JOHNSTON — As parishioners tasted the food and enjoyed the camaraderie at Our Lady of Grace Church’s annual Primavera event on Sunday, April 30, Emma Pezza, the day’s honorary grand marshal, sat comfortably at the head of a table surrounded by family and friends. The guest of honor was well-known to her fellow parishioners and looked right at home in the crowded hall, unsurprising given her long history with the parish. Pezza, who recently celebrated her 106th birthday, has attended Our Lady of Grace for more than 85 years.
“I never thought I’d get this celebration,” she told Rhode Island Catholic during the event.
Our Lady of Grace’s oldest parishioner was born on March 30, 1911, and baptized at the Church of the Holy Ghost on Federal Hill. A lifelong resident of Johnston, she has lived in the same house for 73 years and helped run her family’s construction business until she retired at the age of 93. She and her husband, Carmine, started the business in 1935, four years after they were married at Our Lady of Grace. It was Pezza’s brother who first introduced the couple.
“My brother fixed me up with him,” she reminisced. “He carried a gift for me in his pocket for two months. A beautiful watch.”
Pezza has two children, six grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren. She spent the afternoon of the Primavera event surrounded, as usual, by family, the head of five generations that have remained close to their grandmother and their parish roots. She herself attends Mass every Sunday, though she regrets she is not able to participate in as many family events as she once did due to limited mobility.
“I have to use a walker. What do you expect at 106,” she said.
Still, Pezza maintains an active lifestyle, living at home with her daughter and son-in-law and going out to play cards every Wednesday. At home, she enjoys watching her favorite TV shows, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” According to her daughter, Ginny Squizzero, Pezza has been an immense help in caring for Squizzero’s husband, who had a stroke 10 years ago, both in her activities around the house and in her daily prayers.
“She prays for him constantly. She’s a very religious person. If you can’t find my mother, she’s in her room praying,” she said.
According to her grandchildren, Pezza can also usually be found in the kitchen, where she continues to cook up the Italian specialties that have been served at the family table for decades. Her homemade cavatelli is a longstanding favorite, while her apple pie recipe continues to win awards at competitions.
“When we come over, she’s always cooking something, even if we’re not hungry,” said Nicole Squizzero, her great-granddaughter. “Everybody loves her meatballs. It’s famous. Nobody can make meatballs like my grandma.”
Father Peter Gower, pastor at Our Lady of Grace, said the community was happy to celebrate the birthday of its oldest parishioner at the annual food and wine-tasting event. Pezza, he said, is a faithful member of the parish and has been generous in contributing her time and talents over the years.
“Very sharp, feisty and positive is how I would describe Emma Pezza,” he said. “Truly a joy to be around and she continues to celebrate the Eucharist with us each and every week. Emma is an inspiration to the community. It’s a privilege to have her as a friend of the church.”
Pezza’s infectious joy was on full display as she greeted her many well-wishers at her birthday event, even receiving a congratulatory citation from Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena. The 106-year-old, who said her secret to a long life is a glass of wine once a day and was once known to go out dancing twice a week with her husband, is proof that some of the greatest joys of life can be experienced in old age.
“What can I say about her, she’s my idol,” said Ginny. “She’s just our inspiration. Strong woman, let me tell you, strong woman.”