At a time of the year when many churches roll out all the stops to celebrate Christmas, one church in Northside San Jose is grateful to be hosting any services at all. Last month, a fire destroyed the sanctuary of Holy Cross, a landmark Roman Catholic church that’s served working class immigrants in San Jose for four generations.
What do you expect to find outside Sunday mass just a few weeks after a church burns? A mariachi band playing? Children playing soccer in the alleyway? Church ladies serving handmade tortillas and menudo for parishioners?
The fire left the other buildings on the property untouched. There are still five masses every Sunday, in English, Spanish and Italian in Scalabrini Hall.
The sound system may not be ideal. The bells may be pre-recorded. The bingo game display board makes a funny back drop to the makeshift altar. But this service is as precious to the congregation as if it were happening in the church itself.
Holy Cross is one of a handful of churches in California that still offer masses in Italian. Back when Santa Clara Valley was called the Valley of Heart’s Delight, thousands of Italians – especially Southern Italians - came here to work the farms, ranches and wineries. They settled in Northside San Jose.
Katarina Marcoccia got married at Holy Cross in 1967. I start to ask what she likes about this church when she bursts into tears. Her kids took their first communion here. Her grandmother came here. Go somewhere else for mass? Out of the question. For her and many others. "Yeah, I’m very happy to see everybody around, to help ‘em out," Marcoccia says.
71 year-old Virginia Sacchi commutes from the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose. The fire threw her off guard. “I could not believe it. I could not believe it. But God say this had to happen, but this church will be builded again. We just kind of pray and do for the best.”
These days, there are fewer Italians in the congregation and many more Filipinos and Mexicans: 600 families in all call, according to Father Firmo Mantovani. Over the mariachi band that starts to play outside now that the last mass is over, Father Mantovani explains it’s not clear whether the church building is a partial or total loss. Two teams of architects are evaluating the situation and are expected to report back within a couple of months.
"We haven’t actually started the fundraising," Father Mantovani says, "because we do not know how the reconstruction is going to be. And also we have insurance helping us. But donations are already starting and people are very generous."
Northside San Jose is a working class neighborhood. The donations may not be enough to cover the cost of what insurance doesn’t cover. Money is coming from outside the congregation, however, including people who may not attend church regularly, but remember going there when growing up.
This is a church that inspires loyalty. Many who spent time there or have relatives who did have posted photos for each other on a Facebook group called Holy Cross Church Memories.
One Family Remembers
Not too far across town, the Quartuccio family sits sit down at a table laden with garlic bread, baked eggplant, rigatoni with sausage and cheese, and for desert…. cuidate (pronounced quee-DAH-tay), Sicilian fig cookies made special for Christmas. Janet Salciccia made them using a secret family recipe, and no, she's not sharing it.
Joseph, Janet, Maryann and Anthony Jr. have come together to reflect on a Little Italy long gone, even before the fire. Anthony Jr. , a conductor for Opera San Jose, explains what Holy Cross meant to his parents and grandparents. "When you’re an Italian-American immigrant, you come here with nothing, and you’re working over there picking prunes all day. The only place you find a little hope and solace for your family, and stability, is in the church: the prayer services, and all the meetings, the pasta feeds, and everything else. It was a center. It was an oasis."
Their father, Anthony Quartuccio, immigrated here from Monreale, Sicily in the 1930s. His first job was picking prunes on bended knees. "All that beautiful earth," exclaims Joe Quartuccio, who works at Original Joe’s, the Italian steak house downtown. "My father used to call it the richest earth in the world. You can plant anything in this valley. And a lot of the Italians migrated here because of that reason."
Their eyes all light up thinking of when they were children. It's a measure of the joy of that childhood that they all still live in San Jose now. Many American-born Italians moved on and out, but there are still numerous organizations that keep the flame of memory alive in San Jose, including Sons of Sicily, the Sicilian Sisterhood, and of course, Holy Cross.
Back in the late 1970s, Anthony Quartuccio painted the mural of Jesus hovering over Jerusalem in the cupola. His day job was delivering mail at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, but his passion was painting, and the longer he stuck to it, the bigger the commissions he got.
Maryann Quartuccio, who works for the locally well-known Cortese family, was 15 or 16 when she watched her father paint the panels in in the kitchen. "He spent an entire month on the face of Jesus alone," she recalls. "He was so adamant about making that perfect. And believe it or not, he did. That face of Christ just follows you. And it was devastating to know that was destroyed."
Anthony Jr. ran to the church on the day of the fire to see for himself. As he stood in the street crying, people driving by recognized him. “People rolled down the window. ‘Hey, Quartuccio! Did they save your father’s painting?’”
That mural is gone forever. What the Quartuccios pray for now is the future of the church-the soul, as they see it, of Northside San Jose.
Holy Cross Church says anyone interested in supporting the rebuilding effort can contact the church by mail at Holy Cross Church, Building Fund, 580 Jackson Street, San Jose, CA 95112.