And the Italian Immigrants
Immigrants from Italy settled in Middletown as early as the 1860s, and for several decades the Italian population here increased slowly. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, the trickle of immigrants became a virtual flood. Hundreds of families from the small town of Melilli, Sicily began arriving in Middletown and soon created a strong, close knit community.
The story of the Melillese emigration began with Angelo Magnano, who came to America from Melilli in the 1880s, and settled in Middletown in 1895, working as a barber. According to tradition Magnano sent letters home to friends and family in Melilli, urging them to come to Middletown, where opportunities were much greater than in their native village.
The Melillese began arriving here just before 1900, their numbers quickly swelling. Between 1900 and 1910, Middletown's population increased twenty percent - thanks in large part to the new settlers from Melilli. For many years, Middletown's Italians worshiped at St. John's Church, whose congregation was predominantly Irish. But the Melillese brought with them the traditions of their hometown which included loyalty to their patron saint, Sebastian.
The feast of St. Sebastian, an annual festival celebrated for generations in Melilli, soon became a tradition for Middletown's Italian residents. In
its early years the feast lasted three days and included fireworks, music, and a parade in which parishioners carried a statue of St Sebastian through the streets.
With funds raised by the feast, Middletown's Italian community began planning their own church, In 1931, it built the present St. Sebastian Church, a replica of the church in Melilli. Skilled craftsmen from the congregation volunteered their services in the building's construction, which included Italian marble inside, a granite exterior, and a tile roof.
At the start of the 21st century, the number of Middletown residents claiming ancestry in Melilli was greater than the entire population of the sister village in Italy.
Kidcity and the Nuns
The cheerful building that now rings with the laughter of hundreds of children every day was once considerably quieter. Kidcity Children's Museum, just a few steps east of here, occupies an 1835 home that served as St. Sebastian's convent for many years.
The house originally stood here beside the church on the corner of Broad and Washington Streets. After St. Sebastian's closed the convent, the founders of Kidcity ranged to have the stately house moved onto Washington Street, and renovated as a children's museum.
Many of Middletown's Italian immigrant families originally settled in the neighborhoods east of
Main Street: Green Street, Rapallo Avenue, and Center Street, among them. Their children often gathered at the Wadsworth Playground at the corner of Court Street and Dekoven Drive. This 1924 photograph captured a group of boys planning some mischief - or maybe just a ballgame. From left to right are Salvatore "Buzzy" Lombardo, Joe Cannata Mike Cannata, John Garofalo, Pat Tomassi, Sal Salafia, "Whitey" Cannata (crouched on stone). Phil Salafia, "Hickey" Cannata, Joe Amato, and Carmelo Lombardo.
Courtesy of the Middlesex County Historical Society; Gift of Hunna Mays
The former St. Sebastian's convent made its way down Washington Street in March of 1997, on its way to becoming Kidcity Children's Museum. Complications during the move forced the old house to spend a night balanced in the middle of Washington Street, but today it is firmly on its foundation, filled with children exploring and enjoying its exhibits.
Photograph by Wayne Fleming; Courtesy of Kidcity
This worn postcard from the early 1900s included images of the original St. Sebastian Church and its statue of the saint. Mellilese immigrant Giuseppina (Mazzotta) Bonaiuto preserved the card from her hometown.
Courtesy of Lynn Fiducia
Today, the Feast of St. Sebastian remains an active and cherished tradition in Middletown. Here, parishioners raise
the saint's statue aloft while white-clad worshippers called "i nuri" - prepare for their barefoot run through the streets as a symbol of their faithfulness.
Photograph By Patrick Raycraft for The Hartford Courant, May 22, 2000