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Hidden gem of Catholic Charities celebrates four decades of service

Italian Catholic Center has been celebrating life, culture since 1969


PATERSON - As Italians celebrate, "La Festa di San Giuseppe" or the Feast of St. Joseph today, there is one place that has always celebrated the culture and life of the Italian family.

More than 40 years ago, nearly 35,000 Italian immigrants entered the city of Paterson making them the largest group of immigrants in the area. Those Italian immigrants came to Paterson with dreams to start a new life, often times faced with the difficulties of living in a foreign and unfamiliar country.

Because of these challenges they faced in America, the Italian Catholic Center was officially founded on March 20, 1969, at St. Michael Parish here to assist these immigrants by providing social, recreational and religious services. Because he was impressed by the work of the center, Bishop Lawrence Casey then expanded the operation a few months later to serve under the auspices of diocesan Catholic Charities Catholic Family and Community Services here.

When the Italian Center first began, the agency provided services such as immigration, English classes, employment, interpretation, legal aid, medical aid, housing and information services.

Today, as the times have a changed, so has the work of the Italian Center. But one thing has remained constant - the presence of Philomena DeSopo, director of the Italian Center, who has served the center since its beginning as secretary. To mark the 40th anniversary, the center hopes to have a Mass and a reception bringing together the many Italian clients over the years at a date to be announced later this year.

The Italian-born DeSopo, who came to the United States in 1951, has made it her life's mission to help families from her native land in need of social services. Today, she continues to help Italians, many second and third generation or the same clients she helped 40 years ago who are now seniors. Since the center is one-of-a- kind in the area, she serves families from as far away as Pennsylvania.

"Every day is always different," DeSopo said. "You never know whom you're going to serve or whom you're going to meet working here. It's beautiful."

These days, DeSopo finds herself serving many older Italians. Many of them are widows or widowers, who are have difficulty with the maintenance of their homes in this difficult economy and are finding it especially hard to pay their property taxes, which in New Jersey are the highest in the nation. "They have to think about paying to keep their homes or putting food on the table," said DeSopo.

In addition, DeSopo serves as a liaison between Italians and their homeland. "The Italian government gives a pension to those who worked in the country so some of the people can claim a pension or if they own property in Italy, they can claim that as well," said DeSopo.

At times, DeSopo also finds herself as investigator connecting long lost relatives in Italy and the United States or even as an Italian consultant bringing together South Americans of Italian decent hoping to gain citizenship.

Joe Duffy, executive secretary of diocesan Catholic Charities, said, "Over the years, it's transitioned from dealing with the immediate needs of new Italian immigrant arrivals simply because not as many Italians are coming over to the United States today. But those original immigrants have stayed in touch and have maintained their Italian citizenship and benefits. People might assume that because of the current make up of society, there are no Italians here in Paterson. The primary population now consists of different Hispanic cultures, eastern Europeans and Arabs. The Italian people are still here in neighboring cities and counties and there is still a need."

For DeSopo, working at the Italian center since its creation has been very fulfilling work. "The relationship you create with the people is unbelievable. They trust you and it's just like being part of the family. They don't do anything without first asking you. They always tell me their family problems and most of the time, I can't change anything but for them, I guess it allows them to remove a big stone from their chest because they are able to communicate it."

Duffy said, "One of the blessings for Philomena is seeing generations of clients. Many times, we serve families for a small piece of time. Similar to our adoption agency, Philomena sees the success of her work after years and years. It's got to be very fulfilling."

Because the Italian Center receives no financial help from the government, it has been kept operational all these years from the many donors who help diocesan Catholic Charities. One parish, Most Blessed Sacrament in Franklin Lakes, has been helping the center for more than 35 years. "Every Thanksgiving, they donate 40 baskets probably worth more than $100 each to families in need. Soup to nuts, these baskets have everything," said DeSopo.

For Duffy, the dedication of DeSopo to the diocesan Catholic Charities agency is a feat. "While it's common to have employees serve in our agencies for many years, it's very unique in any work setting to have someone work 40 years in one place - especially someone that's been part of its founding. She is still as sharp today as she was 40 years ago. It's a valuable resource to have someone here with all that perspective for the past 40 years keeping in touch and even serving some of the same families. I pray for her health everyday."

Reflecting on those Italian immigrants who came to this country 40 years ago shows how times haven't really changed today as new immigrants come to the United States from South American, Asian, African and eastern European countries with the same dreams as the Italians did. The legacy of the Italian Center reminds all that the heart of the center is serving people in need and sharing a common connection and bond with them.

"You laugh. You cry with them. You have joy with them when they have grandchildren. You have sadness with them when they lose their spouse. Every day, it's just something new," DeSopo said.


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