Connections to home and to the Catholic faith are deep and enduring for the women in Chatham-Kent's local Italian community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Festa Della Madonna Delle Grazie, which is celebrated annually on April 28th (or the Sunday closest to that date). The feast marks a time for the Italian community to come together to give thanks for all that the Blessed Mary has bestowed upon them. The Festa stems from an appearance made by the Blessed Mary in the town of Castelevetere in the Province of Avellino in Southern Italy. During the apparition, Mary appealed for a church to be built in the town and this miracle, and the connection to the Madonna, is celebrated to this day.
Chatham-Kent's Italian-born community numbered 320 according to Census 2016. Second and third generation Italian-Canadians continue to maintain a vibrant Italian tradition in Chatham-Kent and 470 people count Italian as their mother tongue. While most of those born in Italy arrived in Chatham-Kent in the 1950s and 60s, the ties to home and to the traditions passed on from generation to generation are celebrated every year in Chatham.
A key feature of the Festa celebrations in Chatham-Kent is the generations of women who gather at 5 a.m. to make tortani, circular-shaped bread that is offered up as part of the celebrations that culminate with a procession, Sunday mass and the blessing of the bread. But the tortani it is not just any bread – it is bread made with love, grace, and gratitude. The simple ingredients of flour, salt, water and yeast are measured not by jugs and scales, but by hand and in a time honoured way, by women whose mothers and grandmothers passed the knowledge on to them.
The mixing and kneading of the dough is a sight and sound to behold as the women, all speaking in Italian, gather around a large work area in Chatham's Spirit and Life Centre to receive their piece of the mixture that must be worked into a smooth dough. The rhythmic kneading sees the women move in unison, rocking back and forth. Sometimes the only sound is that of hands rolling dough, other times it is the singing of beautiful hymns or the murmuring of prayers in Italian. Close your eyes and you are transported to far away shores and homelands.
When every last scrap of flour is worked into the dough, nothing can be wasted or left behind, the women tear their piece into sections and these sections are all piled into a basin. Each pile is topped off with two pieces that are placed in the shape of a cross. The basin is then covered with a blanket as the dough is allowed to rise. This resting period affords the women time to catch up with one another, chatting about milestones and things that are important to people the world over.
The Festa Della Madonna Delle Grazie can be an emotional time for the women, reminding them of all that they have been through, how far they have come and how much Blessed Mary has been a guiding light and support for them. Through illness and tribulations, many of the women believe that the Blessed Mary has been the one who has gotten them through. As Grace Magliaro said, "Mother Mary is like a mother to me – when I came here I had no relatives and so she was like my mother in Canada".
When the dough has risen, the beautiful task of making the tortani begins. Thin strips of dough are rolled out by hand, are scored with three lines – representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the strip is then formed into a round shape. The bread is then placed in the oven and is baked for 20 minutes under the watchful eyes of women who have baked the bread for many decades and in two continents. This is serious work, but the women always have time for sharing, caring and laughing.
The women bake approximately 2,000 pieces of tortani every year, and yes, it is a delicious as you can imagine when eaten warm from the oven. Each bite represents a connection to the Italian women who have come to Chatham-Kent, made it their home and shared their traditions and kindnesses with the community. Celebrating the rich fabric of Chatham-Kent's cultural communities is a wonderful reminder of things that are important in making strong and connected communities – things such as traditions, contributions, diversity, language and faith.