Maria Innocenza's Boarding House
505 Catharine Street
It has been over one hundred years since my great-grandparents, Maria and Salvatore Siciliano, brought their family to Philadelphia. One can only imagine what they were experiencing at that time. It is fortunate they decided to settle in the enclave of South Philly, where they were surrounded by others from the Calabrian mountains.
I met them a half a century later, across the river from South Philly in their boarding house in a neighborhood far less friendly and not so welcoming. Their neighborhood in North Camden, New Jersey had been settled at the same time as Philadelphia. However, its residents were a representative sample of America at that time. It did not offer the comfort of what they left behind.
Maria, in her characteristic fashion, became adaptive. She surrounded herself with those few families from her native village. And she tried as best as she could to reach out to others in the neighborhood.
By the time I arrived on the scene, she and Salvatore were aged. However, that did not deter them from welcoming me into their fold. I visited often with my maternal grandmother. We arrived with pre-cooked food that was warmed on a wood-burning stove in the kitchen.
She pinched my cheeks and said, “Benedica”, and gestured with her hand saying “Fuora di malocchio”, to bless me and rid me of any evil spirits.
She wanted to be certain I knew who she was. We called her Nonna. That was not enough for her. She liked to tell me that her name was Maria Innocenza Procopio.
Maria Innocenza Procopio, also known as Nucenza, was born on May 9, 1867 in Gasperina, a remote village overlooking the Ionian Sea on Italy’s southeastern coast. Her husband, Salvatore Siciliano, was born on December 24 of that year in the same village. Around 1892, they married in Gasperina, where their families had lived for many centuries.
Their story was very typical. It is documented that Salvatore arrived at Ellis Island on October 30, 1900 at the age of 33 on the passenger ship Friesland from Antwerp. Like many other immigrants, Salvatore went to Philadelphia where he worked as a street laborer to provide passage for his family.
Maria Innocenza arrived at Ellis Island on June 23, 1905 aboard the Konigin Luise from Naples, and took up residence in South Philadelphia. The Sicilianos’ first address listed in the Philadelphia City Directory in 1907 was at 708 Fulton Street. By 1910 they had moved to 505 Catharine Street, where they operated a boarding home. Maria and Salvatore lived in Philadelphia at this address until 1921.
Maria arrived in South Philadelphia with two girls and one boy: Marianna was 12 years old, born in 1893 and died on September 8, 1990; Maria Teresa was 10 years old, born in August 1894 and died in March 1972; and Nicholas was five years old, born in January 1900 and died July 10, 1996. Three more children were born in Philadelphia: Joseph, born on April 17, 1906 and died in September 1969; Maria Assunta, born in September 27, 1907 and died November 16, 2002; and George, born in February 10, 1910 and died September 14, 2004. Story has it that Maria Innocenza gave birth to another daughter who did not survive.
It is known that all six of the Siciliano children learned to read and write. Nicholas and the three American-born children were sent to school. This was very important to Maria and Salvatore, who never went to school and could neither read nor write in Italian or English. They were never naturalized. Lifelong resident aliens, they signed their documents with an "X." It is possible that their limited literacy kept them from naturalization.
Maria and Salvatore were a study in contrasts. She was sturdily built, about 5'2" and weighing 170 pounds; he was also 5'2" but weighed only 130 pounds. Their physical structures and builds mimicked their personalities. Maria was the dominant force: she ran the family, made the decisions, and was known to keep the key to the liquor cabinet tucked in her bosom. Salvatore was passive, described as someone happy to take a backseat, letting Maria take care of the family business.
Oral history tells us that Maria’s boarding house was a successful operation. She came equipped with a battery of skills, some innate and some learned. She knew how to organize and keep people together. This enabled her to incorporate the boarders into her own family. She cooked, cleaned, sewed at home, preserved fruits and vegetables, and made prosciutto and sausage. Saturdays were for making pasta and baking. Meat was very scarce and only for Sundays and holidays. Beans and cheese were the main sources of protein.
