Frances Del­laVec­chia

Lit­tle Italy com­mu­nity and church leader never lost her af­fec­tion for her old neigh­bor­hood

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Fred­er­ick N. Ras­mussen fras­mussen@balt­sun.com

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.

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