Little Italy community and church leader never lost her affection for her old neighborhood
Frances M. DellaVecchia, a retired kindergarten teacher who was founder of the annual ravioli and spaghetti dinner at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy, died Saturday in her sleep at her home in the Woodbrook neighborhood of Baltimore County. She was 100. The daughter of Henry Cuneo, a steamfitter, and Frances Bruno, a seamstress, Frances Marie Cuneo was born at home in the 900 block of Eastern Ave., where she was raised as one of 10 children.
She was a graduate of St. Leo’s School. In 1932, she graduated from the Institute of Notre Dame, where she studied business and excelled in bookkeeping. She was also a member of the school’s basketball and volleyball teams.
During the Depression, when jobs were hard to come by, Mrs. DellaVecchia began working at age 16, running errands, sorting rags and cleaning offices. Eventually, she was hired by the newly created Maryland Office of Unemployment Compensation.
She was married in 1939 to Raphael DellaVecchia, a Pennsylvania Railroad clerk she met in the early 1930s when he was operating the Sandwich Kings store at Eastern Avenue and High Street, a few doors from her childhood home.
While raising an infant, she worked a night shift as a billing clerk at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s old President Street Station during World War II. She was later promoted to routing clerk, responsible for routing essential wartime freight traffic across the nation.
In 1955, Mrs. DellaVecchia began teaching kindergarten at St. Leo’s School, where the students called her “Miss Frances.”
“She was one of the nicest persons you’d ever want to meet,” said a nephew, Andrew F. Healy of Surfside Beach, S.C. “The boys and girls at school adored her, and they were always running up and hugging and kissing her, and she loved them as well.”
Mrs. DellaVecchia retired from teaching in 1977.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Little Italy was threatened by a proposed highway cutting though the neighborhood, and also saw residential flight to the suburbs, air pollution from chemical plants and heavy truck traffic. During this time, Mrs. DellaVecchia became an activist and worked to preserve the nature and identity of the community.
In 1953, she founded spaghetti and ravioli suppers that are still held in March and November at St. Leo’s.
For the next 30 years, she helped plan and organize the events — including rolling meatballs days in advance with a cousin, Anna Muscella. She also kept track in notebooks of the amounts of ingredients that went into the effort — and how many donations they received.
“She and her sister helped with spaghetti. They called her the ‘Spaghetti Lady,’” Mr. Healy said.
In an unpublished account of the first spaghetti dinner, Mrs. DellaVecchia wrote that it was the Rev. Mario Schettino, pastor of St. Leo’s, who asked her to plan the dinner. She said the job entailed ordering the food, supervising the preparations and recruiting people to help out.
“Not having undertaken anything of this scope before, I agreed to try and hoped and prayed for the best,” she wrote.
She drafted her aunts, a sister and a cousin known for their cooking skills. Parish children bussed the tables while men of the parish washed dishes, carried out garbage and moved crates of supplies. Food was prepared on basement stoves.
“We had a better organization than a Ford assembly line,” she wrote.
“We rolled the meatballs at a table set up on the stage. Aunt Lolly and Aunt Lucy, Clare and Cresentia were the kitchen crew. They made the sauce and fried the meatballs, and if we rolled a meatball too big, too small or too loose, or in any way imperfect, we heard from the cooks,” she wrote.
Waitresses delivered steaming plates of pasta and meatballs that had been cooked in a piquant sauce to tables of eight to 10 diners. For that inaugural feast, the price was $1.25 for adults and 75 cents for children.
“The first spaghetti supper was an immediate success, and this is because it was very much an effort of the entire parish community,” Mrs. DellaVecchia recalled in the account.
Mrs. DellaVecchia also helped with the revival of St. Leo’s Feast of St. Anthony event with a solemn procession and carnival. She was a past president of the Sodality and Mother’s Club, and a founding member of the Parish Council. Her fundraising efforts ranged from conducting bingo games to organizing coupon-clipping campaigns. She solicited donations for the parish school and helped raise money for the library. She also raised money for marching band uniforms, school trips and the purchase of Christmas toys for children in the early grades.
Mrs. DellaVecchia’s fundraising expertise was so well known that other churches and organizations — such as St. Patrick’s, St. James, St. Francis School for Disabled Children and the Carmelites — turned to her for advice, which she freely gave, family members said.
When St. Leo’s celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2006, Mrs. DellaVecchia was honored for her long service and dedication to the church and its school.
“She was truly formed by her faith, family and patriotism,” said her daughter, Frances A. DellaVecchia, an educator and Woodbrook resident. “Her favorite song was “God Bless America.’”
Mrs. DellaVecchia enjoyed traveling, and took trips to New York, Florida, Quebec and Niagara-on-the Lake in Ontario. She also liked visiting the New Jersey shore, especially Stone Harbor, Avalon and Atlantic City.
She lived on Eastern Avenue for 62 years before moving to Bel Air. For the last nine years, she lived with her daughter in Woodbrook.
“If you know Little Italy people, they never really sell their houses. It was only a few years ago that she suggested that we finally sell Eastern Avenue,” her daughter said. “Even though we lived in Bel Air and Stone Harbor, we always returned to Eastern Avenue for Christmas and the traditional dinner.”
Her daughter said Mrs. DellaVecchia did not follow any particular regimen in attaining centenarian status.
“She always ate a big breakfast, skipped lunch and liked her main meal at 4 p.m.,” her daughter said. “She never drank or smoked, and on special occasions would sip a glass of champagne.”
Her nephew said she “only took medication when she had to.”
She was an avid Baltimore Orioles fan and “followed them religiously,” Mr. Healy said.
“Family was most important to my mother,” her daughter said. “She was not an extravagant person and liked to laugh.”
“She was an unbelievably strong woman who always gave good advice,” said Mary Louise Healy, a great-niece who lives in Timonium. Her husband died in 1973. Plans for a funeral Mass are incomplete. In addition to her daughter, nieces and nephews, she is survived by two sisters, Anna T. Cuneo and Teresa M. Cuneo, both of Little Italy. Another daughter, Phyllis A. DellaVecchia, died in 2014. Frances DellaVecchia founded the annual ravioli and spaghetti dinner at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church.