Maria’s skills did not end here. She had been trained in the techniques of the old world. She had lived in the country and missed the closeness to nature. So, she found her way to the region’s farm area to gather mushrooms. She knew how to use primitive techniques to determine whether or not they were poisonous. She threw a silver coin or dipped a poker that she had for her wood burning stove into the water, knowing that the poisonous mushrooms turned black. Frightening as it might seem today, everyone survived!
She also provided ancillary services in her boarding house. As was the tradition of the times, she was known as a marriage broker. First and foremost, she made sure that her three daughters had husbands. Five of her six children were married in Philadelphia. Two of her three daughters were married while the family was living in Philadelphia. Her third daughter returned to Philadelphia in 1922 to marry after the family had moved to Camden, NJ.
Secondly, she also provided mail order brides for any interested boarder. The story goes that one day a boarder told her he was going back to their ancestral village to find a bride. Not wanting to lose him for any period of time, she offered her service. She told him her deceased friend had left two daughters to live in a convent. If these women did not find a husband, they would become nuns. So, he agreed that a letter be drafted with passage for the older daughter. After he married the older daughter, passage was sent for the younger sister who also came to America as a mail order bride.
Her boarding house was the hub during times of illness. She took care of her grandchildren during contagious childhood illnesses. Her house was the center for young children quarantined with chicken pox, measles, mumps, or whooping cough. Many times she had more than one child at a time, and they infected each other because they were in frequent contact.
Tradition has it that she provided breast milk for needy babies. She knew she was fortunate to have surplus breast milk. She gave birth until she was 43 years old, and was very willing to share her breast milk with any needy baby.
The churches of the neighborhood were hubs of family activity. Maria’s son George was baptized at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, 712 Montrose Street on June 28, 1910. An early photo shows Maria Assunta at about the age of ten dressed for a procession at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, which was located at 814 Christian Street. Maria Assunta returned from New Jersey in 1922 to get married at Our Lady of Good Counsel.
Maria Innocenza and Salvatore were family-oriented and child-centered. She instilled old-world family values. The story goes that the three younger children were encouraged to develop self-sufficiency while protecting each other. All three of them engaged in street games. Mary and George were very athletic. Joe played sports but was the most social of the three. George was the youngest. Mary was given the task of making sure no one took advantage of him. She was to watch over him and defend him whenever he needed it.
Maria also allowed her children and boarders to develop themselves within the confines of her residence. For example, her sons participated in the Mummers Parade. Nick played the clarinet in the Ferko String Band. Joe and George and several boarders were in the Duffy Comedy Troupe. New Year’s Eve at her home was festive. People played cards, the finger-counting game called morra, and listened to Guy Lombardo on the radio. After a long night of partying, they left without sleep, but well-fortified to join the parade.
One of Maria’s boarders, Antonio Pisano, arrived sometime after 1915. He was a distant cousin of her mother, Maria Teresa Pisano. Maria and Antonio both claimed Cataldo Pisano as their common progenitor. Cataldo arrived in Gasperina around 1590 from the northern side of the province of Catanzaro, apparently fleeing some immediate danger in his home town of Cariati. Cataldo was a descendant of a long-line of sculptors and architects in the Middle Ages.
Maria quickly discovered that Antonio could read and write, allowing him to be a scribe for any correspondence to Italy. He also wanted to become a US citizen, and had applied for naturalization just prior to the outbreak of WWI. Documents verify that he enlisted in the US Army as a PVT on April 29, 1918 and was discharged from Camp Dix, New Jersey on April 10, 1919, thus making himself a citizen.
A photo remains of Antonio and two friends prior to his marriage. He is on the right wearing his signet ring on his left hand which indicates he was not yet married. The photo was taken in Atlantic City and was printed on a postcard. The back reads: The Weeks Store, 2309 Boardwalk, Atlantic City. If one looks closely, the gentleman on the left has a cigarette in his hand.
