A personal and cultural renaissance in Little Italy

May 25, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

TAKE THIS OLD SCHOOL — Ten years ago, the Rev. Oreste "Rusty" Pandola asked Rosalie Ranieri to turn back the clock.

Take this old school - St. Leo's Elementary - and make it a resource for the dwindling, aging community of Little Italy in Baltimore.

Offer courses of practical value: the preparation of wills and the like.

Oh, and throw in some Italian language courses, some cooking classes, winemaking and even Italian card games.

Mrs. Ranieri - the soul of what came to be called the Oreste Pandola Learning Center - sighed and shrugged philosophically.

"Like a good Catholic girl, I said I would try," she says.

Father Pandola, the pastor of St. Leo's Church, died suddenly not long after his assignment to Mrs. Ranieri. But she has continued as if he were watching over her every move. She has made the school into something more than it was: a community center for Little Italy and former residents of the neighborhood now scattered across the region.

A few of the new students, including Mrs. Ranieri's husband, Sal, went to school at St. Leo's. They come back to connect with something precious, something they and their parents lost in pursuit of conformity with the written or unwritten rules that govern a move into another culture.

World War II made the process of settling in even more daunting. The United States was at war with the Axis powers, Germany and Italy.

Says Frank Verde, a retired dentist: "My parents, both born in the U.S., made no effort for me to learn Italian. It was during World War II. Italy was the enemy - and we were Americans. Well, 40 years later, I was reacquainted with my heritage and was proud to be Italian and to learn the language for my visits to the birthplace of my ancestors in Italy."

Anthony Passiglia Craig followed a similar path to the center. A retired lawyer who moved to Baltimore recently from Brooklyn, he was able to fill that same empty place in his history, learning the language, hearing it spoken by patient teachers such as Silvana Ferrante and Catherine Miserendino - and by fellow students who knew a few words that echoed hauntingly over the decades from family dinners.

"After the first eight-week session," he says, "I could actually speak and write la bella lingua well enough for bona fide Italian speakers to understand me."

And there was a bonus: "I have taken the pasta-making course, which has raised my status in the kitchen to maestro."

What's happening at St. Leo's is happening around the country, according to Elissa Ruffino, communications director at the Italian American Foundation in Washington. At Holy Rosary Church on D Street, Italian is taught after church services on Sunday. In Milwaukee, an Italian cultural center thrives.

"People have fond, fond memories of their grandparents speaking Italian. They grew up wondering, `Why didn't my grandmother sit down and teach me a few words?'" she says. It's too late for that in many cases, but not too late to enroll in a class.

Students arrive with many objectives: enriched travel, research in Italian records, the dream of living in Italy. And then they stay on, caught up in the St. Leo family. Some of the lessons they learn - a tolerance and welcoming not always available to them - find their way into the spirit of the Ranieri-Pandola center.

Alma Saldana Santana, who came to the United States from Mexico, became a lover of the Italian language before moving here and, later, while on her honeymoon (la luna di miele) in Italy.

"I studied a little opera while in Mexico. In order to sing arias, you must know Italian," she says. "I wanted to understand more of the culture, and St. Leo has opened that opportunity for me. The classes are fun. The teacher and my classmates are like a family to me."

The school will celebrate its first decade as the Rev. Oreste Pandola Learning Center on Sunday with a Mass in Italian and a party at the school. Compleano a scuola San Leo!

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM and a student at St. Leo's. His column usually runs Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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