A tribute to
"When a funeral crosses your path, you will experience tragedy . . .”
Born on September 19, 1898 in Cuggiono, in the province of Milan, Italy, Theresa Gaetana Puricelli was the firstborn child of Francesco Sebastiano Puricelli and Enrichetta Brasca Puricelli. In December of 1900, the young family was among the many that left Cuggiono and came to St. Louis with the dream of a better life.
Theresa attended school at St. Ambrose, but only completed through the sixth grade. She and her younger sister, Emma, worked at the Liggett-Meyers tobacco factory as tobacco stemmers. It is our understanding that this was necessary in order for the family to survive.
Theresa married her first husband, Battista Sola, when she was just seventeen. It is likely that this was an arranged marriage. Upon entering St. Ambrose for her wedding, a funeral was leaving the church. An elderly Italian woman remarked to a companion, “I would not want to be that girl (Theresa); she will have tragedy all her life”. (Apparently this is an old Italian saying)
This quickly proved to be a foreshadowing of things to come.
The young couple began their married life in a rented home in the “ridge” area of the Hill. Just 10 months later, Theresa’s first son Giuseppino Sola, was born 3 months premature. The tiny infant did manage to live for 3 days. Considering the year was 1916, that was something of a miracle. However, Theresa buried her firstborn child on her own 18th birthday.
Theresa soon became pregnant again. But exactly six months after burying her first baby, her husband, Battista Sola, died from pneumonia. Sola had been a molder by trade at Scullin-Gallagher Steel. For the second time in just six months, Theresa finds herself burying a loved one at Sts. Peter and Paul cemetery.
Now a widow, three months pregnant and alone, Theresa continued to hold her head high. She maintained her faith in God and the life inside her began to stir. One year and one day after the birth of her first son, Theresa gave birth to her second son, Battista Giuseppe Sola (Bob).
Not long after Bob was born, Theresa met a young man named Gaetano (Tom) Moroni and they began courting. Moroni had tuberculosis and Theresa’s father did not want her to marry him because he was ill. But she insisted that she was going to marry him because the banns were already published at the church. They were married November 30, 1918.
Tom’s health deteriorated during their 4 year marriage. In 1922, the doctors could do no more for him, and Tom said that he wanted to go back to Italy to “Die in the old country”. Being the loving woman Theresa was, she left young Bob with her mother, and gathered as much money as she could. The couple set off for Italy. They had to pay the ship’s purser extra money to allow Tom to board, and tried to hide his illness from others while aboard the ship. Eventually they got Moroni back “home”, where he passed away in November of 1922. Theresa was detained in Italy for several months after his death, possibly due to the exposure to tuberculosis. Theresa was a widow for a second time at the young age of 24.
In 1923, Theresa’s life would change yet again when she met Jonah Foth. Theresa and Jonah married in August of 1923 and lived on the Hill. Shortly after their marriage, Jonah adopted young Bob, and Bob's surname was changed to Foth. A construction laborer by trade, Jonah helped build many of the houses still standing on the Hill. Theresa was a very devoted and loving wife and mother.
It seemed that perhaps good fortune had finally smiled upon her.
In the post-prohibition years, Jonah and Theresa were partners in a family saloon business at the corner of Spring and Cass with Theresa’s sister Rosa and Rosa’s husband Emil Colombo, they lived above the saloon in an apartment.
On October 12, 1942, tragedy struck yet again. While preparing dinner, Theresa was informed that Jonah had suffered a massive heart attack at a construction site and fallen through a skylight and had died.
Theresa Puricelli Foth, at age 44, was widowed three times and had lost one child shortly after birth as well as losing a sister as a young child. Thirteen months after Jonah’s death, Theresa’s father, Frank, died.
After burying her husband and her father, Theresa continued to assist in the family business for many years. The saloon became a gathering place for the family, several family members even had wedding pictures taken there.
After Mary, her youngest sibling, was married in 1953, Theresa moved to Dempsey Avenue to care for her Mother. Theresa became caregiver for the entire family, not only her mother, but the babies too. She would stay with her sisters when they were sick or when they needed assistance.
In 1961, Theresa’s brother Tom died from cancer at the age of 47. Her mother, Enrichetta, died at age 89 in 1968. Suddenly, two months before her 70th birthday, Theresa was living alone in the small shotgun house on Dempsey Avenue. As it turned out, she would live alone in that house for 25 more years.
When most would rather rely on someone else at this point in life, Theresa was determined to maintain her independence. Theresa continued to make homemade ravioli in the basement. She was in the front pew for 6:30AM mass every weekday at St. Ambrose. Theresa would wake up around 3:30AM on Thanksgiving morning to make sure the family's turkey was put in the oven.
Theresa loved Italy, and made 3 trips "home" after her 70th birthday. Prior to her first trip in 1969, when applying for a passport, it was discovered that she was not an American citizen despite voting in several elections!. The immigration officials immediately swore her in after she was the only applicant on that day to correctly identify Richard Nixon as the then-President of the United States!
But in March 1970, fate would deal Theresa yet another blow. Her son Bob died at age 53 of cancer. This was perhaps the hardest for her to endure, but with faith and stamina, Theresa carried on!
A few years later, Theresa was diagnosed with diabetes. She would have to give herself insulin injections in her 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Still, she insisted on living in her house on Dempsey Avenue, even as her hearing and eyesight began to fail.
Despite all the tragedies that life threw her way, Theresa remained strong and absolutely refused to accept pity or sympathy. She did not dwell on her life or sorrows, but put it in God’s hands. Her responses to her family and friends were always with a smile and she always held deeply to her faith. Theresa was the Matriarch of our family teaching the younger members the value of faith, a strong work ethic and most of all, family and heritage. Wise far beyond her sixth grade education, her advice was always sound and her wisdom was genuine and loving. When Theresa spoke, you listened.
“When a funeral crosses your path, you will experience tragedy . . .”
That old Italian saying seemed to ring true, but not in Theresa's mind. Theresa died on March 3, 1993 at age 94 1/2. Now almost 20 years later, we still miss her. Her life was an incredible journey of faith, family and strength even while filled with sorrow and suffering. Theresa accepted what God gave her and rejected pity. In her world, the glass was always half-full.
Theresa lived long enough to have experienced at least seven generations of her family, from her grandmother in Italy to her own great-great grandchildren in the US. She also had many nieces, nephews, cousins, and countless other relatives and friends who loved her dearly and respected her. Her unfailing faith through almost constant tribulation is truly astonishing.
Aunt Theresa’s life story is an inspiration and will always be our best example of living a faith-filled life.