A LOTTA MEATBALLS

SUN APR 17, 2016.
By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist
Photography by: MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

Today, following the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Frances Cabrini, the downtown-area parish will host a time-honored event: The Spaghetti Dinner. It is a massive feast that has taken weeks to prepare, ungodly quantities of ingredients and lots of volunteers. It will feed several thousand Omahans who will line up for takeout or will dine in, with table service and volunteer wait staff who will say what is arguably the best word in the Italian language: Mangia! Eat! But The Spaghetti Dinner, now in its 60th or so year, is more than a delicious Italian meal. “It isn’t about being Italian,” said volunteer and 1960 graduate Nick Tranisi. “It’s about sharing your culture with other people so you can support the school.” First and foremost, it is a fundraiser, aimed at helping a parish — named for the patron saint of immigrants — serve its latest generation of newcomer families.

At $9 a plate, it will net the parish something like $20,000, which then goes to support the next-door school on South 10th Street. It is one small but important way to keep the doors open at All Saints, where very few families can afford the $1,600-a-year tuition and no one can pay the $8,000-per-child actual cost. [See more: Photos from All Saints and the Spaghetti Dinner’s preparations.] Second, it’s revered tradition. This twice-a-year event is practically holy. Its bible is a stuffed binder of names and phone numbers, recipes, to-do lists and maps where the tables go. And its rituals are carefully spelled out: The meatballs are made from scratch a week in advance. The pork and beef bones get roasted four days ahead. And at 5 a.m. on Friday, the kitchen door opens so that the high priests of The Spaghetti Dinner — about a half-dozen volunteers including Dave Mauro, lovingly dubbed the “token Italian”— can get the sauce going. Third, it is a community-builder, a time when the descendants of those original Italian immigrants who filled the Little Italy neighborhood south of downtown come home.

They’ll see the old faces with the old names like Venditte and Ferro and meet the new faces with the new African names like Paljor and Ayop. The parish also wants to fold in the millennials and empty-nesters moving into the area’s trendy new apartments. The parish school opened in 1955 and underwent several name changes. First, it was St. Philomena’s, just like the church next door. But in 1961, the Vatican questioned the saintliness of the third-century woman and so both church and school got a new name that year: St. Frances Cabrini. She was an immigrant whose mission was to serve Italian immigrants in the United States. The Italian-American nun opened hospitals, schools and orphanages coast to coast and reportedly passed through Omaha. But even Cabrini’s venerable name was erased from the school building amid waves of Catholic school closings and consolidations. St. Frances Cabrini Catholic School became Catholic Southeast Educational Center in 1972 and then, in 1989, it was All Saints.

Around 2000, as new Sudanese refugees were arriving in Omaha, a local nun who started an agency to help them steered new arrivals to All Saints. By 2012 the Archdiocese of Omaha decided the math just wasn’t working and slated the school to close. People like Mike Ferro — a nearly lifelong resident of the neighborhood and 1988 grade-school graduate — protested. “They wanted to close our school,” said Mike, whose father graduated from the same school and who has a daughter there now. “And we said ‘No. You’re not going to close our school.’ ” The archdiocese changed its mind and put All Saints under the same nonprofit that helps underwrite Holy Name and Sacred Heart. This was a massive boost. But the help from Christian Urban Education System covers only about half the school’s $1.2 million budget. St. Frances Cabrini Church pitches in what it can, but it isn’t flush with cash. “I don’t have a secretary, I don’t have a janitor,” the Rev. Damian Zuerlein said, after picking up the church phone on the first ring. “The main ministry is supporting the school.” That ministry is important, he said. Most of the school’s 163 students qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty. About 40 percent of them have Sudanese-born parents. Their parents, often working long hours and multiple jobs, can’t always get to school events or even help with fundraisers like The Spaghetti Dinner.

Yet nearly all of the students graduate from high school and some are now in college. A third of the kids ride what might be the only Catholic school bus in the city. They cram in, three to a seat, on a route that stretches from 30th and Q in South Omaha to 17th and Laird in north Omaha. They lug full backpacks and each child, on the day I rode along, carried home a book. I had to smile at 14-year-old Nyaduel Paljor’s choice: “Dicey’s Song.” The coming-of-age novel was one of my favorites at age 14, too. Nyaduel is the fifth of seven children. She has a younger brother (12) and sister (11) at All Saints. An older sister who went to All Saints now is at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is majoring in social work. Nyaduel will go to Mercy High next year. She said she loves the teachers at All Saints because they are “really nice and caring.” “They try their best to help you understand what you’re learning,” she said.

Given the school’s needs, The Spaghetti Dinner remains as vital as it ever was. And the Ferros — Mike, a steamfitter, and wife Christen, a waitress at Cascio’s — take their responsibility as event organizers very seriously. They have run the event’s prep and cleanup schedule every Sunday in the church bulletin. Preparations began April 2, with baking and frosting cookies. Cleanup will go until 9 p.m. tonight “or when finished,” the schedule says. I caught up with them in the basement kitchen of All Saints school as they directed traffic. “From day one, in 1956, this kitchen was seeing spaghetti dinners,” Mike said. Last week, volunteers used utensils almost as big as canoe oars to stir 100 pounds of chopped onions, browning on the stovetop. Christen opened the walk-in fridge to show floor-to-ceiling containers filled with meatballs. “Nine thousand,” Christen said. Ballparking the event as 60 years old — that’s the number on the T-shirts they’re selling — Mike and Christen have figured that the parish has served 1 million meatballs and 100 tons of spaghetti. It’s hard to wrap your mind around those figures.

Making the nearly 400 gallons of sauce for just one spaghetti dinner requires 144 7-pound cans of tomato paste, 54 cups of salt, 144 cups of sugar and loads of granulated garlic, black pepper and basil. Dave Mauro had to stand on a stool as he stirred one batch of sauce an hour before sunrise on Friday. “The most important thing is, don’t burn the bottom — my nana told me!” said Mauro, who has been making sauce here for 33 years. He and the other sauce makers have it down to a science: They have learned to drape walls in plastic sheeting and the vats in aluminum foil to make cleanup easier. They have streamlined the sauce-making so it takes only 12 hours — instead of 22. (In the old days, they brought in cots and napped in the parish hall.) As they’ve aged, they are eager to see new faces come to help. Because they know that what tastes best about this dinner is not the tangy tomato sauce but the fellowship, neighborhood ties and sense of purpose. Standing in the gym, Mike said school and church have always been the home for immigrants. “That’s the history of this church,” he said, pointing to yellowed news clippings showing Italian parishioners and heaping bowls of pasta. “So it’s rather fitting that the Sudanese find this building as a school they can call home.” Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, erin.grace@owh.com, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH”>
POSTED: SUNDAY, APRIL 17, 2016 12:15 AM | UPDATED: 12:21 AM, SUN APR 17, 2016.
By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist

[See more: Photos from All Saints and the Spaghetti Dinner’s preparations.]

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