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Casa Italia: Past, Present and Future

by Joanne Spata

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When I was a teenager, more years in the past than I choose to admit, I remember visiting the grounds of the Italian Cultural Center. There, on the first Sunday in August, the Cultural Center would host its annual picnic. It was a wonderful day filled with beautiful surroundings, lively music and organized games for all. The day would begin with an outdoor Mass and would sometimes end with a full symphony orchestra playing under the pavilion; followed by the explosion of fireworks under the stars. In between, if you were fortunate, guided tours were given of the historic art collection gathered in the Cultural Center.

Each year, my family would rally around this special event and hold our annual family picnic. My mother and my aunts would burn up the telephone lines deciding who would be responsible for bringing what Italian delicacy for the entire family to share in. Of course, we prepared the usual Italian picnic fare; lasagna, sausage and peppers, cannoli, etc… And let’s not forget the bocce balls!

This event makes me smile just thinking about it. The Italian Cultural Center picnic and my family reunion were the stuff of which fond memories were made. This must have been true for hundreds of other families too; as each year over a thousand people would come out and celebrate this significant event on the Italian Cultural Center’s grounds.

Let’s fast forward a few decades and here we are; same place, but with a different name – Casa Italia. The grounds are older and more mature now, but then again, so are we. Our popularity has grown, to where tens of thousands of people pass through our gates each year, for numerous events. Why wouldn’t they? Casa Italia melds together beauty, excitement, prayer and a feast for both your body and soul; all in one place. You can come to visit and partake in one of the many festivals, art shows, or film festivals. You can immerse yourself in classes featuring Italian language, cooking and art. You can meet published Italian-American authors and research your past. I mean, ask yourself; where else could you kick a soccer ball, ascend the marble staircase of the Holy Hill of Calvary on your knees, or sit back and enjoy a beautiful opera all in one lush oasis, so close to the city?

Yes, Casa Italia is a rare jewel, which continues to shine and become more polished, year after year. It follows in a rich heritage, rooted in the blessed grounds of the Sacred Heart Seminary; where the Scalabrini Fathers shared their faith with so many. From these stately buildings, which held so many students and seminarians at one time, came countless men who went forth to become pillars of our community. Some even continued on their path and became devout priests as well. It is truly right that we continue in this mission of educating our future leaders here and sharing in our wealth of heritage and culture.

Over time, Casa Italia has truly grown, and expanded its interest and its events. It is through the ground work devised by our founders that we have made it this far. It is through the hard work, determination and support of people like you, that it continued to thrive.

That is why I, as Chairperson and all the members of our dedicated Board of Directors, are seeking your help in keeping this unique piece of our heritage alive. We need your assistance and funding to keep our facilities up and running.

Even in a good year, our normal operating expenses hover close to half a million dollars. Add to this the extraordinary expense of major repairs and updates to our many buildings, which now house our museums, art galleries, classrooms, chapel, banquet facilities and offices; and the figures just soar.

Remember I said “in a good year”? Well so far, this has not been a good year for our buildings and grounds. Do you remember the rain storm that raged from April 17 until April 18? Casa Italia sure does. Stone Park was one of the hardest hit suburbs in the Chicago land area. The torrential rains simply over powered the sewer system, and saturated the ground. Then to add insult to injury, the Addison Creek, located two blocks to our south, came over its banks just before dawn. You may have seen Casa Italia on the news that day. Not for the wonderful events and programs for which we usually get publicized; but for being a rescue station where the neighborhood police brought people flooded out of their homes, by boat, to our Chandelier Room. Yes, by boat! The streets surrounding Casa Italia contained THREE FEET OF WATER! Even more unfortunate for the Casa, so did the basement of every building that comprises our beloved facility.

I know we should consider ourselves blessed. Many others in Stone Park lost all that they owned that day. At least our main floors and above are totally operational. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the lower levels. This area currently houses all of our mechanical equipment. It also housed our future plans for creating indoor bocce courts, a game room and other recreational areas for use.

Through a lot of fast thinking and hard work, we were able to salvage much; but still in many buildings, the devastation had already occurred before we could do anything about it. With the flood waters came the severe damage of three furnaces, four water heaters, the large tile floor in the lower level of the Community Center and countless other items. Furthermore, irreparable damage was done to the Casa’s main electrical box, which will cost $55,000 to replace. In all, we sustained over $150,000 in damages. All this and we have not even touched on the numerous expenses up and coming, just due to deferred maintenance and the natural aging of our historic buildings.

Again, I know we are favored. We are back to being totally operational. I know we are even more fortunate, because we have friends like you; who have spent decades at the Italian Cultural Center at Casa Italia, and understand its true value to our community. In the months ahead, we will be presenting our long range goals and needs. We hope you will answer our plea for your continued support and assistance to help keep Casa Italia the gem of the Italian American community. Should you feel the time is right for you right now to come to the aid of Casa Italia, please give me a call at 708-345-5933 and let’s discuss how we can further shape the future of Casa Italia. I always look forward to speaking with anyone who truly is a believer in our community and all that we can accomplish together.

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About Fra Noi

Fra Noi produces a magazine and website that serve the Chicago-area Italian-American community. Our magazine offers our readers a monthly feast of news and views, culture and entertainment that keeps our diverse and widely scattered readers in touch with each other and their heritage. Our website offers a dizzying array of information drawn from every corner of the local community.