Looking Back: Italian Immigrants Build Church in Santa Clara Valley

In July of 1904, the Santa Clara Valley’s new, and conscientious, immigrant citizens began working together with one goal in mind: to construct a lavish church that would embody the spirit of their newly established Italian community.

It would be a church that represented century-old traditions and beliefs; it would exemplify hope and prosperity. Architect Alberto Port would construct the church. It would be located in the heart of the community at River and San Fernando Streets. Its design would be a small duplicate of the great St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

The donations for this monumental task came form the valley’s prune orchards, fields, and the emerging fruit industry.

My Grandparents, Maria and Antonio Curci, like their fellow immigrants, worked long hard hours in the orchards and canneries of the valley, contributing much of their time and earnings toward the completion of this grand project. Their dream for a community church was realized on October 6th, 1905.

stained glass window
The Stained Glass Window Donated to The Holy Family Church By My Grateful Grandmother, in Gratitude for The Safe Return of Her 5 Sons From WW II

Heavy contributors to the church included the Christian Mothers, Holy Name Society, Italian Catholic Federation, and the Holy Family sisters.

Grandma Maria and Grandpa Antonio were among the many young couples to marry in the Holy Family church. The day of her wedding, Grandma Maria’s heart beat fast with excitement as the moment of the ceremony drew near. As a devout young catholic, she had taken communion earlier that day at the rail of the Holy Family Church. Her impeccable spirit, now as pure and white as the bibbed collars worn by the parish nuns.

The year was 1910; the spectacular church was filled to capacity with community well wishers who had come to bestow their blessings upon the handsome young couple. Friends and onlookers crowded the church steps standing three-deep in doorways to witness the holy sacrament.

A wedding among the young immigrant community was a welcome celebration. The event represented a continuity of their people. Adhering to their sacred beliefs and family traditions, Maria and Antonio recited their marriage vows in the sanctity of the Holy Family church. And there, for the next 60 years, their descendants would also attend Sunday mass and receive the holy Sacraments.

During the early years of their marriage, Grandpa Antonio went to work laying track for the city railroad lines. Work was scarce, and, like many immigrant workers, he was fearful of loosing his job; refusing to miss even a day’s work though he was suffering from influenza.

His condition worsened and he developed double pneumonia. At the tender age of 32, just 6 years after his wedding day, Grandpa Antonio passed away leaving Grandma Maria a widow with two children and one on the way. It was during this time of her life that Grandma experienced her greatest comfort at the prayer rail of the Holy Family church. Unable to find work, her children sick with influenza and the bank about to foreclose on her home, she found courage and inspiration while praying to her patron Saint Mary.

With a prayer in her heart, and her rosary beads in her hand, Grandma Maria attempted one last time to find work on the cannery lines.

That morning, through coincidence or divine intervention, a new foreman was on the job. He felt compassion for grandma’s plight, and gave her a spot on his cannery line. After a few years on the job, a romance blossomed between Grandma and the cannery foreman, Tony Dinapoli. He was a widower with six children who greatly admired Grandma’s dedication to her family. They were later married in the Holy Family Church and together raised a total of 12 children.

My Grandparents on Their Wedding Day

I remember once asking my Grandma Maria why it was so important to her people that they construct such a lavish cathedral when many of them barely had enough food to eat. Grandma answered with an Old Italian saying. Translated it means: “Out of our habits grow our character, on our character we build our destiny.” The church had come to represent the spirit and character of these hardworking young immigrants, who they were, and what they would become. It stood, for many years as a tribute to the good habits and fine character of a brave and tenacious people.

holy family church
The Holy Family Church my grandparents helped construct and were married in.

What the 1906 San Francisco earthquake couldn’t do to the church, a bulldozer accomplished in 1960 when the grandiose church was leveled to make way for the city’s Guadalupe expressway.

Another church would soon take in its place and like its namesake, the new Holy Family Church, located on Pearl Avenue, arose like a phoenix out of an orchard of prune trees. The original bell that rang for so many years from the old church belfry is now preserved in a revered spot at the new location. The new Holy Family Church may not be as ostentatious as its namesake, or as lavish with artifacts as the original, but its spiritual foundation remains equally as strong.

My generation shares a deep love and respect for our immigrant grandparents, for our grandfathers who worked two jobs and sharecropped the local ranches and for our grandmothers who spent long hours on the cannery lines, earning 5 cents a bucket cutting ‘cots and tomatoes so their kids could climb out of poverty and take their place in society.

The success of the valley and the generations that followed is a tribute to their dedication. Today, our once fruitful valley has become known for its microchip production.

I suspect there would be no Silicon Valley if not for the bounty given our economy by our early valley orchardists. Valley ranchers, along with the canneries, packing plants and immigrant labor, all worked in separate ways to achieve together what we all enjoy today. It is a valley rich in family traditions and agricultural history.

Cookie Curci
Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a "Remember When" column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of "Mother's Miracle" books ( Morrow books).She has a short story in the new book "ELVIS", Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman's World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L'italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.