To the dear family and friends of a beloved Philomena (Cucco) Scalia,
I was very saddened to hear of “Aunt Mena’s” passing on Tuesday, 6 April 2021. I called her “Aunt Mena” out of respect for the person she was for me. There are two women called Philomena/Filomena I have called "aunt", one being my blood related aunt, my father’s sister, known by me as Zia Filomena and one acquired by selection “Aunt Philomena”. As in the case of many immigrant families, we arrived in a land with no blood relatives, so frequentation and respect created new “blood” bonds. Which in many cases are more stronger and emotionally connected than the “blood” relations. Both my Aunts were good, generous persons, but Aunt Mena knew me better and I had more discourse with her over the years than my real aunt whom I have always respected.
Over the years I remember sharing moments of joy and sadness with her. My own mother could tell me about her life in pre and post World War II Italy, while from Aunt Mena and other adults in Little Italy, I was able to learn much of the Italian-American life that she and others experienced being raised in 20th century America. As I grew I started to appreciate more than just her culinary capabilities but also her knowledge and insight. I may have been going to college for an academic degree but she, as the other adults, were teaching me lessons for a "degree" about real life.
America was changing, communities were changing, With change a new re-ordering of tasks began, the Southeast Baltimore Community Organization (SECO) came into existence, to participate the original Little Italy Community Organization (LICO) was created. The beginnings and creation of LICO basically began around Aunt Mena's kitchen table drinking coffee and eating sweets with discussions of the future of Little Italy in changing times. It was not easy to organize a community organization in the political machine environment of Baltimore of 1971. Also that year a community activist, Barbara Mikulski, who had helped in the organization of SECO ran for the Baltimore City Council. Because of the creation of SECO/LICO poll watchers and challengers began being actively used during election day...making sure that only the legally registered voters voted. Barbara Mikulski won the third of three open slots for the City Council of Baltimore in the Little Italy ward, machine politics was beginning to change. One of the first acts by the new Councilwoman Mikulski was the creation of two Bocci Ball courts at the site of the Pumping Station adjacent to the then D'Alesandro Athletic Field across from and between the Marriott Hotel and the Columbus Piazza. This was also discussed around Aunt Mena's kitchen table. The Pump Station Bocci Ball Court was a place where early on her husband, Joseph, as well as John Pente, Ed Lancelotta and others became involved, and during the first couple years of the Lodge existence, if not for the diligence of Joseph Scalia, Frank Pagliara and "Hokie" Popoli, today's present Bocci Courts would not be at their present location because the Lodge purchased of the "property/land rent fee" of the then "little play ground".
Then in 1972 the Archdiocese of Baltimore proposed the first school clustering program, which we in Little Italy saw as a death knell for the local parochial school of St. Leo's. LICO as an organization was too small to take on the Archdiocese and no political organization nor the local Church was going to "go to war" with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Aunt Mena's coffee and sweets diplomacy expanded to now include the kitchen tables of Mrs. Josie Giorgilli, Doris Cossentino Anderson, Eva Russo Dondalski, to the Cipolloni Sisters - Lena Palmer and Ida Esposito. We knew we needed allies not only in other communities of the southeast but nationally. We saw this threat specifically as one of ethnicide...an attack on our ethnic identity and survival...thus through Arnold Broccolino the formation of the Little Italy Lodge of the Order Sons of Italy in 1972 occurred.
United with the other ethnic parishes in Southeast Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Baltimore agreed to let the Southeast and other ethnic parishes to progress their own pace until they decided what was best for them. From this battle however a odd friendship developed between myself and Fr. Dick Lawrence of St Vincent's. Even though we were different sides of the clustering fight, we began to play chess at his rectory and from there the already existing Seder Dinner in St. Vincent's was then also organized in St. Leo's Parish with the assistance and participation of Fr. Michael Parenti. These Seder Dinners continued for a number years and then went dormant until the mid-1990's when Fr. Michael Salerno wanted to start them up again with the assistance and participation of Rabbi Seymour Essrog...all discussed around the kitchen's tables.
