The Di Camillo Family at home, 1934
Amongst the countless stories my father, aunts and uncles told of their family’s adventures in the first half of the Twentieth Century, this one has grown in interest to me.
Addolorata and her seven daughters circa 1954
When my aunts (there were seven) recounted this family story, they did so with an enormous amount of pride and enthusiasm.
Theresa Di Camillo Hargrave circa 1994
I especially remember my aunt Theresa who seemed to me to actually sit up straighter in her seat in the telling.
Sister Mary Di Camillo FMA 1934
My father's oldest sibling Mary, at the tender age of sixteen, entered the convent of the Salesian Sisters in 1920, the same year as this event. An eye witness, she has left us a written remembrance of it as well.
When I heard this story for the first time I remember not being able to quite understand their feeling for the story's significance. With time and reflection this has changed for me. I think I understand why my father, uncles and aunts felt such pride in recounting this event. I imagine it established for them a contribution that their family had made to their community and a testament to their parents' faith and courage.
To set the scene in which this event occurred: it was 1920 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. a town then exploding with industry. This enormous surge in commercial activity was due in large part to the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant, the first large-scale, alternating-current electric generating plant in the world, built in 1895.
Edward Dean Adams center, in dark hat with mustache, in front of the power station that bore his name
European immigrants had flooded the city. In fact, for a period Niagara Falls had the highest percentage of immigrants of any city in the state outside of New York City. Many of them were Roman Catholic and eager to establish a parish church which reflected their own various ethnic traditions. The Italian community, later arrivals in the city, were no exception and they founded St. Joseph's Church in 1903.
My grandfather had arrived in Niagara Falls, New York on Thanksgiving Day in 1898. A deeply spiritual man, dates, feast days, and portents had profound meanings to him. So the concept of a meal of Thanksgiving appealed to him, and from then on it was always celebrated by his family as if it was a personal reminder of his arrival. A devout man he became very involved in this new parish and was an early trustee of St. Joseph’s Church.
His connection was further strengthened as he had recently bought a building which was just down the street from this newly established Roman Catholic parish. This building was to be both the family home and the seat of his bakery and grocery store for the next forty years and is, in fact, still owned by a family member a hundred and one years later.
Sue Di Camillo on the steps of the Di Camillo Grocery Store and her younger sisters, the bakery in the cellar, gate on left Circa 1925
It should also be noted that these new Italian immigrants were not universally welcomed with enthusiasm by the established community. Restrictions of many sorts were imposed in jobs, housing and organizations.
St. Joseph's new church dedicated in 1920
In the ensuing seventeen years since the parish was founded, it had grown extensively and would on December 1920, dedicate their new church-- one of the largest in Niagara Falls.
St. Joseph's Parish importance was further established by the choice of the prestigious local firm of William Cannon Architect (the precursor of the now world renowned Cannon Design) he was to realize the Italian Lombard style structure for the parish. William Cannon was, in fact, the same architect the city was to hire for their new Beaux-Arts Niagara Falls City Hall. Clearly, this was a parish on a mission in establishing the importance of its congregation to the entire city.
However, what was missing for this congregation was a cemetery of their own, a graveyard to bury their dead. In early April of 1920, the parish had purchased a tract of land within the city's boundary, presumably for establishing a cemetery. This selection of city land was another statement of their intention to establish their importance.
1920 was also an important year for the Di Camillo family of Tomasso and Addoloratta, for a variety of reasons. They had opened their bakery that year, their oldest daughter had entered the convent, and most important, early in that year, the family suffered a devastating tragedy with the infant death of their seven- month old son Anthony from pneumonia on January 14, 1920.
Addolorata holding one of her 12 children in front of the bakery stairway Circa 1925
It was not uncommon at the time to store a body in cold storage as the bitter January weather of Western NY often meant that digging a grave was difficult, if not impossible.
Whatever the reason was I can't be sure, but I have a document, thanks to Peter Ames, a local historian, that proves that my uncle was not immediately buried but stored at Oakwood Cemetery (founded in 1852) storage vault in Niagara Falls. His body was removed on April 21 .This part of the tale was not in any family recollections and only came to my knowledge with the discovery of a receipt that the body was removed April 21, 1920.
The documented drama of the founding of St Joseph's Cemetery was to unfold first at a Niagara Fall City Council meeting of April 19, 1920 when a petition from eleven city residents had been submitted to city officials opposing the use of this land for a cemetery. In the city council minutes the council seemed unaware that St Joseph's had either purchased the land or of any cemetery plans. The matter was referred to the city manager, Edwin J. Fort, to investigate.
The pastor of St Joseph's parish at this time was Father Augstine Billerio, a man apparently not afraid to take bold steps. It would seem that everyone concerned with the following series of events was a shrewd strategist-- including the mysterious “Petition of 11”. This petition was submitted before any application from St. Joseph's parish had even been submitted to the city. It should be noted that this was not a naive band of parishioners. By this point they had constructed, two churches, a school and were in the final stages of completion of their second church-- one of the largest brick and mortar churches in the city. Within the ranks of this parish were many savvy businessmen and builders, people who knew the law and how to get things done in a proper, lawful fashion. Who these eleven petitioners were I do not know but the area was described as sparsely populated and was intended for industrial use. One can only guess at the agenda of these eleven: private interests? Or perhaps some prejudice surfacing regarding this expanding Italian population?
