Lasagna Dinner: From Tradition to Community

Authored by Victor Otero

Taken during the first Lasagna Dinner, a Holy Rosary annual fundraiser, this photograph shows the parish women who came up with the idea, left to right: Pat Bennet, Mary R. Catucci, Eleanor Eisman, Anita Segreti, Mary G., and Rosalie Pappano.

Italian immigrants into the United States represented ethnic/regional and job entitlements. The immigrants originated from different parts of Italy and worked in specific fields and job titles in the native nation. During the period from 1880 to 1915, millions of Italians migrated out of Italy into the US. While in America, the immigrants faced numerous challenges. The immigrants did not understand the English language and had little formal education; therefore, they were forced to take low wage manual labor jobs (Connell 2019). As a result, they were often taken advantage of by the intermediaries who served as go-betweens between them and the potential bosses. Most Italians saw the US as a place that could offer jobs that the unskilled and uneducated Italians peasants like they could do. 

Many of the Italians lived with others from their country and even people from their village so that the close relations of friends could assist with food and housing. The unified settlements approach was known as “Little Italies.” This can explain why there was a high population of Italians in some sections of the US and a few in other regions. Most of the Italian immigrants living in the Little Italies worked in manual labor and primarily handled jobs in public works. The Little Italies were often overcrowded with substandard tenements which were mostly poorly ventilated, heated, and dimly lit (Vecoli 1987). They often faced constant health threat from diseases such as TB and other infectious diseases (Cordasco 1978). 

While facing these conditions, the Italian immigrants found refuge in the Catholic Church since the 1910s. To help immigrants in the Little Italies, who overwhelmingly became members of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII sent numerous priests, brothers, and nuns. The Catholic Church was able to construct schools, orphanages, and hospitals for the Little Italies’ residents. Several parishes were developed by the Catholic missionaries to help meet the needs of the Italian populations. Around the 1910s, numerous Italian immigrants had sought refuge in Catholic churches who seemed to care for their needs. The Holy Rosary Church in Washington DC gave these immigrants a home and in return, the Sodality, the parish women’s group devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and parish service, was trying to think of a fundraiser. One of the ladies had the idea of a lasagna dinner because each lady could make a pan of lasagna at home and bring it in. So, the Lasagna Dinner fundraiser took off and is still an annual parish event (Catucci n.d.). A vital tradition, like lasagna dinners are between Italian immigrants, became part of a more significant community event, and one that embraces Vincentian values of respect, compassionate service, and advocacy for those that need help the most.

References

Connell, William J. 2019. Italians in the Early Atlantic World. Routledge History of Italian Americans, (April): 17–41.

Cordasco, Francesco. 1978. Italian Americans: a guide to information sources. Vol. 2. Gale/Cengage Learning.

Corsi, Edward. 1942. “Italian immigrants and their children.” The Annals of the American Academy of political and social science223, no. 1 (Spring): 100-106.

Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. 1992. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American experience. HarperCollins Publishers.

Vecoli, Rudolph J. 1987. Italian immigrants in rural and small-town America: Essays from the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the American Italian Historical Association held at the Landmark Center, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 30-31, 1981. Amer Italian Historical Assn.

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