November, the month that begins with All Saints Day (Nov. 1), a feast which had its beginnings in the Christian churches of the fifth and sixth centuries where we celebrate and remember all saints canonized or not and might include some of our relatives and friends of whom it was said “era una santa” (she was a saint) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2), a feast when early Christians, like their pagan ancestors, remembered their dead on certain days of the year, is a good time to remember the history of the Italian Cemetery.
Located in thirty-five acres of architectural landscaped grounds in Colma, California, established in San Francisco by the Italian Mutual Benevolent Association in 1879 and beautifully upgraded through the years, the Italian Cemetery continues to play a central role in the life of the Italian-American community.
The Italian Mutual Benevolent Association of San Francisco (Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza), the oldest continuously operating Italian American Benevolent organization in the United States recently celebrated the 155thanniversary of its founding, October 17, 1858.
I am truly impressed by the fact that the early founders of the Italian Mutual Benevolent Association were able to set aside petty differences and unite behind common goals, thereby, providing assistance to families in need from birth to burial.
From Italy they came seeking California’s dream: opportunity, wealth and prosperity. There were those, unfortunately, who did not find the fortune they were seeking. So, to provide for the indigent sick and for the burials of the dead, Italians established benevolent societies. Initially, the Italian Mutual Benevolent Association, organized October 17, 1858, cared for the indigent sick. Around the turn of the century, however, the Association opened the Italian cemetery. The new cemetery became the major work of the Italian Mutual Benevolent Association, a source of ethnic pride, and a visible reminder of those Italian-Americans who lived and died in the San Francisco Bay area. The Italian Mutual Benevolent Association, led originally by Nicholas Larco, Federico Biesta and F. Seregni (president, vice president and secretary, respectively), functioned as a nineteen-century social service organization.
From 1858 to 1862 it provided physicians for the routine care. Then, in 1862, the Society opened a small temporary Italian Hospital at the corner of Folson and Third Streets with Dr. A. Rottanzi in charge. Within a short time, the hospital closed and St. Mary’s provided care for the serious illness. On June 13, 1869, la Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza opened a second hospital. Located in the Mission District at Dale and Vale Streets, the structure cost $46,000. The hospital provided medical care until 1873.
When the services ended at the Italian Hospital, the Society sent the critically ill to St. Mary’s.
With the closing of the hospital, the Society began to shift its emphasis. Health services continued, but the establishment of an Italian Cemetery became a new goal. With Holy Cross (1887) leading the movement, San Francisco cemeteries were going to Colma. And on December 31, 1888 the Society obtained 3-1/2 parcels of land there, which belonged to H.C. Robinson and his wife, for the establishment of the cemetery. They also purchased additional land along F Street in Colma and the Italian Cemetery opened late 1889. The new necropolis maintained the homeland tradition of elaborately designed tombs, often with photographs of the departed.
The inscriptions also show the Catholic tradition and the hope for eternal life “E aspetto la resurrezione dei morti e la vita del mondo che verrà” (The Credo). But most important of all, the cemetery provided psychological reassurance for those that have left Italy. Now in death, they could reside with their fellow “paesani” and friends. During the first decade of the 1900s, the Cemetery continued to grow. Additional land was purchased and the Cemetery set its boundaries: F Street, the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, and a neighboring cemetery, Eternal Home. The Society set up the cemetery avenues, laid out family plots, and erected a receiving vault by 1905.
The following year, the 1906 earthquake and fire affected both the Society and Cemetery. The fire destroyed the Society’s records, while the earthquake damaged the Cemetery’s receiving vault. The damaged receiving vault required considerable reconstruction at a cost of $15,000. After the earthquake and fire, activities at the Cemetery continued routinely, burials and regular visits by families.
During the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, the San Mateo Electric Railroad provided transportation to Colma and families would often spend a Sunday afternoon visiting the Cemetery and caring for their plots. Even the growing use of the automobile did not change the tradition. It became a Sunday afternoon drive to the Cemetery. World War II, the sub-urbanization of the Bay Area, and television did, however, bring a change to the tradition. The War caused many Italians to de-emphasize their ethnic heritage and to stress their American-ness.
The Italian Cemetery reflected the changes, old family traditions declined, and fewer and fewer families visited the Cemetery regularly. The post WWII period saw other changes at the Cemetery. In June 1940, amended articles of incorporation gave la Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza existence in perpetuity.
Additional land for the Cemetery was purchased and an outdoor mausoleum was erected in 1956. The period of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s brought changes as well to the Cemetery’s design to provide it with the space to meet future needs. The Italian Cemetery houses the remains of the prominent and the not-so-prominent who have lived in the San Francisco area. The list of prominent Italians includes individuals like John F. Fugazi, the banker; Ettore Patrizi, editor ofL’Italia; and Felix Castagnola and Joe V. Arata, two presidents of the Society; and families such as the Paladini and the Sabella, famous in the fishing industry. A list of other immigrant families might include such names as De Martini, Ruffino, Ingrassia, Leverone, Cavagnaro, Canole, Canepa, Garbarino, Schivo, and Casanova, to mention a few, featuring beautiful architecturally acclaimed mausoleums and outdoor gardens.
The Italian Cemetery is without a doubt the most beautiful of all Italian cemeteries in the United States. All are also welcome to visit their modern chapel where holy masses are celebrated on Memorial Day and All Souls Day. You, your family and friends are cordially invited to visit and attend these religious services. 540 F Street, Colma, or telephone for more information (650) 755-1511. The Italian Cemetery stands today as a major accomplishment of la Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza and a reminder of the Italian heritage in the San Francisco Bay Area.