"Aunt" Mena's and other kitchen tables were quickly put into service for the official initiation of the Little Italy Lodge, the dilemma was one of deciding which Little Italy restaurant could hold the event. One problem was space, this was going to be the largest initiation of members and a lodge within the Order Sons of Italy in America history to that date. The second problem was who to select as the restaurant without slighting the other restaurants, thus another adopted "Aunt" Ethel Bluefeld, said she would speak with her husband, Phil. "Uncle" Phil then discussed with "Aunt" Philomena and others of the Lodge and a menu was agreed upon. The place would be the St. Leo's School Hall and catered by the "Orchid Touch" of Bluecrest Caterers, a Kosher caterer. It all went off well, "Sister" Lucy Pompa and many of the others said that it was like going to their Senior prom again. Edigio Ortona, the first Italian Ambassador to the US who ever participated in the initiation of an Order Sons of Italy Lodge came to the "Prom". All was going well around Aunt Mena's kitchen table until she informed me of a problem...we couldn't put grated cheese on the Bolognese sauce without breaking Kosher! The problem was resolved and a good time was had by all thanks to the two Phil's.
During this period Gilbert Sandler, a Sunpapers reporters wrote the book on Baltimore's Little Italy, "The Neighborhood", of which the proceeds of the first couple thousand sales he gave directly to the Lodge; as he wrote, Little Italy was preparing "for the Winds of Change" and "Aunt" Philomena, as many others were caught up in the whirlwind.
"Aunt" Philomena was generous of her time and knowledge for anything that would help the parish, the community, the Lodge or whatever project could have been of assistance to anyone. Once the first Italian festival in 1973 was held by the State Order of the Sons of Italy in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the renewal of the Saint Gabriel Festival in 1974 organized by the Lodge, The St. Gabriel Society and St. Leo's Parish (with her son, Simon, as well as Jerome Rifkin, Michael Salconi, the Giorgilli and Castagna families, amongst others, being part of the organizing committee) and then in 1975 the St. Leo's Parish's Saint Anthony Festival.
And as if there wasn't enough renewal and baking going on the idea came to someone around Aunt Mena's kitchen table, that we should have a renewal of the Saint Joseph Celebration as it was held years earlier. In 1976 Aunt Mena's "sfinci's" went public and the first article written by Dan Rodrick's on Little Italy covered the event. Many helped her but she had one special helper, her sister, as I call her "Aunt" Eleanor, who lived next door. This event was held for many years, then expanded under Fr. Michael Salerno, until re-awakened in the recent past. Her "sfinci" recipe was being copied in other kitchens of Little Italy and around the world and she was present at all these events and scores more over the years.
Even though she ached, her inner strength kept her going. A few years after "the Clustering fight" the school closed on St. Leo's and Little Italy's terms...it has now for over 20 years been the Pandola Learning Center of the Italian Language and Culture. "Aunts" Mena and Eleanor were teaching cooking classes, passing on the secrets and the traditions to Italians and non-Italians, while "Uncle" Harry Stein, Eleanor's husband, taught Italian, while "Uncle" Joe Scalia was teaching bocci.
As her children grew, she was now able to go work outside of her home. She went to the Office of State's Attorney of Baltimore. She worked for many years there where not only was her baking appreciated but more importantly her inner strength, discipline and knowledge were put to use at a desk and not over a kitchen table.
This year makes 50 years when the first community organization was formed, next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Little Italy Lodge many men and women worked hard to keep the tradition of this neighborhood alive...but none of this would have happened if not for the workings of "the kitchen cabinets" of Little Italy.
Many of the people I have mentioned are no longer with us, but some still are, as are their descendants. Of that original executive committee of the Lodge, I believe, other than myself, there are two members still alive, the Venerable Mary Apicella and my sister, Rosalinda Mannetta, the original Recording Secretary. Rosalinda holds the record for being the youngest recording secretary of the largest initiated lodge of the Order Sons of Italy’s 116 year history.
"Aunt" Mena's baking activities have filled many important pages in Little Italy's history as a wonderful resource of assistance, persistence, knowledge, strength and love but I also wish to remember her for the finesse of her mind. Her joy was tradition and helping to pass it forward. None of what has happened would have happened if not for the workings of "the kitchen cabinets" of Little Italy. In honoring her I am honoring all those women and men, who have passed on and sometimes not too silently, but diligently, without seeking awards, gave what they could to their families, friends and neighborhood so that we could all be here today…to keep the tradition of this neighborhood alive…"Thank you, Aunt Mena! God bless you! You will be missed and remembered!"