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A church love built

Credo in un solo Dio, Padre onnipotente, creatore del cielo e della terra, di tutte le cose visibili e invisibili. (I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen.)


It's 10 on Sunday morning, and the Italian Mass at Sacred Heart Church, the last Italian church in Boston's North End, has begun. The place is full of people from Medford to Quincy who return to their roots in the neighborhood along with natives who never left.

Scores of red votive candles flicker, thanks to the wonder of electricity, as do the stars in the deep blue cardboard sky in the creche to the left of the altar. Statues and likenesses of Mary are everywhere. The altar bread and wine are in memory of Louise Pizzoglio, the sanctuary lamp of Edith Nardone. Priest in Residence Peter Bortolazzo does the honors this morning, aided by Deacon Mario Lo Priore.

Some 40 souls are in the congregation, par for the course. There would be two or three times that number if the parking situation were better, says Father Vincenzo Rosato, pastor at Sacred Heart, referred to locally as the Italian church. But this is the North End, where a nonresident parking space is prized like a townhouse on Louisburg Square.

You see a lot of white hair. Some people, like Claudia Spagnuolo, still live in the area. Others, like Lo Priore, come in from Medford. And you hear nothing but Italian among parishioners as they enter the building on North Square. They stamp their feet and talk of il tempo invernale, winter weather.

After Mass, many gathered for coffee and pastries. And we're talking serious delights here, all homemade -- tutti fatti in casa.

There are dueling Italian Masses in the North End on Sunday mornings. Father Rohwin Pais over at St. Leonard's Church across Hanover Street holds one at 10:15. (Although Indian, he speaks Italian after his six years spent in Rome.)

"I'm torn between the two churches," says Spagnuolo, matriarch of the family that owns La Famiglia Spagnuolo restaurant, before Mass at Sacred Heart. "My heart is here, but I was baptized there. This is old, traditional. There's that Italian love built into this church.

"All my life, we never said, `St. Leonard's Church.' Growing up, we said, `St. Anthony's' because there was a school called St. Anthony's next to it."

Sacred Heart, in the taxonomy of the Boston Archdiocese, is formally designated a national church, started by immigrants to serve their community. National churches reflect the ethnic characters of their parishioners, be they Italian, Polish, or Portuguese. Sacred Heart was built in 1888 largely by folks from Genoa. Later, the Genovese were joined by Sicilians, fishermen whose progeny still dominate the congregation.

St. Leonard's, in contrast, is a territorial church -- that is, a church of the archdiocese responsible for all the people within its geographic boundaries. Traditionally, it has been dominated by parishioners with roots in the Abruzzi and Avellino regions of Italy. But such distinctions are less sharp today. For example, Rosato rents the basement at Sacred Heart church to the Associazione Gizio, a social club composed mainly of Abruzzese and Avellinese.

The diaspora of Italians from the North End to the suburbs began decades ago. Today, they are strong in Revere and Everett, Somerville and Cambridge, Medford and Quincy, and maintain a powerful profile in East Boston. With this exodus came the decline among the ranks of Italian priests. Over time, they retired or died. Sacred Heart's beloved Father Mario Tardivo, at 88, ended his service about a year ago.

Today, like a rural court judge riding circuit, Rosato travels to outlying communities to celebrate Mass in Italian. He's at Sacred Heart Church in Waltham about once a month, at Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton three or four times a year. He performs weddings and funerals from Lexington to Salem.

And then they come to him. Last Sunday afternoon, he held a retreat for Azione Cattolica, a society of lay women in Newton. There also are Italian classes at Sacret Heart in the North End every Saturday, and next door, Saint John, its school, is going strong.

A week ago Friday evening, Sacred Heart hosted a memorial service for the 17 Italians killed in Iraq last month. Most of the fallen were Carabinieri, the Italian national military police. Retired members of the organization living in the area were in dress uniform for the occasion and followed its red and blue flag down the aisle.

Rosato, 38, has been pastor at Sacred Heart for 4 1/2 years. A native of the Puglia region near the magnificent city of Lecce, he came to Boston from Toronto after finishing his dissertation in Rome on the transfiguration of Christ.

He now ponders the fate of his church. "This is it," Rosato says. "After this, we'd have to say that we don't have an Italian church for the people anymore."

He and Father Rohwin know that the futures of Sacred Heart and St. Leonard's are sketchy as Archbishop Sean O'Malley prepares his list of parishes to close. One may be shut. Not necessarily, says archdiocese spokesman the Rev. Christopher Coyne. "You could easily find that both of those parishes stay."

. . .

Correction: Because of inaccurate information provided by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, last week I identified the Big Dig's Vent Building 5 as Vent Building 1.

Sam Allis can be reached at

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