“We’re from Sparkill.”

BY Gaspar Cipolla

Gaspar Cipolla, attended St. Agnes Sept. 11, 1934 to Dec. 24, 1938
(G. Cipolla, Mr. Chip, is currently a Middle School Substitute Teacher in the Manalapan-Englishtown School District in New Jersey)

Mama and Papa were born in Racalmuto, a mountain village just north of Agrigento, Sicily. I was born on Eldridge Street in Little Italy and baptized Gaspar (I like to believe after the 3rd King of the Magi) at The Church of the Nativity on the Lower East Side of New York City. We spoke only Sicilian, a dialect of Italian. It was 1934 when my mother died during child birth. I was about three and my brother Joey three years older. We were sent to St. Agnes, a home for boys in Sparkill. I remembered that my brother Nicky was killed when he fell off a fire escape while playing. I also had a baby sister named Mary. I didn’t know where she was.

While at Sparkill I had a faint picture in my mind of the city, the streets and sidewalks, and the long blocks of buildings with no trees. I remember Papa pulling me on a sled through snow covered streets, and a tiny green tricycle in the dark under the hallway stairs. And, my brother Joey coming back from the store and dropping a bottle of milk splashing the milk and glass all over as it crashed onto a tile floor in the hallway. Was he going to be in trouble!

It was 1953. I had no idea where Sparkill was, or if it still existed. It was my third year at City College of New York. The bus left 23rd Street and Lex. on a Saturday morning and headed upstate. CCNY was playing a Lacrosse match against West Point. We were on our way to support the team.

We were on the bus for a while when it seemed that the bus driver had made several turns. It appeared that he had made a wrong turn and was trying to find his way back to the right road. It was then that I saw lots of kids, young boys wearing dark jackets, scarves and hats, running and playing in a large grassy field. There were several religious nuns in black veils standing among them watching over their playing. This certainly seemed familiar. Next to the field was a dirt road that leads up a hill. It separated the field from a large, dark brown shingled, administration-type building. The entrance was hidden in the shadows of tall trees. What caught my eye was the bright gold cross that hung above the entrance doors. It sparkled through the shadows of the leaves. “This looks like Sparkill”, I thought. A chill zipped the back of my head and neck freezing my conversation with Evelyn for a moment. She was the classmate sitting next to me. When the bus stopped at a railroad crossing I was convinced that I knew this place! We passed a church with a tall steeple, then a small lake. I said. “That’s St. Agnes! That’s the home I was in when I was a kid.” And pointing to the church “That’s the church where I made my Holy Communion. This is Sparkill!” I quickly looked around for a road sign. As the bus turned onto another road I saw the highway sign that read Route 303.

Sparkill was our home until Christmas Eve of 1938. By then, I was seven years old. Papa, Joey and I boarded the bus to New York City. We were being taken back to a home in the city. That was the last time I was to see St. Agnes until many years later. As we settled in our seats the bus lurched forward to start its journey. I remember it stopping momentarily at the railroad crossing, then past the church and lake and into the country. I remember feeling sad. I was confused and dazed as I stared out at the gray, cold countryside and the leftover snow piled along the sides of the highway.

Finally, after a subway ride, the walk through the city streets we climbed up the stairs to the first floor, a cold water flat in a tenement apartment on East 3rd Street on the lower east side. It was warmed by a pot belly stove in the kitchen and decorated for Christmas. Our stepmother and three-year-old sister Mary were there waiting for us. I remember sitting on my father’s lap that night and saying that I wanted to go back to the Home. I wanted to go back to Sparkill. My brother and I were from Sparkill!

I remember my sweet and gentle stepmother, combing my hair at the sink and telling me, “Be a good boy.” as I left to go to The Church of the Nativity. She sent me off to join the altar boys. That was the Prelude to all the experiences to be my life, growing up as an altar boy on the lower east side. There were the altar boy meetings every Friday at 4:00 PM, the handball and basketball games, Johnny-on-the-Pony and Hide’n Seek in the Church Yard. I learned Latin prayers to serve Mass and Benediction. I attended P.S. 25 up to the 5th Grade and then Most Holy Redeemer School graduating the 8th Grade in 1945. Sister Celeste prepped us for high school entrance exams. I passed the Xavier High School exam with 100% in the math section. I wanted to go to Xavier, and told Mama and Papa that I would get a job to come up with the yearly $200 tuition. At the time the monthly rent for our 5 room apartment on 3rd Street was $33.

