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rock of ages
by Jill Terry
(return to Molise)

more molise....
* Italian Baptists?
* Rock of Ages
* Molise Cuisine
* What do you know about Molise?
* Molise region
* More Italian regions...
By the time he was 16, John Conti's mother had died and his father had disappeared. He'd been raised by a combination of his father and his mother's family. What prospects awaited him in Carovilli, a tiny town in the Isernia province of Molise (then Abruzzo) in the year 1898?

Though he was a man of very few words, he did tell his brothers he was going to America. A stonecutter by trade, he figured that with all the development happening in America, his skills would be put to good use.

Ellis Island greeted him, and John made a brief, temporary home in New York, cutting stone at West Point Academy. For reasons that are now lost, he moved to Oklahoma (before it was a state) and worked in the coalmines. (Many odd jobs were had in-between, such as a stint in a hot dog factory. "Till his dying day," recalls his grandson and namesake, John, "he refused to eat a hot dog because he saw how they were made!") Life in the mines was brutal and the family who provided room and board was unkind, so unkind that John contacted some stonecutter friends from Campobasso (a nearby province in his native Italy), who lived in Rhode Island to ask for help. They responded with both money and a job. Little did John know that they'd also supply him with his bride, their sister, Elena Triangolo.

The Triangolos had begun their own small entrepreneurial adventure - a monument business that showcased their considerable talents with stone. John worked for them until 1907, when he and a partner incorporated a business called Providence Monumental Works on Branch Avenue in Providence. Only a few years later, the partner withdrew and the business was owned by John outright.

Italian immigrants and their offspring did not generally enjoy the luxury of "career choices" - they worked at what they knew, which was generally what their parents knew. So, when Henry was born to John and Elena in 1913, by the time he was six, he helped out as he could at Providence Monumental Works (child labor laws had yet to be realized). Henry married Dorothy Gavigan in the late 1920's and proceeded to have two children of his own, Elaine and John.

But family life didn't agree with Henry, and in 1935, he divorced his wife and abandoned his children, who were left to be raised by Henry's many sisters (Mary, Beatrice, Norma, Alice, and Madeline), his brother, Victor, and his ex-wife, Dorothy. Like his father, young John soon found himself drafted into the service of Providence Monumental Works, and loved every minute of it. He learned the craft of stonecutting without even realizing it.

"Those were great days," John recalls. "The guys who worked for my grandfather were always bringing in food their wives had made and we'd often take a break during the day to sit around, talk, and eat. There was a lot to do, though, so we couldn't spend too much time, but those were the moments I remember most fondly. They even took me with them when they went to the bar after work. I was only 10 or 12, but they treated me like one of them. I don't remember anybody ever getting drunk - it was just a good time."

Meanwhile, Henry went into business for himself only a mile or so from where his family lived. To give himself a head start, he stole his father's major contracts, promising to deliver finished monuments faster and for less money. Though Providence Monumental Works didn't perish from this underhanded strategy, it didn't thrive, either.

Henry maintained no contact with his children until his son John was 16 and old enough to work. He approached John to come work for him. John, needing the money and feeling a familial duty to his father, agreed and would work during most days at Providence Monumental Works and then for a few hours at his father's shop in the afternoons and evenings.

"Even after he hired me, I didn't see him," recollects John today. "He'd leave me money under a statue and a note telling me what needed to be done. I was just labor for him."

John was drafted into the Korean War in 1952, leaving his father and grandfather to do without him for two years. When he returned, however, he resumed his employment with both of them - he especially needed the income when he met his wife-to-be, Claire Asciolla in 1956.

Once John married, his father's payment schedule became erratic and unpredictable. Worse still, business at Providence Monumental Works was slowing down - the elder John was getting older. In 1960, at the age of 81, John Conti died. Providence Monumental Works closed.

Between 1960 and 1969, John tried working at various monument shops, trying to earn a living for his now family of three (Jack and Jill had been born in 1961 and 1958, respectively). By 1969, a notion gnawed at John that he couldn't ignore. He reopened Providence Monumental Works. He's owned and operated it ever since.

"Reopening Providence Monumental Works meant a lot to him," his wife, Claire, says. "For the first few years, we would get people coming in all the time, talking about how honorable and honest his grandfather had been. He really built a reputation for himself and the business, one that John carries forward." A picture of his grandfather and some fellow stonecutters in Carovilli, circa 1895, hangs in the office of Providence Monumental Works to this day, a touching reminder of the modest roots that led to the birth of the business in Providence.

Will his son Jack be the fourth generation in the monument business? "Not likely," says 68-year-old John. "He can make more money doing other work." Does that sadden John? Apparently not. "I just want my kids to be happy. Whether that includes monuments is completely up to them."


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