At the turn of the previous century, Highwood and Highland Park were very different places than they are today. The streets bustled with a working class that included Swedes, Germans, Irish and an early sprinkling of Italians. The Italian men that came to the Northern suburbs knew there was work other than coal mining, which enabled them to improve their family’s future. As Adria Bernardi states in “Houses with Names,” the first known Italian was a Venetian in Highland Park just after 1900. The Modenesi came shortly thereafter. One by one, calling for their relatives from back home because there was so much work and not enough trained workers to fill the positions. It was natural for a bricklayer or stonemason to write for his brother, cousin or friend to share the news that they too could improve their lives.
In those days, there was no healthcare system as we know today. Workman’s comp and paid sick leave were also non-existent. If a man was injured or sick, he just stayed home, losing pay until he was well enough to return to work. Just as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” so was the impetus to create a Mutual Aid Society, and hence the local Modenese Society was born. In Highwood, this self-insurance organization was created by Modenese men to care for one another in the event of an unforeseen disruption in employment. Dues was collected from members in order to have a fund to pay out benefits when necessary. A man might receive $20 week to help him get along. He could feed himself and his family and pay a few bills. Of course, in those days, $20 went a lot farther than it does today. There was even a death benefit established, with up to $750 being paid to his beneficiaries. And so the society existed and assisted its members for a century. Eventually, the organization opened membership to any Italian male, no matter what part of Italy he was from. Today our Modenese Society is the oldest continuous organization of its sort in the world!
Since its inception, the Society continued to grow and serve the Italian community in a variety of ways. Annual social events included a dinner dance, which was very popular, as was a summer picnic for members and their families. There was also a collaboration with the Highwood Bocce Ball Club to fly in Santa Claus from the North Pole to hand out gifts to children and grandchildren. On Easter Sunday, families from both organizations participate in the game of cocetto, an Easter egg cracking competition.
However, in the last decade, the original purpose of the Society became somewhat outdated and the membership began to wane as it aged. The society decided it needed to find ways to remain pertinent to the local Italian population, which was constantly changing and dispersing. Members debated how to bring in the younger generation, how to keep people involved and ultimately grow the organization for its own future viability. As we know, Italians have sometimes been known to have strong opinions, so it wasn’t surprising that the subject of opening up the membership to women was a heated debate. There were members in favor and plenty of members against. It is understandable. There were many issues to iron out. However, eventually, it was voted upon, and in the effort to increase membership and turn the club into a social organization from its previous Mutual Aid Society status, the majority voted to allow Italian women to join.
The talk among women in our community was unbelievable. They were excited and intrigued, most probably stemming from the previous “forbidden” status. Curiosity and the desire to belong to an organization with a long history and honorable reputation brought in women and more men to join. And with this new membership came new ideas for bringing our community together to augment the already existing traditions of the Modenese Society.
Commonly, Highwood and Highland Park Italians have always felt separated from Chicago Italians, mainly by distance. There had previously never been an organized involvement with Chicago’s Columbus Day Parade until Toni Farioli suggested and organized it. She made it happen, and people participated. Edmea Ori wanted to bring the traditional La Befana celebration from her hometown of Sant’Anna Pelago to the North Shore, so she and her family organized and put it together. Families participated and now it’s a new Modenese Society tradition. Angelo Biondi organized speakers and presentations to expand the awareness of the membership regarding cultural and culinary matters. Plenty of women worked to bring culinary treasures to meetings. They have made pasta fritte (Fried Bread Dough), polenta, homemade taglitelle alla Bolognese and many more Italian food specialties for members to enjoy. There have been chestnuts and brulee for Christmas meetings and special cookies and cakes at Easter time and for St. Joseph’s Day. Men and women continue to work together to make meetings and events wonderful occasions to enjoy.
Previous to membership changes, I was told that meeting attendance had dwindled to sometimes as few as 20 members or less. Today, it isn’t unusual to host 40 to 60 members, often even more. In the last few years, the club turned into a gathering place for friends who rarely saw each other. Commonly, I hear women asking each other, “Are you going to the meeting Thursday?” They are excited and bring that excitement with them. Their energy has been contagious to everyone. I believe it’s a reflection of our common Italian personality. When one of us has an idea and needs a little help to make it happen, we don’t just help, we get others involved, too. It becomes a social gathering, with food, wine, music and celebration. Leave it to us Italians to make a gathering a gourmet indulgent celebration!
The Modenese Society has evolved and will continue to evolve with new and exciting projects and events to come. Most recently, they have partnered with the City of Highland Park’s Sister Cities organization to facilitate the fostering of a relationship with Highland Park’s sister city, Modena. Plans are being laid for cultural, musical and student exchanges.
Personally, I am very proud to be a member of the Modenese Society. I share the strong desire to help the club continue to grow, serving the membership community, fostering a sense of belonging for the Italian population of our area. While I am proud to be an American, in a different way, I am even prouder of my Italian heritage. I feel it makes us truly special as individuals to come from this bloodline. I am honored to belong to the Modenese Society and I honor the men who have been members for much longer than I. Let’s help keep up the good work and continue the viability of the organization for a long time so that future generations of Italians have a place to maintain their culture and traditions as well.
For more information on becoming a member of the Modenese Society, please contact President Carl Bernardi at 847-432-1155.
If you have a story to share about our North Shore Italians, please contact me at email@example.com. I’d love to share it with others.