Legacies of both women deeply rooted in South Rockford

By Mike Doyle

Two women from successive generations with deep roots in local Italian heritage as well as in South Rockford are the newest members of the Greater Rockford Italian Association’s Hall of Fame. The accomplishments of Valeri DeCastris and Rose Mary Zammuto for their significant contributions will be celebrated at the GRIAA’s Hall of Fame and Special Recognition Awards Dinner on October 13 at the Venetian Club. In addition, each will be honored at the Columbus Day Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church on October 14 at 11:30 a.m.

For Rose, the recognition is posthumous. She passed away on May 12, 2018, at the age of 97. Her daughter Carmela Zammuto said that being selected to the GRIAA Hall of Fame would have had great meaning to her. “She would have been extremely delighted and proud and humbled,” Carmella said. “It would have been the honor of a lifetime.” Family members will accept the award in her behalf.

For Valeri, being honored is humbling as well. “I have always been behind the scenes, growing steadily and persistently getting things done over the long haul,” she said. “I am more interested in the outcome of social change than the recognition.”

For each, the level of involvement in Rockford’s Italian community was set high.

Rose and Peter Zammuto were raised in South Rockford, and although they moved to the northwest side to raise their five children – Rosemarie, Angelo, Carmela, Joseph, and Josephine — all of them attended St. Anthony School and church in South Rockford. “From my earliest memories, I can remember that she was always involved in the community or the church,” Carmela said, whose mother was a lifelong member of St. Anthony of Padua Church.

As her children found their own way, Rose became even more active. “She took care of our family, her parents, her in-laws,” said Josephine. “That’s the kind of thing that you did. She also did things that contributed to the community. And all of that was instilled by her Italian heritage.”

Following in the tradition of her ancestors who emigrated from Aragona, Sicily, and brought with them the tradition of the St. Joseph Altar, she made that an important part of her life. . “Mom kept the Italian culture as part of the St. Joseph Altar devotion in private homes and at St. Anthony’s Church, by leading the nine-day novena in Italian,” Carmela said. “She mentored young Italians to continue the St. Joseph Altar Novena tradition, by teaching them the devotional prayers in Italian, sharing the reciting of the Novena with these young women as an ‘on-the-job teaching experience.’ ”

She never missed St. Joseph’s Day, even when she would go to the San Francisco area to stay with her son over the winter. “She always planned her return so she could take part in the St. Joseph Altar,” Carmela said. “Even when we told her the weather was bad back here, she insisted she had to return in time for the altar. It was like a line you didn’t cross.”

“Her biggest pride was doing the Novena,” Josephine said. “When Father came to bless the altar, she would always go with him and carry the holy water.” Rose was able to attend the 2018 altar at St. Anthony Church, less than eight weeks before her death.

The 40th Festa Italiana was held in August and is run by GRIAA, which started as the Columbus Day Committee in 1975. Rose Zammuto was one of the original members of the committee. “Mom coordinated the first Columbus Day Mass and wreath presentation at the Columbus monument in the side garden of the St. Anthony church grounds,” Josephine said. In subsequent years, Rose also helped to coordinate the Mass on the Sunday of the Festa weekend.

Her involvement with family, faith and traditions was not overlooked. In 2011, she received the Rockford Diocesan Deanery Award for Outstanding Christian Service to St. Anthony of Padua Parish. In 2012, she was selected as the Italian Woman of the Year by the Ethnic Heritage Museum. She contributed artifacts and historical content about the local Italian community as part of Midway Village’s “Many Faces, One Community” exhibit.

She was an auxiliary board member of Presence Saint Anne Center, an expert knitter who made scarves and baby blankets for family and friends and regularly knitted hats for newborns in the neo-natal units of OSF Saint Anthony and Mercy Health hospitals, Carmela said.

Josephine recalled talking with her mother about her life’s work: “She said, ‘For a housewife, I really did do a lot of work.’ The women of her time contributed in many ways.”

Shirley Fedeli, a member of the GRIAA Hall of Fame, said, “She truly was a ‘walking encyclopedia’ of our Italian heritage and Rockford ancestors and many of us learned from her. Retelling the many Italian folk tales to many people to keep our tradition and heritage alive with our next generation.”

