Soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the Italian community of The Flats attended Mass in various churches in New Haven, including St. Anthony’s on Washington Avenue, St. Michael’s on Wooster Square, and St. Ann’s in Hamden. By 1920, most families found St. Ann’s to be the choice church. I can imagine a caravan of four or five family vehicles traveling from The Flats to Highwood in Hamden to attend Mass at St. Ann’s. It would have been a pleasant Sunday morning drive down Valley Street and over to Fitch Street and on to Arch Street in Hamden. (Early Mass transit?)
In 1923, a delegation was sent to the Archdiocese of Hartford to request permission to build a mission church in Woodbridge, to be administered by the pastor of St. Ann’s Church. This was granted and work began on the new church early in 1924. The land for the new church was generously donated by Pasquale and Annina Perrotti and was deeded to the church in June of 1924. The parishioners donated money or their particular trade or talent to the construction of the church, and all the cement was donated by the Bertolini brothers.
In November 1924, the church was dedicated, and Masses were said in the basement while the unfinished upper level was used for storage and as the church hall. At that time, the stairs at the front entry led down to the basement, and access to the upper level was gained from both sides of the building. Also, the bell was located at the rear of the church and was rung on Sundays and holy days. On March 30, 1952, the parishioners, led by Father Raymond O’Callaghan, rededicated the church in celebration of the completion of the upper level as the new church proper. The bell was relocated to the front of the church and a belfry was added. Again, many parishioners pitched in to help transform the upper level to what it is today, and it’s still as enchanting as it was then.
Finally, on October `17, 1957, the archbishop authorized the establishment of the Assumption Parish, and we became independent from St. Ann’s. Soon, a rectory was needed, and my grandmother, Maria Potenziani, agreed to sell her home to the church as it was located across the street from the church, and it would be convenient for the new priest and for church business.
Up until 1963, two feasts were simultaneously celebrated every August around the fifteen of the month in The Flats. The Church of the Assumption feast was located on the grass parking area next to the church, and a blue draped statue of the Virgin Mary was placed by the front entry of the church. Brown canvas tents lined both sides of the lot offering games of chance for prizes, fried pizza dough, barbecued chicken, sausage and peppers, corn, etc.
A short quarter mile down Litchfield Turnpike, a second feast sponsored by the Santa Maria Assunta Society, under the direction of the Pasquale Perrotti family, was celebrated. Both feasts ran for four nights (sometimes five) and ended with a spectacular fireworks display on the final night paid for by the Perrotti family. It was not uncommon for two pyrotechnic companies to be employed with a cash prize going to the best display.
This feast was much large than the one at the Mother Church, and it occupied both sides of the West River with Merritt Avenue as the access. Besides all the food and rides, there were other attractions. There was a large bandstand which was set up across the West River with Italian music playing and sometimes a short fat lady singing requests.
Another event was the climbing of the grease pole. This was a one-night attraction open to anyone, and the object was to retrieve three hundred dollars in a tin box which was nailed to the top of a thirty-five foot cedar pole which was covered with grease from top to bottom. One year, TV western star Clint Walker was in attendance and he gave it an unsuccessful try. Many local teens gave it a try, sometimes working in tandem to reach the tin box. Only once do I remember them getting the prize.
My grandparents, Sante and Maria Potenziani, lived across the street from the Mother Church since before it was built. This was convenient, especially for me. During feast week, my grandmother’s house was my second home, as well as a station for mixing pizza dough for the feast, a public bathroom, and a phone for anyone’s use. She had a small area by her garden where people could park their cars for fifty cents. My job was to collect the money until all twelve or so spaces were filled, then split the proceeds with her, and spend the rest of the evening at both feasts until my half of the money had been exchanged for food, games and rides. To me, it was like having the circus come to town once a year and setting up in my front yard.
The first time the feast was celebrated in The Flats was around 1917, six years before the Mother Church was built. It was held on a vacant lot by the corner of Litchfield Turnpike and Bradley Road on the north side. It was organized by local farmers including Dominick Amato and his son Dominic, Pasquale Perrotti and his brother Frank, and Luigi DeGennaro. After the Mother Church was built in 1923, the celebration was relocated to the parking area adjacent to the church.
Feast Procession—corner of Bradley Rd. and Litchfield Turnpike—circa 1953