Maria knew she needed to provide entertainment for her boarders. Antonio wrote limericks in their native Calabrian dialect. He spent time writing quips that he read aloud. Some of the themes were comical, others poignant. This helped alleviate their homesickness. They reminisced, laughed and cried together, providing good old-fashioned therapy.
Antonio had an interest in the theater and was a lead person in The Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese, a local theater troupe. Several of the boarders eagerly participated in this group. They used plays that were known to Antonio, one of them was Don Abbondonio, based on a novel by Antonio Manzoni. A ritual was a yearly performance of The Passion of Jesus Christ. One of these presentations took place on Monday evening, March 30, 1931 at the St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi Auditorium at 7th and Christian Streets.
The story goes that many of the actors were from Camden, New Jersey and its environs. They returned every Sunday for many weeks to practice. Included in this play was a procession through the street of South Philadelphia. Cast members included Antonio who played the part of Judas, and Maria Assunta, who played Mary Magdalene. Her 13 year old grandson, Dominick Spadea, played the part of Paggio.
Finding work was important. Antonio was a shoemaker by trade and found employment at the Hallahan Shoe Factory. Two of Maria’s three sons worked in the garment industry. Joe was a life-long tailor. Nick started as a tailor but became a well-known labor leader with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
In 1913, at the age of 13, Nick started working after school. His obituary in the Philadelphia Daily News stated that he was elected shop chairman at the Progressive Clothing Company. The obituary also states:
By 1937, he was responsible for union political activities in the 1st and 36th wards. In 1962, he was honored with testimonial dinner. One speaker was Congressman William A. Barrett. The guests included Sen. Joseph Clark and ex-Mayor Richardson Dilworth and a Who’s Who of labor.
Due to Maria’s efforts, the boarding house continued to prosper while her husband Salvatore continued as a street laborer. Times were difficult but she never complained. The boarders mixed and matched and changed over time.
By 1921, two of Maria’s and Salvatore’s married daughters moved to Camden, New Jersey where their husbands had found employment. Marianna had married George Spadea in 1909, and Maria Teresa married Saverio Celia in 1914. The elder Maria missed her daughters and their families, now with six grandchildren. So Maria bought a property at 408 N. Front Street in Camden, close to the hustle and bustle of the factories and the riverfront.
When it came time for Antonio Pisano to find a wife, Maria’s mail-order bride services were not necessary. Her youngest daughter, Maria Assunta, who called herself Mary, showed promise. She helped her mother run the boarding house. She was very healthy and sturdily built. She cooked and cleaned as well as her mother. She also possessed her mother’s quick mind and determined personality.
So, after a proper engagement, Mary and Antonio were married. Mary had solid roots in South Philly. She did not want to be married in Camden. So, on April 22, 1922 she and Antonio, dressed in finery, boarded the ferry for Philadelphia with a host of family and friends. They were married at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church at 8th and Christian streets, literally and figuratively bridging the gap between the two communities.
Maria and Salvatore continued to run their boarding house well into the 1930s in Camden. However, their ties to South Philly remained. For as long as she could take public transportation, Maria visited her favorite haunts. She now had some extra money to buy salami and cheese at the Italian markets. She liked curios and accumulated a cabinet filled with second-hand treasures.
Maria Innocenza and Salvatore Siciliano watched their family grow for more than 25 years after they left South Philly. They lived into their early nineties. Salvatore died with his family at his side on March 27, 1958, and Maria died one week later in a hospital, also with family present, on April 4, 1958.
Donna Meidt is a member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania who resides in Tempe, Arizona. A South Jersey native, she is a former Coordinator of Educational Programs for the Camden County [New Jersey] Historical Society, and is currently researching and writing about her family’s roots in Calabria, Italy, South Philadelphia, and Camden. She has recently donated many of her family’s papers, including her grandfather’s poetry and plays, to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org