By Mike Doyle
Two of Salvatore and Maria Castronovo’s children were exceptionally talented musicians – Sam played the violin and Rose played and taught piano. So, it was only natural that the parents wanted Frances to follow in her sibling’s musical footsteps. But she had other ideas. She wanted to design fashions and open a dress shop. With $750 in seed money, the Castronovo Dress Shop opened in 1937 at 323 North Church Street.
Today, 81 years later and a few blocks away, Castronovo Bridal Shop is still in business, owned and operated by Mary Frances’ son Nino. Because of the ability of a single mother to run a retail business in a field dominated by men and the dedication and resiliency to keep that business thriving, the Castronovo Bridal Shop, a family-run operation for several decades, has been selected to receive the 2018 Special Recognition Award by the Greater Rockford Italian American Association at its annual Hall of Fame and Special Recognition Dinner at the Venetian Club, Saturday, October 13. In addition, the store will be recognized at the Columbus Day Mass on Sunday, October 14, at St. Anthony of Padua Church at 11:30 a.m.
“Not many people wanted to see a single Italian woman succeed,” Nino said. “But she did it with the help of her family. Because of that, we have a had a lot of first-, second-, and third-generations come here for their weddings. We hear, ‘My mother came here for her wedding dress,’ a lot. We’ve done so many weddings … not many small businesses can make a go of it for 80 years.”
The family has a special attachment to the bridal salon, which is located at 722 North Main Street in a home that was built in the 1870s. The entire Castronovo family lived upstairs from the business and so did Nino when he was adopted in 1959.
Shortly after Frances graduated from high school in 1934, her mother Mary died. Mary wanted Mary Frances to pursue music, but after her mother’s passing, she pleaded with her father, who finally gave his blessing to let her pursue her dream. So, she worked in a Rockford garment factory until she saved enough money to attend the Traphagan School of Design in New York. Following graduation, she worked at Butterick Pattern Company, once the leading maker of paper dress designs, then opened her custom design store, which became a family business. Sam, the violinist, was also a fashion designer who eventually opened a garment factory in San Francisco. Also working were her sister, Lillian, a millinery designer who died in 1954, and Rose.
“Because of the nature of our business, we deal with customers for six months or more,” Nino said. “So, we do come friends with them. Our motto is: ‘Through these doors pass the finest people in the world … our customers.’ “
And, always, there was attention to detail. “We don’t do shortcuts,” Nino said.
Seamstress Sina Moses, who worked for Mary Frances for more than 10 years, said, “She was tough. She was particular about you working until you got it right.”
Sina also noted that Mary Frances was a successful businesswoman. “(That) was very unusual,” she said. “She was a pioneer at what she did.” And she recalled a photo of a large gathering of business owners where she was one of only two women.
All of this is explained by that fact that his mother “was a dynamic individual.” In the late 1950s, she went to Palermo to adopt two children – a boy and a girl. “That was her dream,” said Nino, her adopted son who was born in Palermo on December 6, 1957.
As it turned out, Mary Frances was only able to adopt him. However, even that was historic. Until then, a single parent could not make a foreign adoption. But with the help of Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen and local community activist and leader Frank St. Angel, an emergency session of Congress passed the bill. On September 12, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law, and 19-month-old Nino Castronovo became a U.S. citizen.
Because the bridal shop was a family business, Nino recalled helping out as a youngster, unpacking boxes of merchandise. “Years ago, my mom asked me what I wanted to do,” he said. “I decided to stay in the business.”
He went to design school and got degrees in fashion design and fine arts. In time, Nino’s aunt and uncle passed away, and on August 1, 2007, he lost his mother, and Nino took over the business.
“I like this kind of business where you are able to help people with their wedding,” he said. “We get a lot of feedback (and people) tell us we made their day and thank us. It’s an honor to be nominated (for this award) because my mom’s family started from nothing and made a successful and viable business and helped a lot of people.”