On a June day, a boyhood friendship and the search for that summer job to pay my way through Xavier High School led my friend Nat (Ignatius) and me from 3rd Street all the way to 16th Street. We took turns asking “Do you need a boy?” Nat said it was my turn to go into that grocery store across the street to ask if they needed a boy. “Wow! I got a delivery job and I start tomorrow at 9.” I shouted. It was just down the street from Xavier. It was the summer of 1945. That was the year a plane crashed into the Empire State Building. I was 14 years old.

Mrs. Corinna Appleton. I like to think of her as a Godmother. She did her shopping at the grocery store which was just down the street from where she lived. She and a younger woman who I learned was her daughter were always dressed in black. I would assist them and make deliveries to her apartment. She was always especially nice to me. We would talk. She would offer me milk and cookies and give me a 10 cent tip. She said I reminded her of her son Jimmy who had attended Xavier. I told her that I would be attending Xavier in September and was working to pay for my tuition.

One day with sadness she told me about her son Jimmy, James H. Appleton. After graduating from Xavier in 1943 he insisted that he join the Army. He was assigned to an armored division that saw action in the decisive Battle of the Bulge in Germany. He was killed in his tank just 6 months ago. She asked to meet with Mama and Papa. She offered to pay my tuition!

She would pay me to do house work. Once Leroy, her husband, sent me to do an illustration at the Museum of Natural History. And I got paid. The following summer the Appleton’s referred me to a law firm, Meyer, Kidder and Matz on Wall Street for a summer job. The following summer I worked at Appleton & Parsons, Leroy’s ad agency on Vanderbilt Avenue near Grand Central.

After Xavier I had registered to attend Fordham but when the $18 a credit went up to $23 a decided that I couldn’t make it. One evening at a local east side luncheonette, I overheard a conversation about a free college, City College of New York, CCNY. Admission was only by scholastic achievement. Tests were administered to only city residents and the top scores would be admitted. I took the test was accepted and decided to attend The Business School at 23rd Street.

However, the memories of Sparkill and of the Dominican Sisters at St. Agnes were never to leave me. The Sisters were always telling us what to do and how to do it. I learned to tie my shoe laces, a Sister placing tooth powder in my palm to brush my teeth, and make my bed using hospital corners. We slept in dormitories lined with rows of beds. One night some boys and I mischievously and quietly climbed up to look over the dividing partition in the dorm and peeked down at a Sister sitting at a table with a small lamp reading her prayer book. There was also the night I was sad and crying in bed. I don’t know why. A Sister leaned over to comfort me, and with a gentle squeeze she tucked me in and told me, “Everything will be alright.”

Papa came to visit us on “Parlor” Sunday. With Papa and my brother we sat on three wooden chairs in the center of the hall where I was taught to tap dance. There were other visiting parents and their kids around us. Papa always brought us macaroni with gravy and meatballs which we ate with special round spoons he brought. There was fruit and he always gave us a pack of Juicy Fruit gum as he hugged and kissed us good-bye.

I remember getting the mumps and being in the infirmary. Once, in the middle of the night, I was picked up out of bed, wrapped in a blanket and carried down the stairs by an older boy. It was a fire drill!

We played games like The Farmer in the Del. I learned to tap dance and I learned to play a hymn on the piano. To this day I’ve found no one who can identify the tune. At Christmas there were those long black stockings filled oranges and Christmas candies. We were told that if we were bad the stockings would be filled with coal and switches. We never saw one of those.

I remember one cold winter night, looking out through a window down at a lake. I saw in large searchlights two men standing in a small boat. They were pounding on the ice with thick boards trying to break through. I learned later that a little boy had gotten away from his mother and had fallen through the thin ice of the lake. He drowned.

I made my First Holy Communion. The Sisters dressed us in white, with short pants, white stockings and white shoes. We practiced walking in perfect rows through a passage way to the Church and then slowly down the aisles. Besides learning the Our Father, Hail Mary, the Glory Be and Act of Contrition, we learned to make paper kites and paper airplanes that really fly. We would pick, peel and eat the stems of rhubarb. I remember learning that trees came from seeds and I planted orange seeds in the ground along side of a road. We sometimes picked and ate a type of wild grass that had a lemon taste. We picked violets and dandelions and buttercups. Sometimes Sister would walk us up a hill to a cemetery, and then further up to the top. There we could look down on the river. I know now it was the Hudson. A farmer would bring a load of apples, and sometimes tomatoes. They were dumped on the grass in a field for us kids. I remember running going to the pile getting one to eat.