At this point it would seem caution was put aside by the parish. This “Petition of 11”, if left unchecked, was going to kill the parish plans for a cemetery before they could peruse and complete all legal requirements to realize their cemetery.
Then St Joseph's next move changed the whole trajectory of events. On April 22, 1920, on the front page of the Niagara Falls Gazette, the story broke that the day before (April 21 at 7:30 PM) Anthony Di Camillo had been illegally buried on the property purchased by St Joseph's. In the Niagara Falls Gazette story they clearly state that the burial would stop the petition. In fact, the title of the article is "New Cemetery Established Near Falls Boulevard". This front page article changes the City Council's "Petition of 11" and is now revealed to be a "Petition of 19"! Who knows, perhaps the city council members added their names as well?
I wonder who leaked this story to the Gazette? After all, the parish was in effect staking a claim with my uncle’s infant body. They may have wanted it to happen under the cover of night but they wanted it to be known in the light of day!
Our family’s recorded history always maintained that my infant uncle was illicitly buried, under the cover of night, in the field St. Joseph parish had purchased for their cemetery. It was always part of the family story that this daring move was done to force the city to accept this field as their cemetery.
I am not sure who had first floated the idea to my grandfather to take this bold step. Was leaving my deceased infant uncle, literally on ice, for nearly three months part of a long-term plan? Were they waiting for the right moment to bury him at some later date to force their agenda? Or perhaps, more likely, things just fell into place as they so often do in life.
All those who were present have now joined Anthony so a certain amount of mystery is inescapable in this tale. It is also unknown who accompanied my grandfather on his sad mission that night: he was certainly not alone. Fr. Ballerio must have been there, as I am sure my grandfather would not have allowed his son to be buried without a priest present. I am also reasonably sure that this illegal burial wasn't my grandfather's idea, as his concerns were centered with the grief of his large family and his recently established bakery. It must have been orchestrated by Father Billerio or at the very least certainly sanctioned by him. He alone would have had the authority to take such a bold step. Fr. Billerio had to have been a very complex man. It would seem he wasn’t going to see his flock denied a burial ground by an 11-person petition. He obviously knew what he was doing. His agenda seems to have been that the community he led “had arrived“ and were not going to see their plan denied under his watch.
On April 26, 1920, shortly after the burial had been made know to the entire city by the Niagara Falls Gasette article the City manage, Edwin J. Fort made his report to the City Council. In his presentation he cited three specific violations and mentioned that there was insufficient drainage. He concluded that the body of my uncle should be exhumed. I do not wish to portray Mr. Fort as the villain in this story as he was an eminently qualified civil servant, a Cornell University graduate and former Brooklyn director of public works and chief engineer of sewers. What I read of his presentation to the city council was for the civic good and complete without any hint of anything but sound science. However, what forces were at work and not recorded that pushed this agenda to such extreme actions I can only imagine.
After news of the burial was public knowledge and controversy ensued Father Billerio and Mr. Scalzo, (a trustee and respected member of the community) made a presentation to the City Council. I can almost imagine it was done with clerical humility and then the added established credibility of Mr. Scalzo. They both attended a City Council meeting and pleaded with the City for approval of their cemetery, having fulfilled all health and drainage regulations. By whatever means they used, they were eventually successful in accomplishing their ends.
Many things could have gone wrong in this bold move, not the least of which would have been for my grandparents to see their son disinterred--a grizzly and heart wrenching prospect for any parent. The core reason cited for the City's objection was lack of proper drainage. I, however, suspect a certain amount of prejudice was involved regarding this upstart immigrant community and this power-grab they had made. I found it curious and telling that the Niagara Falls Gazette's April 22, 1920 article which reported my uncle’s illegal burial refers to St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church as ”St. Joesph's ‘Italian’ Catholic Church”.
The headstone that marks Anthony Di Camillo's grave in St Joseph Cemetery
English translation: Son Anthony the first buried in this field
Whoever's idea it was to illegally bury Anthony Di Camillo in that field the night of April 21, 1920 we will never know for certain. It was, however, my grandparents who took the greatest risk. It was they who dressed their infant son's body in his burial shroud and used him as a pawn in the hopes of helping their community realize this field as their burial ground.
St Joseph Cemetery Circa 1950
And that is how, 101 years ago, St. Joseph's Parish of Niagara Falls, New York secured their cemetery.
I would like to thank Mr. Peter Ames, local historian who provided me with so much data regarding this event. Also, a special thanks to Ms. Tina Pietrocarlo Schul for her 1979 Niagara University thesis on the history of St. Joseph's Cemetery her investigative research was extraordinary. A thank you also to the staff of the Niagara Falls Public Library history department for the invaluable records they provided to me. Many of the images were obtained from the St Joseph’s Golden Jubilee book of 1953 and the Di Camilo Family archives.