It's 1914. Workers in Henry Ford's automobile plant are earning an unheard-of $5 a day, a good sirloin steak sells for about 25 cents a pound and Woodrow Wilson is president. Little Ida Fortunato, who two years earlier had sailed with her family from their home in Fontanelle, Italy, sits in their Lansford home with her big sister Rosanna, struggling to grasp the strange language of her new home.
She is such a quick study that when the nuns at St. Ann's Church open a school in the church basement in 1917, Ida finishes both first and second grades in one year. Ten years later, she is among the Class of 1927, the first to graduate from St. Ann's High School.
On Saturday, Ida Fortunato Totani, now 100, along with her sisters Mary Fortunato Misantone, 92, Class of 1935; and Jeannette Fortunato Sandella, 94, Class of 1934, attended what organizers said was the final St. Ann's School "Silver Pennies" reunion.
The sisters were among between 80-100 people who came from near and far to attend the gathering, held at La Dolce Casa in Tamaqua.
As alumni from all grades of the school greeted one another with delighted hugs, chatted and caught up on old times, the sisters took a few minutes to talk with a reporter about their days at St. Ann's.
"We had nuns teaching us," Ida recalled. "We had to listen with two ears instead of half of one," she said with a chuckle. Ida remembered that when she started school. "I didn't speak one word of English. I had to keep my ears and eyes open wide. And I learned."
A dictionary, her most precious possession, was her guide. "I had so many questions, I went and bought one. I learned how to use it," she recalled. "When you are an immigrant and you don't speak a word of English, and you hear everybody speaking, you have to ask, 'what does that mean'?"
Ida remembers that, in those days, "we were all anxious to learn. And we did learn." She recalled that the boys in her small class soon transferred to the local public school in Lansford's middle ward to be able to study science and other subjects not taught by the nuns at St. Ann's.
Ida loved the nuns who taught her. Her favorite high school teacher was Sister St. Agatha, who taught English.
Ida's sister, Jeannette Fortunato Sandella, now 94, graduated with the Class of 1934. She fondly recalls her classmates, and "running to Jeffrey's, the candy store across the street. And the nuns were beautiful. It was great having nuns teaching you."
Sister Theresa Mary, who taught French and English, was her favorite. "She taught a lot of different subjects," Jeannette said. "She was a great teacher." St. Ann's "was a wonderful school. They tried very hard. I loved it."
There were 16 students in her class, she said.
The third surviving sister, Mary Fortunato Misantone, 92, said "Sister Nativity was my favorite. She was from Coaldale. I loved her so much." Sister Nativity, Mary said, taught Latin and arithmetic.
"St. Ann's was great because everybody was treated equal. We learned our songs and everything. St. Ann's was out of this world. And when you'd go home to your mother and you never got a whipping, you know things were good," she said.
"We almost had individual attention, with the small classes," Jeannette said. "If you didn't get the subject, it was your problem, because you didn't look for it, because they were willing to stay and work with you."
As the Fortunato sisters recalled their St. Ann's days, other alumni visited and chatted, listened to accordion music and leafed through old yearbooks.
Helen Michalik of Summit Hill, Class of 1946, caught up on old times with classmate Irene Cibik of Jim Thorpe. The two see each other about once or twice a year. After cocktails and dinner, the alumni listened as MC Joe Bechtel guided the evening's program, which included classmate Renee (Mariotti) Novak giving a humorous talk.
Sandra (Pforr) Delpero organized the reunion along with fellow committee members Mary E. Ciganek, Blanche (Colancecco) Rego, Betty (Wilhelm) Morgans, Veronica (Serina) Bazik, Catherine (Barron) Davis, Renee (Mariotti) Novak, Nicoletta (Giantesano) Olsovsky, Pauline (Lisella) Raftopoulos and Richard Giantesano.
Delpero sat next to her sister, Janet Drialo, of Atco, New Jersey, who graduated in 1951.
The reunion was bittersweet. Classmates talked about the razing this summer of the convent that housed the nuns who once taught at St. Ann's, and the conversion of the long-vacant school into subsidized apartments for the low-income elderly.
Classmates hold this reunion close to their hearts.
"This is the last reunion," said organizer Sandra Delpero. "We've been holding reunions every three years. Our numbers are growing very limited. We're older and it's an awful lot of work."