A Walk through the Years

Looking Back at Rhode Island Catholic Coverage ahead of Bishop Evans’ Consecration


It’s a cool, but dry morning on Federal Hill the day before Thanksgiving as Bishop-elect Robert C. Evans begins a tour of his old neighborhood. “I haven’t been here in years,” he says, as he begins to walk.
In the early 1900s, the Federal Hill area was the destination for a wave of Italian immigrants to settle with their families. Often called the “Heartbeat of Providence,” the area quickly became the hub of one of the largest Italian settlements in the United States. In what the bishop-elect calls, “my end of Federal Hill,” an Italian neighborhood lined with tenement houses, the population was significantly made up of Tuscan immigrants. “My grandfather came from Lucca, a beautiful city in central Tuscany,” he explains. “My grandparents settled in the area [Federal Hill] in 1913.”
A ring tone of “Moon River” sounds out from his cell phone as he walks by the peach-colored house at 19 Spruce St., where he grew up, directly across from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
“I literally grew up in the shadow of the church,” says Bishop-elect Evans. “If they ever needed an altar boy they would call out my name from across the street.”

Around the block, he points to the incline of Bond Street, which is lined with tenement houses. As a kid, the bishop-elect and his friends spent many winter days sliding down the hill.
“This was the only place we could use our sled. This was our winter sport here. The street was our playground. We would also play on the church lawn,” he said.
With the proximity of the parish being so close, the bishop-elect said that most of the neighborhood kids were very active in the life of the Church.
“One time, Msgr. Cavallaro even had the church parking lot flooded for ice skating,” he said. “He became pastor of Mount Carmel Church and he stayed until his retirement for many years. He helped transform and enliven the parish.”
As he passes the home where he spent his youth, a childhood friend crosses the street to pass on good wishes to Bishop-elect Evans on his appointment as auxiliary bishop.
“We grew up together,” Valerie Benedetti says, greeting her former neighbor with a hug and a smile. “Our families were really close. My mom became friendly with his mom. We were always up there, with our mothers always playing cards and cooking.”
Moments later during the walk, Gloria Benedetti, Valerie’s mother leaned out the window of a second floor tenement house to congratulate the long-time friend of the family.
“Gloria! I’ll take a cappuccino with a little biscotti and you better let my mother win at cards next time,” he says, laughing.
The bishop-elect recalled memories of Christmas in the Italian neighborhood with savory foods made from scratch by his mother and grandmother.
“Especially coming from an Italian family, the meal went on for hours,” he said.
“As a kid, the way I always knew that a holiday was coming was when I would get home from school and every surface: couches, beds and tables were covered with butcher’s paper with homemade ravioli and homemade pasta drying out. My Italian grandmother’s ravioli was my favorite.”
Walking down Atwells Avenue, the bishop-elect explains that he remembers the many bakeries, hardware stores, shoe-maker shops, and even a penny candy store that have now been converted into restaurants and cafes.
“My great-aunt lived in a white tenement house on the corner of Atwells and Dean,” he said. “What I liked was downstairs there was an old-style pharmacy where you would sit at the marble countertop and they would make milkshakes for you. We called them cabinets. A coffee cabinet was my favorite then. I think it still is. I‘m a real Rhode Islander that way.”
Bishop-elect Evans also reminisced about some of the first jobs he held, including working at the Rocky Point Shore Dinner Hall at the age of 15.

“It was the world’s largest shore dinner hall,” he reminisces. “I was scrubbing pots and pans. After that, for the next few summers I worked in Catholic cemeteries, cleaning, polishing, landscaping and digging a little bit. Msgr. Cavallaro was the director of Catholic cemeteries so he always made the effort to get some of the boys from the neighborhood to have work during the summers.”
The next stop is Scialo Bakery, a family-owned Federal Hill staple since 1916, to pick up diverse Italian pastries including sfogliatelle, a layered shell -shaped, filled desert native to Italian cuisine.
“I always liked sfogliatelles and they make nice sfogliatelles here,” he says, while waiting in line to pick up some treats for the family to enjoy during the next day’s Thanksgiving dinner. “They have great breads and pastry in here too and lots of other wonderful things.”
DePasquale Square, a landmark on the historic hill, was once an open street market where as a child the bishop-elect and his grandmother would buy fruits and vegetables from pushcarts.
“A lot of people would probably say this is the heart of Federal Hill,” he says.
“It was called Balbo Avenue in those days. When I was a kid, this was a regular street with sidewalks and every Saturday morning my grandmother and I would walk down from our house. The old timers would be haggling with the vendors, yelling and screaming at each other. We always picked up a live chicken from Antonelli’s.”
Over coffee at Pastiche, Bishop-elect Evans reminisces about the fond memories of his youth on Federal Hill, noting that the Italian neighborhood will continue to remain a special place for him.
“We are really spoiled here, we get a lot of things that are right from Italy and even the prepared foods done in an authentic Italian style,” says the bishop elect. “At Atwells Avenue and Dean Street you have the image of the church right there. To me, I could never get away from the image of Mount Carmel Church because it dominated this entire area.”
As the soon-to-be-ordained auxiliary bishop stands on the edge of Federal Hill, he looks out onto the Providence skyline, which he said has changed dramatically over the years.
“I remember coming home from Rome in 1971 and seeing the changes in Providence,” he said. “I was away for two years in Rome and I remember the city looking different at that point. I never really lived on Federal Hill again after I came home. I was ordained a priest in Rome and then my first assignment was in Westerly. After that my home became my parish.”

This article is a special reprint from the December 15, 2009 edition of Rhode Island Catholic.