Mary_Zappa08282014Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Each year, the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women solicits nominations for its Pax Christi award and selects a finalist from each deanery. This is the last of four articles featuring 2014 finalists, all of whom were recognized June 16-17 at the SDCCW convention in Cumberland.  

Mary Zappa was “cooking up a big pan of peppers” Aug. 20, one day before her 96th birthday.

The peppers she grew in her garden; it’s a place of refuge for the “oldest Italian in Cumberland” and the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s 2014 Pax Christi finalist.

“I love being outdoors in the garden,” she said. “I feel like I’m with God when I’m in the garden.”

Born in 1918, Zappa is the oldest daughter in a family of 14 children. Her parents were Italian immigrants who settled in Cumberland, which boasted “the largest pastoral colony of Italians” in the United States at the time, according to a 1924 article from the Milwaukee Wisconsin News.

Although Zappa has never visited her ancestral home – she traveled Europe for 24 days but never made it to Italy – her heritage has always been a defining trait. Her pasta-cooking expertise is one example.

“I love ravioli and cavatelli and spaghetti,” she said.

When she was a founding member of a local homemakers’ group, the Spicettes, Zappa used to mix up 40 to 80 lbs. of flour for her homemade cavatelli. These days, she’s planning her potluck dish for Italian Fest, which is scheduled to take place Sept. 13 at the Barronett Community Center, Barronett.

A lifelong resident of Cumberland, Zappa recalls walking a mile to church every Sunday before she married her husband, Anthony, and finally got to ride in a car.

The couple had a son and a daughter; their marriage lasted nearly 65 years. Anthony died in 2003.

Zappa’s family also includes seven grandchildren – an eighth was lost in a car accident – and 10 great-grandchildren.

Family is of great importance to Zappa. She cared for her father and a brother with Down syndrome for 14 years, and she makes an effort to attend her annual family reunion, a 42-year tradition that began after her mother’s death 43 years ago. She is also the oldest person in her family.

Zappa is deeply involved in her community. She’s been a volunteer for many local organizations – the hospital auxiliary, senior center, Red Cross, nursing home, Girl Scouts and more – as well as an active parishioner at St. Anthony, Cumberland, where she’s taught religious education, served as president of a former service organization, The Altar Society, and is currently chaplain for the Council of Catholic Women.

“I’m just a good, Christian Catholic girl,” she summarized. “Woman, I mean.”

In her free time, she paints with acrylics – her children and grandchildren have Zappa’s art hanging in their homes – and she also quilts, knits, crochets, sews and embroiders. Zappa said she was honored to learn she was a finalist for the SDCCW’s 2014 Pax Christi award.

“I thought that was just so tremendous being nominated,” she added. “That was an honor.”