In the late 1800’s the growing Italian community in North Adams was mainly centered around the church, for both religious and social needs. These first generation immigrants, however, did not have a church to call their own. In 1900 an Italian mission priest named Father Peter Pillerella settled in North Adams. He soon began to hold Masses, in Italian, in the basement of the Notre Dame church on East Main Street. The children of the immigrants were taught catechism and the adults held socials in the same area as their Masses. By 1901 enough funds were raised to purchase property at 100 Holden Street, to be used as their new church. It was christened St. Anthony of Padua.
The next priest to lead the Italians was Father Gugliemo (William) Lattanzi. His dream was not only to help the church grow, but also to open an Italian school for the children of the parish. In order to help accomplish this feat, Fr. Lattanzi needed to find teachers. After much searching, he found a religious order that not only fit the needs of the parish, but were willing to assist in his work here.
On Columbus Day, October 12, 1916, six Venerini Sisters took up residence on Ryan’s Lane, which ran parallel to Holden Street near the church, for the purpose of instructing the children in the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. For a time, classes were held in the rooms that once held the Bijou Theater on Center Street. The sisters took over the pastor’s job of teaching catechism as well as other subjects including math, reading, spelling, crocheting and embroidery.
The religious order of the Venerini sisters was founded by Rosa Venerini, born in 1656 in Viterbo, Italy. She invited area girls and women into her home and there they recited the rosary and discussed the true meaning of their faith. In 1685, Rosa opened her first school for the purpose of giving religious instruction to women along with teaching them how to read and write and how to sew and embroider. As interest grew, more and more schools were established near Rome and other parts of Italy. Rosa Venerini passed away in 1728 and in 1952 she was beatified by the Catholic Church.
In 1909, the Venerini Sisters were motivated enough to travel from Italy and cross the Atlantic to Lawrence, MA and other areas where Italians immigrated such as North Adams. As the original six nuns succeeded in their endeavors here, Father Lattanzi purchased the Robinson House, moved it within the church’s property and renovated it so that the sisters could use it. Besides teaching, they were put in charge of the altar as well as administering to the boys and girls, and supporting church programs.
During the summer they taught the Italian language for grades kindergarten through grade three. Although second and third generation Italians might have learned to speak Italian at home, very few of them knew how to read and write their home language. The Venerini Sisters did their best to keep children from forgetting their heritage.
In 1926, the Venerini sisters, with the urging of Bishop Thomas M. O’Leary and the help of Father Nicola Mongiello, opened the first North American Novitiate to train new members for their order. This new Mother House opened its doors at 74 Marshall Street. One year later in 1927, Bishop O’Leary bestowed the habit on the first group of Venerini novices in North America.
Many Venerini novices passed through the Mother House on Marshall Street, but on June 14, 1938, the House was closed when the Sisters acquired a larger property in Worcester. This gave the nuns an opportunity to service a wider area. The Mother House was put up for sale and remained vacant for a number of years. In 1948 Thomas Montagna purchased the property and opened a funeral home. It is now the home of the Flynn & Dagnoli-Montagna Home for Funerals. The nuns that remained stayed in their convent at 16 Weber Avenue and continued to teach as well as open a day care center. It was remembered by those cared for by the sisters that they were kind, patient and joyous. They had a huge vegetable garden with which they made homemade soups and bread which they gave freely to the children who were part of their day care service.
Adapted from a story in Hoosac Trails, Volume XXVI, Issue I (September 2016)