Mary Catenaccio: Kosher Italian

by | Apr 3, 2015 | Other News

Mary Catenaccio is a lively, mobile and very vocal 106-year-old resident at Beth Sholom Village. That information alone is a good enough story. However, as with many BSV residents, there is so much more to Mary.

Russian Jewish immigrants, Mary’s parents moved to the United States for a better life, settling in Connecticut where they owned a farm and sold fruit, poultry and meat.

Pregnant with Mary, her mother went to visit her sister in New York City. The trip took an unexpected turn with Mary being born on a kitchen table in China Town. While technically a New York native, Mary was raised in Connecticut, where, as a young child, she helped run the farm, milking cows, killing chickens and picking vegetables.

As a young woman, still living at home, Mary travelled to visit her own older, married sister in New York City. During the visit in the “big city,” she was introduced to Samuel Catenaccio. The two fell in love and married. This marriage was not without complications since Catenaccio was not Jewish, and in fact was a devout Catholic from an Italian family. As was not uncommon in that era, Mary’s parents disowned her because of the marriage. Her parents went so far as to write an obituary for her. To them, Mary was dead.

Mary was devastated by the loss of her relationship with her parents, but she was happily married.

The only requirement for Samuel’s parents in marrying the Jewish woman was for her to learn to cook authentic Italian meals. She did, in fact, learn to be an outstanding Italian cook. Out of respect for Mary, her husband insisted they keep a kosher home with two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy.

When Mary’s son, Frank was born, the family reached out to Mary’s parents. Mary’s in-laws encouraged Mary’s parents to come to New York as they were going to have a Bris, a Jewish ceremony that signifies the relationship between a Jewish boy and God. Samuel’s father decided that this was an important milestone and honoring this tradition was crucial, even though Frank would be raised Catholic. This invitation brought the two families together again. Frank’s grandfather coordinated the teaching of Hebrew by Mary’s father to Frank. To say the least, it was an odd situation, but one that managed to thrive.

Sadly, Samuel died at an early age. At that time, Frank had joined the Marines and Mary became his dependent. She traveled everywhere with him and even moved to Japan for a short period. Once Frank married his wife Trudy, Mary lived with them for more than 30 years. It was not until Mary turned 100 that she moved into Beth Sholom Village. When asked if Mary had a difficult time with the transition, Frank replies, “No, we did.”

Beth Sholom Village is a constituent agency of United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.