Charles “Charlie” Farruggia isn’t just a resident of North Beach. For many, he is the epitome of the old Italian neighborhood. Known as the “Dean of North Beach Photographers,” an honorary title granted only once before to J.B. Monaco a century ago, Charlie Farruggia has seen it all—and photographed it all.
There is hardly an event in the Italian Community that he hasn’t shot in the past half century, and the walls of his home flanking the stairs leading down to his basement studio bear testimony to his talent and experience.
The ever-humble Farruggia is not the kind of guy to drop names to impress people. He doesn’t have to. Anyone who has descended that hall-of-fame stairway can’t help but notice the overabundance of celebrities and politicians whose images literally cover every square inch of wall space from floor to ceiling.
A list of those one is likely to recognize would be too long to print, but includes entertainers (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Hope, Harry Guardino, and Tony Bennett), as well as politicians (Gerald Ford, Diane Feinstein, Willie Brown, John Burton, George Dukmejian, and Art Agnos), and an odd assortment of photographs and letters with names like Aldo Gucci, Walter Mondale and Billy Graham.
While photography has been Charlie’s trade for decades, he is equally well-known for being the man who has single-handedly kept an Italian tradition alive in San Francisco, the celebration of the Feast of Saint Joseph.
Just before the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Charlie’s grandparents, Vito and Rose Machi, arrived from Sant’Elia, near Palermo in Sicily. Like most Sicilians, they had a life-long devotion to Saint Joseph. They knew that during the Middle Ages, Western Sicily had suffered from drought and famine, and Sicilians resorted to prayer, especially to Saint Joseph. Promising to honor Saint Joseph if he would intercede for them and send rain, they were all too eager to fulfill their end of the bargain when rain fell and Sicily became green with vegetation. For generations, Sicilians built altars to the saint, and celebrated his feast day in a special way, year after year, and century after century.
Continuing the Sicilian tradition, Rosa Machi prayed to Saint Joseph to help her and her family overcome their poverty, and transferred her annual devotional observance to America. She provided an elaborate table, made large quantities of food, and invited all parishioners of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church—the Italian National Cathedral in North Beach—to her home during the period from March 19 until Easter.
In 1978 she passed on this tradition to her daughter Frances Farruggia, and today her grandson, Charlie Farruggia, observes the solemnity each year in his North Beach home.
“It was a bit more formal back in my grandmother’s day,” said Farruggia in a recent interview. “Back then, we had people who paraded from the church to the front door of my grandmother’s house dressed like the Holy Family. When they arrived, they knocked on the door. My grandmother would say, ‘who is it?’ When they said who they were, my grandmother would say, ‘go away!’ They had to knock and ask three times before she would let them in. This tradition goes back to Sicily.”
The old house on Lombard Street is the hottest ticket in town every March 19th. The police block off the whole block so that the guests can park their cars. This year, over 100 people squeezed into the modest-sized house, and in every room, people were standing elbow to elbow. Nobody complained, though. There was not a person attending who wasn’t happy to be there.
Just before the traditional Saint Joseph’s Day Mass that was held in the living room, Farruggia welcomed his guests and dedicated the mass to the memories of his dear friends that he and the community lost this past year, among them, Frank Alioto, Annette Lippi, and Catherine Baccari. After a moment of silence, the Mass began, concelebrated by three Salesian priests from Saints Peter and Paul Church, another tradition that goes back a century. The main celebrant was Father John Itzaina, S.D.B., who, though a senior citizen, was the youngest of the three priests. Flanking him were Father Austin Conterno, S.D.B., and Father Armand Oliveri, S.D.B. Their combined ages add up to more than 250 years, and their cumulative wisdom was self-evident.
Following Mass, luncheon was served. Because Saint Joseph’s Day always falls during the Lenten season, it is traditional to eat non-meat dishes. Charlie Farruggia carried on this tradition as well, with a plethora of breads, pastas, vegetables, and so much fish, the San Francisco Bay seemed to be a bit lower from the loss. Salmon and calamari were plentiful, but the most popular item on the table was once again the pasta con sardi, a traditional Saint Joseph’s Day dish made with pasta and sardines. Tray after tray came from the kitchen, and disappeared from the table almost as fast as it could be replenished. There was, of course, enough wine to float a felucca, and enough dolci to cause even the most hearty to fall into a diabetic coma.
As for the future of the annual celebration, Farruggia has no intention of ending the tradition. Though the average age of the guests continues to rise year after year, so do the attendance numbers. With many good years ahead of him, Charlie Farruggia will no doubt keep the tradition of Saint Joseph’s Day going for many years to come. After all, it’s up to him now to make good on the promise his grandmother made over a century ago.