Columbo Ladies Auxiliary bids farewell

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NAUGATUCK — The Cristoforo Columbo Ladies Auxiliary has dissolved after 45 years of helping local Italian-Americans and preserving their native culture—but it did go out with a bang.

The balance of the group’s bank account at the end of the line, some $1,500, was split down the middle and donated to the Ecumenical Food Bank and the Naugatuck Historical Society.

“We wanted to carry on a tradition of helping each other,” said Rita Ruggerio, a longtime member who’s held the positions of financial secretary, treasurer, and president of the Ladies Auxiliary.

The group was formed in 1964 as an arm of the Crisotoforo Columbo Society, a coalition of men formed at the turn of the century that helped immigrant Italian families overcome the language barrier and provided them with financial aid.

The Ladies Auxiliary’s primary purpose, according to Ruggerio, was simply to help the men. One of their biggest yearly events was a pasta e fagioli dinner, the proceeds from which were given straightaway to the men.

The group donated to all sorts of community funds deemed worthy of support: among them, the high school library, local churches, Kollege Kapers, and the high school marching band.

They also held a flag-raising ceremony at Town Hall each Columbus Day.

But over time, Ruggerio said, as the second generation of Italian-Americans in Naugatuck was born—and the third—the Ladies Auxiliary became more of a social and cultural group than one concerned with philanthropy. There simply was less of a need.

And as members aged and found it more and more difficult to make it to meetings, and new members were few and far between, membership dwindled and it became hard to find leadership. In short, “it came to the point where it was difficult to sustain a viable club,” said Bridget Mariano, another member.

Ruggerio, 88 and, at least judging by appearance and comportment, still going strong, remembers when High Street and the surrounding area were known colloquially as “Little Italy.” She remembers when homeowners didn’t lock their doors and the only thing to fear in the streets at night was the darkness. She remembers Benito Mussolini’s iron grip on her homeland. Most of all, she remembers growing up in Naugatuck, returning to Italy for a brief stint, and her mother’s devastating illness.

Back then, she said, diagnosis was somewhat nebulous; she chalked up her ailment to asthma and a heart condition. The morphine they gave her probably didn’t help her heart problems.

She died at 37.

Ruggerio would have gone without much maternal supervision as a child were it not for the “all the ladies on the hill.” She recalls their cooking, cleaning, and mentorship as her mother lay abed and her father worked throughout the day.

Ruggerio and Mariano not only wanted to help the needy by supplementing the food bank but also aimed to preserve local history. That’s why half of the club’s remaining money went to the Naugatuck Historical Society.

Mariano said that organization is already planning an Italian History Night in March, which will feature Italian food and a new exhibit featuring artifacts donated by the Ladies Auxiliary.