The Marra family, c. 1904 (l-r) Anna, Antonia, Rose, Catherine, and Luigi. (Rondeau family collection)
The Life of a Laborer and a Housewife
The July 2, 1906 Transcript article that details the dedication of the first St. Anthony Church includes a partial list of donors to the new church. One of these is Luigi Marra, who gave $4. His story, and that of his family, is in many ways typical of Italian immigrants at that time. He was born in Castelmorrone, province of Caserta (near Naples) in 1866. He was a farmworker who served a stint in the Italian army. He married Antonia Caruso, from the same town, who was born in 1872.
Likely he came to North Adams because he knew someone here. Records indicate a number of Italian immigrants in North Adams came from Caserta. Our information about him and his family comes from both a 1972 interview with Elizabeth (Marra) Bianco in the research notes of Italians* and from one of Luigi and Antonia Marraπs great-grandchildren, an active parishioner of St. Anthony’s.
According to Elizabeth Marra, her father came to America sometime between 1895 and 1900 — possibly 1897 — and lived on O’Brien’s Lane, off Eagle Street. He got a fulltime job with a coal company shoveling coal out of railroad cars. He later was a clerk in the Standard Mercantile Store at 27 Eagle St., managed by C.V.W. Jayne. An ad for the business in the “Old Home Week” book of 1909 describes it as “importers and roasters of royal and standard blend coffees” which also offered “fancy and staple groceries.”
Elizabeth said her mother came over to North Adams five years after Luigi. Records indicate that she came over in 1902 from the port of Naples on the S.S. Hohenzollern with their daughter Rosa, who was born in 1896. Another daughter was born in 1903.
Elizabeth, who was born in 1906, said that eventually there were nine children in the family. Luigi learned English; Antonia came to understand it but was never able to speak it. Just as he gave of his no doubt small earnings to contribute to a church for his children — he had five children by the end of 1906 — Luigi Marra wanted his children to get a good education and finish high school. He wanted the children to read books and newspapers.
Luigi must have known some prosperity, for in 1914 he bought the former Kelly home on Furnace Street. They were the first Italians in an all-Irish neighborhood. Elizabeth recalled them being called “dirty dagos” many times. However, she also remembered Irish and Italian children playing together in the neighborhood. Later, from 1915 on, other Italians moved into the neighborhood, which was called “Hickey Hill.”
However, any prosperity the family knew ended when Luigi died at the young age of 48 in 1914; one source in the family says from Hodgkins Disease. So Antonia had to keep the family together and send the children to work. As a result, Elizabeth told Tavelli and Hauck, none of the children finished high school.
The family tried to keep the younger children in school, but it wasn’t easy. The older sisters didn’t have the opportunity for school and went to work at age 14. Not many industries hired children so young, so they worked at the Hoosac Cotton Mill. One had to be 16 to work at the Arnold Print Works, she said.
Elizabeth Marra worked at the Hoosac Cotton Mill for less than a year, then went to a shoe shop, and later to the Arnold Print Works. Generally the mills did not fire workers because there was a lot of work to be done. She worked weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon, for the state set limits to the number of working hours per week for 14-year-olds.
Mill work was hard, with overseers. There were many French Canadians and southern Italians in the Hoosac Cotton Mill. The French Canadians were the bosses. Once, Elizabeth went to the ladiesπ room; upon returning to her section the section supervisor said she wasnπt hired for that, so she was sent home for two weeks and then rehired.
When living on Furnace Street, Antonia Marra took in distant relatives in her home upon arrival in America, until their families were able to come over. Because she could not read or write, there was not much correspondence with the old country.
Elizabeth said there were Italian stores all over town in those days, but especially in the more Italian areas such as Center Street, State Street, and Ryan's Lane. In fact, the Marras ran a small one in front of their home for a time.
By all indications, Antonia Marra was a beloved matriarch. Because she could not read or write, she never became a U.S. citizen. Though she had lived in the U.S. for more than 39 years and her two sons would serve with the U.S. Army, she had to register as a resident alien after the start of World War II, as Italy was one of the nations at war with the Allies. She died in 1942 at age 70.
“She was a kind neighbor and a true friend and was greatly devoted to her family,” states her obituary in the Transcript. “She was a member of St. Anthony’s Church, the Christian Mothers Sodality, and the Daughters of Italy.”
Elizabeth Bianco married William Bianco, a son of John and Rosa Bianco. Together they ran his clothes cleaning business for many years. She lived well into her 90s, returning to the Lord just a few years ago.
-From a People of Faith, Hope & Love, pp. 16-17
* In 1972, two Williams College students, Richard C. Tavelli, ’73, and John W. Hauck, ’74, researched and wrote an extremely valuable report: The Italians in North Adams.
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