But Rose and her husband Peter offered even more. “Mom and Dad always wanted us to learn about the diversity of cultures,” Josephine said. “They made it a point to travel. They were always proud of how the Italians overcame the challenges of being immigrants. But they also recognized the struggle of other ethnic groups.”

While Rose may not attend the HOF dinner, her family knows she will be there in spirit. “I’m sure she knows,” Josephine said. “She’ll be watching the room from above and will continue to intercede for all of us.”

One could say there wouldn’t be an organization called GRIAA without Valeri DeCastris. Its predecessor, the Columbus Day Committee, promoted Italian culture and traditions. In the mid-1990s when the committee realized that organization’s mission went beyond one noted explorer and one day on the calendar, a rebranding discussion ensued and Valeri had an idea. “I just blurted it out – the Greater Rockford Italian American Association, GRIAA,” she said. “And everybody liked it.” She has long served on the board and co-chaired a tent at Festa Italiana.  She wrote GRIAA’s slogan “Preserving Our Past – Planning Our Future.”

Valeri’s induction is unique in that in 2010 her father Valentino (Val Eddy) DeCastris and cousin Frank (Chico) DeCastris received Hall of Fame Special Recognition Awards in Music and Sports, respectively.  Also, she and husband David Beccue live in her ancestral south Rockford home that has been in the family nearly a century. She is one of the few honorees to still reside in Rockford’s historically Italian enclave.

Before returning to her hometown of Rockford in 1995, Val was a social change advocate and volunteer throughout Illinois.  Graduating high school early, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences and a Master’s Degree in Geography and Environmental Resources from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where she worked as a research laboratory manager.  She served on boards of non-profit organizations, including Illinois’ largest consumer group, the Citizens Utility Board. She advised the General Assembly on policy matters and initiated a legislative internship in honor of Zeke Giorgi, with whom she worked.  She was a state scientist in Springfield, now retired. “Dave and I used to come to Festa Italiana every year and I missed Rockford, so we traveled from Springfield to Rockford every other weekend to loving restore my grandparents’ home where we now live. I knew my skills could help revitalize Rockford.”

Once back, she worked tirelessly to do just that and has been involved in many successful projects.  She was the first director and is a board member of Southwest Ideas for Today and Tomorrow (SWIFTT), branded south Rockford as “the Ethnic Village,” helped plan the Morgan Street Bridge, created Immigrants Park at Cunningham and Winnebago Streets and spearheaded the naming of a room in the Montague Branch Library for Frank St. Angel.  She’s brought tens of thousands of dollars to south Rockford, receiving a National Make a Difference Day Award, Crusader Clinic Spirit of Caring Award and Park District and local awards.

A member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish like generations before her, she helped obtain a $10,000 State of Illinois grant for decorative streetlamps around the church, which evolved into the church’s award-winning Memory Garden.  Valeri helped incorporate Italian culture in Midway Village Museum’s Immigration History exhibit.

She is credited with helping to initiate Rockford’s 2006 Sister City agreement with Ferentino, Italy. “I couldn’t believe Rockford didn’t have an Italian Sister City,” she said.  When her cousin Simone DeCastris visited from Ferentino, they discussed the concept. Family ties with the Giorgi’s and then-Mayor Piergianni Fiorletta made celebrating the century-long connection between the cities logical. Nine public officials from Ferentino visited Rockford for a week of festivities and meetings and the partnership was formalized during City Council.

Valeri appreciates the sacrifices of her ancestors in braving a new world with little more than hope and determination and is undaunted by the discrimination she has faced on many levels.  “Given the long history of discrimination against Italians and Sicilians….to be recognized by your hometown ethnic group is a tremendous honor,” she said. “I had great grandparents, grandparents and extended family that didn’t have my opportunities.  Some didn’t speak English and the women didn’t drive or work outside the home. I have been so fortunate to go to college, enjoy a career and be blessed with a rich family heritage in south Rockford and Louisiana. It has been a labor of love to help restore south Rockford where we enjoyed true community.  I am proud to help retain those Old-World traditions I fondly remember.”