The nonnas clutch their black cloth coats tightly to keep out the fall wind as they assemble on a Wednesday night on a corner near the church. While they wait for a perpetually tardy nonna, they talk about what they made for dinner. “So cold today, I made ribollita,” one says. “I’ll serve the leftovers tomorrow.”
“We had sausage and peppers,” another says. “My daughter stayed to eat with us.”
“Ah, here she is.” They all turn to see the tardy nonna rushing, as best she can, to catch up with them. “Next time, don’t keep us waiting, okay?”
Following that warning, the nonnas set out for the church. They enter, dip their fingers in the font, make a sign of the cross, kiss it up to heaven, find their pew, genuflect, and sit down with a sigh. Going to church isn’t easy.
They are here to make a novena. A novena is a ritual of prayer and song observed nine times– nine hours, nine days, or nine weeks. It’s an ongoing weekly service in every parish, giving congregants a chance to complete any nine services according to their own schedule.
Novenas are offered to many saints. The nonnas, super-novena-goers, attend the one devoted to Saint Anthony. Showing up every Wednesday over thirty years, they have completed more than two hundred novenas each. It is customary to make a request and pray to the saint to grant that wish. They have prayed for wars to end, for neighbors’ children to get out of jail, for their husbands to find work, for their daughters to have healthy babies, and for their grandsons’ girlfriends to stop acting tarty. And since all these things come to pass eventually, the nonnas are convinced that their novenas are “working.”
The service remains the same from week to week. The prayers they recite by heart; the hymns they sing softly. But this night is different. The priest who enters the sanctuary is not Father Al, Father Jim, or even Monsigner the Pastor. (He does preside at a novena occasionally). Tonight’s priest is a sandaled, brown-garbed monk.
The nonnas elbow one another, they furrow their brows, and one quietly asks in Italian, “Who is this guy?’ The others shrug. They are baffled, but worse than that they are being subject to CHANGE, something they hope — and in this case pray– would never happen in their lives.
The monk steps into the pulpit and asks all to rise. The nonnas do. He begins to pray in heavily accented English. The nonnas listen and before they add their “Amen,” they get almost giddy. “He’s from Italy,” they whisper to one another.
“Oh, yes. Look, he looks like Saint Francis — or maybe Saint Anthony.”
Instead of a homily, the monk offers an explanation for his presence. He is collecting funds to help orphaned children in his town, near Naples, in the province of Campania.
The clasps on their pocketbooks snap loudly as all but the Sicilian nonna dig in to find their change purses. The others debate in whispers. Will she make a contribution? Might this turn into a Neapolitan ciucciarelli versus Sicilian sciccadedru issue? (See, My Town’s Better Than Your Town.)
An usher aproaches with the collection basket. The change the nonnas dump in the basket makes a lot of noise when it reaches bottom. The usher is about to move on when the Sicilian nonna dips her hand into her coat pocket. She waves the one-dollar bill she takes from her pocket high enough for all to see. She deposits it in the basket, and it doesn’t make a sound. Satisfied, she dusts her hands together.
The others nod, pleased. One reaches for her hand. She waves the hand away, and says “Bah.”
- 3 large Idaho or other baking potatoes, peeled, sliced
- 3 carrots, peeled, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 1/2 quarts boiling water
- 1 cup elbow macaroni or other small pasta
- 1 package frozen corn
- 1 package frozen peas
- 1 can Bush’s chick peas, drained and well rinsed
- 1 can Bush’s pink kidney beans, drained and well rinsed
- 1 can Bush’s cannelini beans, drained and well rinsed
- 2 slices country bread
- 1 large bunch basil, stems removed, finely minced, or 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- Crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- Shards of Reggiano Parmigiano or Asiago cheese
- Additional crushed red pepper flakes
- Heat olive oil in a heavy, nonreactive stockpot.
- Add potatoes, carrots, and onion; sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper; add bay leaf.
- Saute vegetables over medium heat, stirring often, about 20 minutes, or until golden.
- Pour boiling water over vegetables.
- Bring to a boil over high heat; stir.
- Reduce heat to medium low; partially cover pot; simmer soup 45 minutes.
- Over high heat, bring soup back to the boil; add pasta; stir.
- Reduce heat to medium; simmer 8 minutes or until pasta is almost cooked.
- Add corn, peas, chick peas, cannelini, and kidney beans.
- Simmer 12 minutes over medium heat, or until corn and peas are cooked.
- Break bread into very fine pieces; crumble into soup; stir.
- Incorporate bread bits into soup by pressing them against the side of the pot.
- Remove pot from heat.
- In a small bowl, combine tomato paste, olive oil, basil, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and garlic.
- Fold seasoning mixture into soup.
- Serve soup with grated cheese and red pepper flakes if desired.