The Sisters took us to watch the older boys play football. One day, a boy by the name of “Bum” was charging across the goal for a touchdown. As he crossed the goal line a player punched the ball out of his grasp and the ball bounced to the ground. I remember a tough, angry look on his face and heard him shout, “He can’t do that!” I learned years later that he was someone named “Bum”, and his name was “Bum” Fontana. And, that when he was older, he lived in New York City.

I watched the swimming pool being built in one of the fields behind the buildings and the thrill of being given a bathing suit.

In a classroom, kindergarten or first grade, a Sister pointed to me and told another Sister, “Watch out for this one.” I remembered a Sister named “Sister Minus”.

In the early 90s, on a Sunday morning I visited Sparkill. I looked around the grounds as I drove the winding road, between the Church and the lake to the parking area. As I sat in the car I had a warm comfortable feeling about this place. The old buildings were gone. A modern building was in its place. However, the Church and lake were still there. I tried to visit the Church but it was locked.

I asked a “jogger” what happened to the home and the Dominican Sisters. She said that the new building was a retirement home for the Sisters.

I asked her, “Are you a Sister?”
“Yes I am. I am a Dominican.” she answered.

As I drove away I thought how things have changed. I was sad and disappointed, and planned to visit again some day.

It wasn’t till 1998 that decided to visit the Sparkill, St. Agnes, and ask about the home. There was a large gathering outside the Church when I arrived. I walked over to a group standing and talking outside of St. Agnes Church after a Mass and asked someone if she was a Sister. Sisters don’t wear the familiar habits that I remembered so well. I asked her if she knew if there was a Sister “Minus”. Of course, I knew that the name of “Minus” was a vague childhood echo of the name and that there probably was no such Sister. I asked anyway. Then I added hesitantly that she would have been here around 1934 or 1935. She immediately said, “You must mean Sister Linus, now Sister Loretta”. I questioned her again because I couldn’t believe that there was a Sister “Minus”.

She invited me to walk with her to the main building. She said that Sister Loretta must have been a novice at the time. She asked me to wait and she would see if Sister Loretta was available to meet with me. She spoke to someone then told me that Sister Loretta will be here in a short while.

I waited in the entrance hall for what seemed to be a long, long time...

BY Gaspar Cipolla

Home To Top

Gaspar Cipolla: We're from Sparkill  
David T. Feliciano: Training for 2003 NYC Marathon The Bully
Peter Feliciano: St Agnes 1st Day, we ran
Carlos Feliciano: The Great Escape
Benjamin Feliciano: St. Agnes    The Big Bully Sister Joe Beakie    Work
Joseph R. Stanaitis: Soccer: Father Espeso Soccer: Luigi Crispino End of Innocent Years
Joseph R. Stanaitis: A Visit From Yankee Legend. Do You Remember???
Joseph R. Stanaitis: Lunch at Automat Many Chose Vincent We Raided Woolworth
Bernard S. Neville: Recalling Coach Jim Tale of A Football Game
Bernard S. Neville: The King's Chair Snow Storm Jack Frost
Bernard S. Neville: The 'Monster' at St. Agnes Bear Mountain
Anthony Monteiro: What is it?
Ted Mead's Story: He's a Tough Guy, Ted
Gerald F. Merna: The Quietest, Strongest Marine Hero I Knew.
Gerald F. Merna: Donald Frances Antonacci: House Kid, Patriot, Hero (1937 - 1990)
Gerald F. Merna: Extreme Marine Leadership at Parris Island
Gerald F. Merna: A Long Way From Guadalcanal
Aurthor Unknown: A Christmas to Remember...

Home To Top

General Links:                 Photo Gallery:

Please eMail your Photos, Stories, Anecdotes, Letters, EMail, Biographies, Newsletters, News. Please read (Our Policy)

Official PayPal Seal
Click This Button To

All Voluntary Contributions Greatfully Received
  eMail Web Designers: David T. Feliciano

About Us Our Mission Our Policy Our History
Copyright © 2003-2017 - David T. Feliciano;   
All Rights Reserved.   
Support Our Website

Alumni Website is Sponsored by your Voluntary Contributions
To Contribute, Click on "Contribute" Buttons at Left