St. Joseph Sr. Stella Auricchio
Who she is: Retiree who spent many years as high school campus minister. She now volunteers in St. Francis Xavier Elementary School and offers communion services for parishioners.
Lives in: Brooklyn, N.Y.
First, an admission. Some time back I published a conversation with a cousin on my father's side, Henry Louis D'Arienzo. To retain a literary balance, what follows is a conversation with a cousin on my mother's side, Stella Auricchio. Stella and I grew up almost as close as sisters. Our mothers were sisters and best friends and after my mother died when I was eight and my sister was three, my Aunt Louise (Stella's mother) went out of her way to show us affection. It was not hard for her because she was a very loving person.
Stella, what do you remember about our childhood?
Our childhood! I remember contests to see who could eat the most toast! You and I dressing up in my mother's clothes and parading around the neighborhood.
I remember having a hard time fitting into your mother's dresses. I gave up struggling with buttons and zippers!
I can still see us picking up pieces of broken colored glass from the vacant lots and having dancing lessons with Miss Vera [the girls' childhood dancing teacher]!
And I, Stella, remember having little notebooks in which she pasted gold stars when we danced well. I also remember not earning one and going to Abe's candy store to purchase a box of stars of my own and adding them as I saw fit!
Also I remember spending some summer vacation at your house in Lake Ronkonkoma. Once I stayed at your house in Richmond Hill so we could see the sunrise in the morning! Why would two little kids want to do that? And I remember the chocolate bars your father kept high up in a cabinet over the refrigerator; he would give us a little bit at a time! I thought it was the most delicious chocolate in the world!
I also remember going to the movies with you every week when we were in our teens. Because I was petite, the matron wanted me to sit in the children's section while she wanted you to sit in the adult section. I strenuously objected!
That was particularly annoying because you are two years older than I!
But I was petite!
I think you brought your birth certificate with you one of those Saturday afternoons. I loved your parents.
My mother came from Italy when she was seven years old; my father came when he was 22. He never lost his accent. He once assured a friend who had emigrated from another foreign land that after he lived here a few years, he'd lose his accent, as he had.
Your mother was one of the kindest people I've ever known.
My mother would not tolerate anybody talking disparagingly about another! She had many sayings (which I didn't realize until after she died and I began to recall them). Among them were: "What was yesterday is not today. . . . Every day is a new beginning. Count your blessings, not your troubles."
I remember her giving piano lessons, playing the organ in church and having a lovely singing voice. She also went to Mass every day.
That's right. When she lived in an apartment for senior citizens, she would invite the people who couldn't make it out to Sunday Mass to come to her apartment to watch the Mass on TV. A Eucharistic Minister from the parish would come to bring them Holy Communion. She also left a basket on the table to that her guests could put their offerings in for the ministers to bring back to the church. We referred to my mother's apartment as "Mama's Church."
I also remember her going to the building's apartments of homebound Catholics with ashes. When she no longer could do that she entrusted that task to her Jamaican, Baptist caregiver! Please describe your siblings.
I am the oldest of four — two brothers, John and Louis, and a sister, Marie. We are close! We are concerned for each other and see each other frequently. John was a Lieutenant in the New York City Police Department. He now lives in Florida with his wife, Elisa. Louis lives in Manhattan. Now retired, he was a trader on Wall Street. Laura is his daughter of whom he is always proud! Marie is the mother of two very good children (now very good parents) Lorraine and Zareh, Jr. Marie and her husband Zareh live in Wantagh, Long Island. Many family holidays are spent in their always welcoming home. The annual Fourth of July and Christmas Eve celebrations stand out particularly.
Where were you educated?
I attended St. Clement Elementary School in South Ozone Park, staffed by the Dominican Sisters of Amityville. My high school was The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates, staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph. When I was in the eighth grade, I used to accompany my Dominican teacher to St. John's University on Saturdays. She needed a "partner." There were many different orders of Sisters studying there. One day the Sister I was accompanying said, "Look at the Sisters of St. Joseph! They are always smiling and look so happy," That caught my attention.
When did you decide to join them?
After high school I spent two years working in the payroll department of the American Tobacco Company. My father didn't want me to enter the convent so soon after high school. My mother was okay with it, but she cried a lot too.
Where did the community place you?
My first assignment was to the first grade. I did this in four elementary schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The classes were BIG! I recently saw a letter I'd sent to a friend during my first assignment in which I stated, "Next year I'll be teaching first grade again. I will have 97 students. And I really do like them."
My largest class held 76 fourth graders. It's amazing how we managed without paraprofessionals, teaching assistants or even television sets! What do you think helped you succeed as a first grade teacher?
Living in the convent with experienced teachers was enormously helpful. They were generous in telling their own stories and offering advice. I knew I was living with experts!
What happened next?
After 16 years as a first grade teacher, I was sent to Manhattan College to get a master's degree in religious studies. As soon as I started classes there, I was assigned to teach religion in one of our high schools. After teaching 6-year-olds for so long, those 14-year-olds looked like 40-year-olds! I told my professor, Gabriel Moran, "I am a first grade teacher and they're sending me to high school!" His reply was that being a first grade teacher was the best preparation for teaching high school students.
How did it work out?
The adjustment wasn't easy, but I grew to love working with those teenage girls! They were fun and freeing and friendly. There were many advantages to working in high school. I had the privilege of chaperoning school trips to Europe, to places I couldn't have imagined seeing! I also moderated a "culture club" which consisted of bringing groups of students to interesting and wonderful places in Manhattan. I was also campus minister, a position that allowed me to take students on retreats and to prepare liturgical celebrations in our very large high school.
What prepared you for this?
My teacher training had begun in the novitiate where we learned classroom management and teaching methods. But my very best educational experience was in religion classes at Manhattan College. It was an exciting time to be majoring in this subject. Vatican II had just concluded and there was much life and enthusiasm as a result.
Do you remember many of your students?
Some of my students have remained my friends. Sometimes they surprise me. One September afternoon I received a gift of three vases filled with white roses. The enclosed card read: "Fifty years ago I was in your first grade class for the first time!" I had not seen that girl — a woman now — in all the 48 years since I left her school. And here she was. Remembering. When I was celebrating my Golden Jubilee, an event noted in our diocesan newspaper, a graduate of many years earlier arrived at my office with a huge bouquet of flowers. Yes, there have been many happy encounters over the years, and wonderful memories.
What is your life like now?
I'm retired and happy to be part of a parish again. I loved the high schools I worked in, but those schools sort of become your parish. All the liturgical events are celebrated there, daily Masses included. Now I attend Eucharist in the neighborhood. It's good to be here among our parishioners. I do a little volunteering in the parish elementary school and I offer a Communion Service on Fridays when we don't have Mass. I enjoy meeting the people of the neighborhood.
I also crochet blankets for babies who have AIDS. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends.
It's been a happy life. Sometimes I ask myself, if I'm sorry it's history?
Stella, the years may be winding down for us, but you will never be history for me!
[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]