Tribute Articles

A Tribute to Sicilian Immigrants (An excerpt from an upcoming book in 2021, by Frances Schmidt, WNY author.

Never underestimate anyone’s history, especially mine.  I’m one of millions of buildings with untold stories to tell.  I can’t tell you all of them only the ones that influenced me.  Life was good in the 1900’s when I was built on the corner of Niagara and Potomac Street on Buffalo’s West Side.

My name is FRED.  In 1922, two of my most colorful and brave Sicilian tenants moved into my apartment building from the Hooks in the Canal District.  When their key opened the door to their second floor apartment, Anthony Consiglio, and his son Sammy, embraced each other and cried.  “My son let’s say a prayer for my Maria, your Momma, and all my babies.  We promised her and Saint Joseph we’d live for them and make our family proud.

“Papa, we’ll buy a home someday in memory of our family.”  Then they looked around their small apartment, got on their knees, and continued praying.  It was overwhelming and hard to listen to their story of love and loss.

If after reading their story, you can empathize and feel their pain, then the Consiglios’ legacy of love will be meaningful.  I’m learning no one escapes personal tragedy. Sharing my observations helps me understand what it’s like to be alive.

Anthony and Sammy arrived in Buffalo in 1914, from Palermo, Italy.  Maria, his wife, and two younger children stayed in Italy waiting for them to earn enough money to send for them.  The father and son left home to start a new life in America because of Sicily’s crop failure, high taxes, and unstable Italian government.

Soon after they arrived in the Canal District they found a place to live in an overcrowded tenement house on Dante Place.  They both continued working many part time jobs.  Anthony as a carpenter, and Sammy a plasterer, mainly at the Welcome Hall Settlement House until 1923.  During that time they also searched for fulltime jobs closer to the Westside because it was getting harder and harder to go back to where their hearts were broken.  Although they continued attending Saint Anthony’s Church on Court Street each Sunday it was a constant reminder of their family’s loss.

When Anthony’s wife Maria, and their two youngest children, first arrived in Buffalo in 1917, she carried a small statute of Saint Joseph in her baggage, along with a fava bean in her purse for good luck.  It was a tradition that Maria learned from her grandparents in Messina, Sicily.  Her family was peasant farmers and the fava bean was fodder for the cattle during a famine.  When they had no food to eat they prepared the fava beans to feed their family.

In 1918, the Consiglio’s youngest daughters, five year old Rose, and six year old Sophia, became sick with influenza.  They tried to protect them from the other sick children in the tenement house only no matter what they did it was in vain.  Both girls got sick with the illness, were hospitalized and died unexpectedly of complications.  Maria cried, sobbed, and wailed, in shock while Anthony and Sammy were numb with grief.

Weeks later Maria became sick with influenza and had a terrible time breathing. She was hospitalized and the prognosis was poor.  Anthony and Sammy spent every moment they could with her.

Mrs. Consiglio died along with her younger children and unborn child a month before the influenza epidemic ended on November 3, 1919.  Her husband Anthony was grateful for the caskets that were given free to his family from the City of Buffalo and vowed to help other families someday.  They were now getting support from Welcome Hall’s new Italian Men’s Club.  Both father and son joined the club in early 1914 when they first arrived in Buffalo; it had less than ten members and everyone paid twenty five cents per month.  They joined because it made they feel safe and supported because the clubs goal was to promote their best interests.  Now in their time of need, all the men and their families gave them comfort when they needed it the most.

“Anthony, promisa me that you and Sammy will save money and someday buy a home with another family in honor of me and our babies. Sammy, you promisa me to have a family too.”

I know this to be true because they talked about their promise to Maria all the time, mostly when they prayed to Saint Joseph.

Anthony’s treasured statute of Saint Joseph and Maria’s lucky fava bean were kept wrapped in her favorite handkerchief placed, on a small table in their living room. Each night father and son promised Saint Joseph they would work hard to save enough money to buy a home.  They were grateful to the city for four free coffins for their family and to the Welcome Hall Italian Society who provided a wake for their loved ones friends.  Both men vowed to buy a special gravestone for Maria and the children right after they kept their promise to buy a home.

Mr. Consiglio’s prized possession was a battered Mandolin that was given to him by his dear friend Giuseppe for repairing his storm damaged barn.  It was a Sicilian twelve string modeland had been in the family for years.  “Take it to America” he said. “You learn how to play it for me and make us Sicilians proud.”  It was an offer Anthony couldn’t refuse.

“I promise I’ll learn to play” he said, kissing his friend on both checks and saying goodbye forever.  Anthony loved the Mandolin and named it after his friend.  Here in America he hoped someday to find someone who would teach him how to play an entire song.

…more of the Consiglio story to be continued in 2021.