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Memories of The Italian Hill in St. Louis, Missouri 

With a church inspired by Milan's Sant’Ambrogio, and a wealth of Italian culture, it's a reminder that not all the Italian immigrants ended up in Brooklyn.

by Cybele S. Cornelison

The brochure that my mother, Nives Rovedo Cappelli, had sent me from Poughkeepsie, New York only titled it The Hill, but on a background of red, white and green it was called “The Italian Hill.” My mother, native-born Italian daycare teacher, is also the author of a memoir titled Manhattan Immigrant Girl. Along with the brochure I found some articles about The Hill and the newspaper Il Pensiero, published right on The Hill. Since I was now living in St. Louis, Missouri with my loving husband Matthew Cornelison, I read all this with a great deal of interest while my husband babysat our two cats, Pearl and Taboo, in the kitchen, eating the remains of the Chinese pork fried rice we often ordered in when both of us were too tired to cook. While eating, he serenaded them strumming on his guitar.

As a librarian with a Masters Degree from Pratt Institute who had worked at The Brooklyn Public Library and at the Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie, I began reading the materials, excited and energized to the max, even though it was a Friday evening  and I was tired from a hard week of house chores and volunteer work at the local library.

The article, written by Mary Balmer, was on Lynn Marie Alexander, and it began with “I talked to Lynn Marie on April 1, her first day as Director/Archivist at the Hill Neighborhood Center. She is delighted with her new position. She complimented Loretta Vitale-April for the amazing foundation she built.”  The more I went on reading about Lynn Marie Alexander the more I became impressed by the accomplishments of the young woman in the picture. She recounted her amazing academic journey, having worked in international relations in England and Malaysia, among other places.

My husband came in at this point and wondered why I was so excited.  I told him about The Hill showing him the brochure.  He was not impressed since as a college student at St. Louis Community College, he had gone there many times to enjoy the delicious food in the local Italian restaurants. Matthew seemed to know a lot about The Hill, telling me that immigrants from Lombardy and Sicily had settled there to mine clay. 

I then became immersed in reading the local newspaper, Il Pensiero, with its many articles on the yearly activities of the diverse residents of The Hill (even Oprah had come to a local restaurant, Giovanni’s) and learning about its many clubs– such as the Bocce Club, the Unico, the  Golf Club, and the Italian Language schools and its motto, “Terra Dell’eterna Primavera”.

Naturally we went to The Hill the very next Sunday, first having phoned Lynn Marie Alexander who couldn’t wait to meet a librarian from New York, and having arranged a meeting with a local tour guide Joe DeGregorio.  Who wouldn’t be excited, even if it did take us an hour to get there? Luckily, it was a beautiful and sunny day in early May. After one bus, a train and another bus we arrived.  As soon as I got off the bus and took a look around I said out loud “Collina Paradiso”, (Heavenly Hill) for that’s how this part of the U.S. of America looked to me, stirring in me a sudden feeling of spirituality.

 Our guide Joe DeGregorio, is a walking, talking atlas, an encyclopedia of knowledge about The Hill. He remembered all the menus of the restaurants by heart and pointed out the various attractions, like Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola’s houses, now parks.  He took us to see Mama Toscano’s restaurant, of course, though it was only 10.45 and I wanted to visit Saint Ambrose Church first. Wonderful man that he is, he understood that we needed to be alone, loving husband and wife holding hands. “A dopo,” he said fondly.

Saint Ambrose is an impressive church in the Lombard Romanesque architectural style inspired by the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.  Outside, a statue named “The Italian Immigrants” by the artist Rudolph Torrini, depicts a couple in early 20th century dress. Inside, with its columns, stained glass windows, and the angel holding a marble basin, I was struck by a feeling of religiosity that I hadn’t felt since I had been in Catholic school, or since I had made my first communion, or yes, when I had visited the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. 

Matthew was waiting for me to go see Berra Park.  We did that, passing the many restaurants out of which came a glorious aroma which made my mouth water.  But I yearned to meet Lynn Marie, who greeted me with a warm hug. We talked about everything, the local Italian-Americans, jazz, Afro-American spirituals, and she extended to us an invitation to visit again.

Once more outside, I looked up at the clear blue sky, no clouds but lots of bluebirds flying. Matthew got his wish of a pasta dish at Mama Toscano’s– its specialty, fried ravioli– and since he wasn’t driving, a few glasses of red wine. And I, my head full of wonderful memories, settled  on a salad with mushrooms.  Wine too and my favorite gelato!

It was late afternoon.  Matthew had to rest a bit since tomorrow he would be starting a heavy work week. And who did we see as we waited for the first bus? DeGregorio leading another tour group.  He waved to us shouting arrivederci, arrivederci! We waved happily and truthfully. My Matthew, the Missourian and historian whispered to me on the bus, “Italian Hill, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and I replied, “Si! Si! Sicilians, Lombards, Jazzistas, Afro-Americans, we the people  for a more perfect America.”

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