Celebrating faith, food and community

A behind-the-scenes look at the people who put on the Port Richmond festival that serves more than 5,000 meatballs

Labor of love: (From l) Gloria Discher, Argia Manso and Lucy McDonnell stand in the kitchen as the meatballs and gravy are prepared.

By Lindsey Nolen

Upon entering the school of Mother of Divine Grace Parish in the days and weeks leading up to its 2017 Italian Festival, the kitchen and hall could be seen filled with volunteers helping to prepare for this annual fundraiser. What are they cooking?
To begin with, 5,675 meatballs.
A longstanding tradition at the Mother of Divine Grace, the Italian Festival is designed to celebrate the parish’s rich Italian heritage (as it was once exclusively Italian) and its pride, while raising funds for its numerous financial obligations. Thus, it has been held each year for decades, and this year took place on Thursday, June 1 through Saturday, June 3, and will open again from Thursday, June 8 through Saturday, June 10, with yard games beginning at 6 p.m., the church opening for dinner from roughly 7 to 8 p.m (or until the food sells out).
Like any true Italian dish, many of the recipes served at this festival have been passed down to parish members from generations before them.
Included in these recipe-holders is Argia Manso, who moved to America from Abruzzi, Italy, in 1959. Spearheading the making of the homemade meatballs, spaghetti, gravy and pizzas each year, she explains for her, volunteering at the festival each year has helped her find meaning in the community.
“The first year I came [to Port Richmond] I was asked to come work here,” Manso, who initially settled in a house on Ann Street, said. “I love the kitchen and to cook. I had always watched my mother cook, but when I came here I starting making everything more my way.”
Manso continued that since beginning to volunteer her time at the Italian festival 59 years ago, she has witnessed the community come to cherish it; even asking her when they see her at ShopRite how much longer until the next. To keep these festival goers happy, and full, this year she has organized the cooking of 500 pounds of ground meat for her meatballs, in addition to 240 pounds of pasta.
Yet, while Manso largely mans the kitchen operations, the festival would not be possible without its 80 to 100 volunteers a night, and parish organizers.
Guiding the team, 36-year parish member Pat D’angelo was asked to be the leader of the coordinators roughly seven years ago by Father Walter Benn. Since then, she does her part by “having a finger on the event’s pulse,” organizing monthly meetings and assigning individual responsibilities.
“We expect thousands of people over the six nights,” D’angelo said. “People come back each year to enjoy the dinner, games, things for kids and seeing past and present parish members.”
Similarly, the event’s food coordinator, Debbie Valentino-Clegg, explained for her, the event is and always has been about togetherness and the family-element the festival creates and perpetuates. In her experience, it was her grandparents’ and then parents’ involvement and influence that still leads to her volunteer her time today.

Lifelong Mother of Divine Grace parish member, Terry Wahl, prepares rolls for the Italian Festival.

“Since I started volunteering here when I was 14. I’ve worked in the food court and bar, as a waitress, have done dishes, stocked games and helped staff the gambling hall,” Valentine-Clegg said. “I’ve hit every base. My mother would be incredibly happy that I’m still a part of the event, because at some point she was once in my position.”
Like Valentine-Clegg, many other members of the parish community look to this event to keep the bond strong throughout Mother of Divine Grace. Without it, the parish youth may never understand where their history stems from and the traditions that have intentionally continued to be brought down through the generations. Whether it be Manso’s meatballs and gravy, or the children’s yard games, each year attendees of the Italian Festival get to use this event to proudly celebrate a combination of faith, food and community.