find success in a new land, while holding on tightly to ancient rites and traditions. With dedication and hard work they achieved these goals.
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