100 Years of History & Heritage – A Celebration of the Calabrese Society

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This weekend The Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso Cittadini Calabro Americani di Westerly, or more affectionately called “The Cally Club”, will celebrate their 100th anniversary! Friday there will be a potluck buffet, Saturday a sold-out dinner-dance and then Sunday ushers in the frittata & fried dough breakfast!

The Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso Cittadini Calabro Americani di Westerly was established in 1918 as a way to help Italian immigrants that arrived in Westerly from Cosenza, Catanzaro and the Reggio regions of Calabria. The name itself means a “citizens mutual aid” society and the purpose was to ensure that those arriving in Westerly would find people that shared their heritage and could help navigate their new home. The early 1900’s saw a massive influx of immigrants arriving on our shores looking for their own American Dream. These societies were a way for those that arrived earlier to lend a helping hand to new immigrants in learning about their new country.

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Imagine arriving in a strange country where you didn’t speak the language and trying to establish your life. Housing, jobs, schooling would all be an overwhelming challenge to acquire simply because your English was not strong or non-existent. The mutual aid society members would be able to help the families find housing, jobs and get the children set up for school. They could serve as initial interpreters and guide the new arrivals toward resources to learn English. The societies also provided financial assistance to those that were facing financial hardship due to employment challenges or medical emergencies.

Westerly’s Calabrese Society was established by Francesco Manna, Demetri Turano, Cesere LaPietra, Gennaro Salimeno, Angelo Adimari and Pasquale Toscano “for the purpose of advancing the interests of the members, encouraging a spirit of true American citizenship, extending mutual aid and assistance to its members, and for social and literary purposes.” Ed Gradilone, The Westerly Sun interview, April 14, 2018

Now, imagine the relief an immigrant must have felt when they made their way to the Westerly Calabrese Society and were embraced by people who not only shared their culture, language, and heritage but could also help them succeed in a new world…it would be priceless.

The current Cally Club sits at 28 Pleasant Street in an ordinary looking brick building. The American, Rhode Island and Italians flags wave proudly on the corner surrounded an imposing granite memorial dedicated to the founders and deceased members that worked so hard to preserve the Italian culture and heritage of the community.

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The property and original building were purchased by the Society in 1934 from the Town of Westerly. Prior to the Cally Club’s ownership, the building had been the Pleasant Street School, which was built in 1907, harkening back to a time of “neighborhood” schools. The Pleasant Street School also served as an emergency hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918; as well as a home for those children whose parents succumbed to the flu or were simply too ill to care for them.

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Under the ownership of the Calabrese Society, this former school was filled with local community members celebrating and supporting their lives. Not only was the space open for various meetings and fundraisers; but it became a very popular locale for wedding receptions. Santa made his annual appearance for the children’s Christmas party to delight both young and old. The club even had an entertainment committee that brought in huge musical acts such as The Shirelles (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow“), The Platters (“Only You“) and Joey Dee and The Starlights (“The Peppermint Twist“)! I imagine that the Cally was hopping and bopping on these nights and many others!

The club also held true to its original mission and continued to provide support to its members and the entire Westerly community. What may have started as a humble organization focused on helping immigrants acclimate to their new country, became an important town-wide institution. This to me speaks volumes to how important the Society viewed its tenet to foster “a spirit of true American citizenship”.

On May 9, 1986, a massive fire overtook the Cally and destroyed the structure but not the strength of its purpose. Instead, the very community that it had served for almost 70 years, stepped up to help rebuild. Thus on February 14, 1987, the new building flung open it’s doors to a grateful community and boogied down to the tunes of The Platters!

And now, 100 years have passed and the Calabrese Society is as strong as ever; its membership has grown; it provides scholarships to local high school students; opens its facilities to non-profits for fundraisers; celebrates holidays big and small; and still hosts many wedding receptions, christening receptions and dance nights.

As the members and community come together this weekend to celebrate this enormous milestone, I send my congratulations and best wishes for the continued success of The Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso Cittadini Calabro Americani di Westerly!

Thank you to the Greater North End Community for permission to use the photos of the original Pleasant Street School/Calabrese Club in the slideshow. You can find more historical photos of the North End on their Oral History Project pages.

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