It is a Friday afternoon and the nonnas are cleaning the church. The door opens, letting in a burst of winter air, a late arrival enters. Under her heavy coat, she wears an outfit much like that of the others — black dress, a colorful front apron. But she has accessorized her costume with a necklace. No ordinary necklace, it is a string of rosary beads. This nonna is an inveterate churchgoer: morning, noon, and night. Distance is no object when she decides to make a novena in Manhattan, attend a funeral Mass in Brooklyn, and show up for a blessing by a visiting Neapolitan bishop in the Bronx – all on the same day. She gets around via subway and trolley by wielding her secret weapon — a transfer.

Rifling through her pocketbook, she settles herself in a pew and smiles triumphantly as she fans out a series of transfers like a hand of cards. “This one is finished at six o’clock,” she says, separating one transfer from the bunch. “So I have to catch a trolley at a quarter to six to be on time for this novena I’m making.”

The other nonnas nod and roll their eyes at her announcement as she continues to identify each transfer and the amount of life it has left in it. “This one is good until noon tomorrow,” she says. “I’ll use it to take the trolley to the subway and go to Mass at the church near Macy’s.” Satisfied, she clasps her pocketbook shut. “After the church on Thirty-Third Street, I have to go to downtown Brooklyn to help clean the church there.”

Besides being the thriftiest among them, she is also either the most naïve or the most insensitive. “My mother is putting up some fresh baccala; you know, codfish in sauce so I don’t have to cook tonight.”

She constantly reminds the others that she is the last among them to have a living mother – a ninety-year-old – who sits in the window of her third floor apartment, and patiently waits for her daughter to finish her steeple chase.

The nonnas take her behavior in stride. They know she has had heartache, and her churchgoing is one of the results. She is a bit older than the others. Her husband served in France in World War I and returned home suffering with a nervous condition. He does not join the men in collecting for a saint or go to their apartments to share an anisette or play a game of brisc.

“Okay, enough talking,” a nonna says briskly. “It’s your turn to iron the altar cloth. The ironing board is in the sacristy. ”

The rosary beads tinkle lightly as the latecomer makes her way to the front of the church. “Oh, and don’t forget,” another nonna calls after her. “Coffee and cake at my house tonight — after your novena.”

The sisterhood remains united.

Codfish in Tomato Sauce

Serves four

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sprinkle red pepper flakes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil (or 1 tablespoon fresh, minced)
  • Pinch saffron (optional)
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 tablespoons anisette or Pernod
  • 1/4 cup vermouth
  • 2 pounds cod or scrod, well washed, dried
  1. In a small heavy nonreactive pot, heat oil, salt, and peppers gently.
  2. Add onions; sauté until onions are golden.
  3. Raise heat to high, then turn off.
  4. Add anisette, vermouth, and herbs; raise heat to medium; stir.
  5. Simmer over medium heat until alcohol burns off and reduces by half.
  6. Add tomato sauce; simmer on medium heat until sauce thickens and coats a spoon.
  7. Add fish; bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium.
  8. Partially cover pot; cook fish 20 to 25 minutes, or until it flakes easily with a fork.
  9. Serve with crusty Italian or French bread.
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