Domenica, the woman after whom this foundation is named, died in March of 2005. From our establishment in 1991 until 2005, we carried out our work with her generosity, compassion, and selflessness in mind. Since her passing, we continue to keep these ideals at the forefront of our work in Camden, a city she loved so much. Below is a letter written by our friend Msgr. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church. This her story; but it also ours, for it is her wisdom that keeps us going.
The light was bright in the beautiful brown eyes of Francesca Barbera on Christmas morning 1910. She was beaming on the face of her baby who was exactly one month old. Francesca had married Giorgio Lo Guidice and this was the first sweet smile to bless them. Relatives and neighbors came that Christmas day. They came to see Domenica, “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and lying in her cot in the little village of Piscopia, a cluster of houses in Calabria. People were poor in
this area of Italy. Life hard as the nail on that big geological toe. But Domenica’s parents had a farm, with grass for a cow, soil for vegetables and olive trees. A garden of olives with the precious gift of their oil.
But sorrow came to the garden when Domenica was seven years old and her little sister, Serafino, was only three. Pain furrowed the forehead of everyone in Piscopia. Rain ran on the little leaves of the olive trees and it “trickled down upon the ground”. Francesca aching to bring new life into the world a third time, lost her own in the struggle and the wee one within went with her as well. The labor pain became for her loved ones, the labor pain of loss. Terrible too the fact that needs never eased in the daily life of the farm, and there was little time to stop and grieve. A silent sorrow weighted down the work. Domenica, so little at the time, was doing her chores on the land two days after her mother died. Tragedy suddenly swooped down like a hawk and stole her childhood and her play. By the grace of God, she fast-forwarded to tending and responding beyond her years, in the home and on the farm. She mothered her sister and helped her father. Only her hands hardened, but her heart expanded and her soul deepened as a well of pure bright water. Like Jesus, the pre-teen of Nazareth, she “advanced in age and grace, and wisdom before God and people”. (Luke 2:52)
In 1926, when she was 16 her father married Anna and soon the olive trees bloomed again. Babies came, five in a row: Catherina, Lena, Angela, Rose and Demetrie. They hadn’t all come, when Domenica, nineteen, married Antonio Piperno on August 30, 1930 and now her own siblings and her own babies were bumping into each other at the same soft door of time. But she welcomed them with her ever-widening heart of hospitality and generosity. Her three daughters were born in the first four years of marriage: Rosina, Catherina and Angelina. Her prayer to God was gratitude for them and a plea for strength for whatever waited around the bend. That hovering hawk could swoop again. Eventually two girls in a row were born, Francesca and Anna, and the young mater dolorosa wept when each was, only weeks in the world, laid to rest. A little mausoleum in Piscopia holds their sacred remains.
And there was a second kind of death that often preys on the fragile nest of the poor. Emigration. My grandmother, Mary Creegan, saw eight of her thirteen children leave home and cross “the bowl of bitter tears” to North America. “Ah”, she said sadly, “when they’re feathered, they fly”. Far away too, in those days. In 1937, Domenica, with three little children at her side, said goodbye to her husband, Antonio, when he emigrated to the United States in search of a better life for his family. Married seven years, they would not be permanently together again for fourteen years. In the new world, that most horrendous war in history broke out, World War II. Antonio found himself in the throes of that conflict and Domenica in the throes of anxiety for him. Her prayers saved him. Fifty million people were killed.
All the while, poverty took no time-out in Piscopia, and Domenica gave beyond the call of all giving to those she could help. She shared the food from her table, the olive oil from her field, and the clothes from her back. She would give the skin too if she had to. “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened and I will refresh you”. (Matthew 11:25). The gospel took wing in her words and flesh in her life. “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was naked and you clothed me”. (Matthew 25:35). During the war, Benito Mussolini ordered that all olive oil be sold to the government. Domenica gave some to a poor woman who pleaded for it. Word got to the authorities, and her father had to hide her in the fields until the police stopped searching. She was the heart of Piscopia. Mothers, with little or no milk because of poor nutrition, often came to her and their babies were always fed at the breast of Domenica. “Feed my lambs”. (John 21, 15) In a sense, “this is my body which is given for you”. A Corpus Christi called Domenica.
Over the years there were times that Antonio returned to Piscopia and one by one, he took his older daughters back to America. But Antonio’s visits were blessed with the hope of spring that Dominica brought to birth in God’s good time. But those she loved always seemed to be torn away from the moorings of her heart. Yet, some chords were severed happily as in the births of her children. Frances came in 1947 and then Domenica in the fortieth year of her life, brought forth, after six daughters, a son. His father, home shortly after the birth, was incredulous as Thomas, the apostle, after the Resurrection. So the baby had to be unwrapped. Antonio had to see with his own two eyes the precious plumbing. A man, surely, who today is a good friend to me and too many, Pepe Piperno.
One year after his birth, Domenica, would enter another severing time. It is the old exhortation of God in Genesis: “Leave your father.”. Sometimes that’s hard. We all weep at O Mio Babino, Caro. The story of our salvation has many journeys and departures. Domenica had ropes on her heart tugging strongly in two directions. With Pepe in her arms and knee high Frances at her side, she boarded the train to Naples for the first time to cross the wide Atlantic to New York. She was leaving her father, aging and ill, with whom she had lived and worked all her life. She never saw him again. “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land I will show you”, said God to Abraham. (Genesis: 12) When she set off for the big city of New York, she was leaving the little village of her life. All of it she knew by heart: the children that she fed, the mothers, the neighbors and friends, the home where she lived, the bed where all her babies were born, the church of St. Michael, the last resting place of her children. Also, the soil she tilled and the olive trees she tended. To them, she was related by blood.
But America had three of her children, their father and his dream of a new life. She was arriving with two. They would be together. Her destination was Camden, NJ. Five days after she arrived there she went to work in a “sweat shop”, a clothing factory at 3rd and Spruce and made her way in the morning by counting the beads of her rosary. Coming home with threads and clippings of cloth clinging to the sweat on her neck. This would be her work for the next twenty-four years until she retired in 1975, two years after her husband died. But she never retired a moment for the next thirty years from a continuous aching love for her family and everyone she knew. She did visit Piscopia, and always sent gifts and clothes there. “Never waste anything”, was the dictum of her life.
Domenica Piperno was “impossible”. Completely humble. Everyone deserving except her. “Never tell me you are sorry”. Her advice, “If it’s right, it makes sense. If you hurt someone, fix it. Live with no regrets”. She was utterly other-centered. When age and illness wore her down, she was anointed with the oil of the sick, the same soft substance that she took from her olive trees in Piscopia.
Domenica Piperno died peacefully on March 3, 2005 at the age of 94, at home in Haddonfield, NJ with her daughter Frances holding the hand that held hers so safely on that fearful journey over the sea. She was laid to rest at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, NJ. I had the honor of leading the mass of her Resurrection and this, I know: It would be hard to say more with eight letters than the lovely word, Domenica.