Diocesan News

Gravesend Church Has Become a Haven For Learning Italian

Every class starts off with prayer. Teacher Jeanne Nisi (standing center) and her students recite the Our Father and the Hail Mary in Italian. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

GRAVESEND — Every Tuesday morning, a little bit of Italy comes to Our Lady of Grace Church in Gravesend. The friendly tour guide is Jeanne Nisi, a retired educator who teaches an Italian language class once a week for free. 

Her students, all adults who number between 10 and 15 from week to week, get the chance to learn how to read, write, and speak Italian. They also learn to appreciate Italian culture, thanks to Nisi, who plays Italian Bingo with them and regales them with amusing stories of her many trips to Italy — a country she has visited nearly a dozen times over the years. 

Nisi, a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace, began teaching the class in 2013, and sees it as her way of preserving Italian culture in Gravesend. It is a changing neighborhood that used to be largely Italian American but has become more multicultural in recent years as Asians, Russians, Poles, and Hispanics have arrived and made it their home. 

“Absolutely, that’s part of why I’m doing this. I don’t want the Italian legacy to get lost,” she explained. 

At that recent class, which took place at the church’s Joseph Veltri Hall, Nisi distributed vocabulary worksheets and patiently guided her students through their paces. 

She then entertained them with a story about a memorable train trip she took from Calabria to Florence in which the train had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat. 

She recalled being amused by the calm way the Italian passengers handled the emergency. “They got off the train and just sat there on the tracks taking in the sun,” she said. 

Nisi comes to her volunteer work with decades of teaching under her belt. She taught for 40 years in both the Catholic and public school systems. She taught Italian for two years at St. Patrick Catholic Academy in Bay Ridge and spent the bulk of her 40-year teaching career at Seth Low Intermediate School in Bensonhurst. 

Each class starts off with prayers. Nisi and the students recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary in Italian. 

Roseann Fiore, who has been coming since 2013, said she likes the camaraderie she finds in the weekly sessions. “It’s a comfortable setting. Jeanne makes it easy to learn,” she said. 

Enrico Maruffi started attending the classes 18 months ago. He likes the informal atmosphere. “You can go at your own pace,” he said. 

One of the things that delights Nisi the most is the fact that her students are as diverse as the neighborhood of Gravesend. 

“We have a lot of non-Italians who come here, including Russians and Ukrainians. They went to Italy before coming here to the U.S. and they fell in love with it,” she said. 

Bella Gurfeo, a Ukrainian who has been living in Gravesend for 44 years, said she loves the classes. “It is so enjoyable,” she said, adding that she would like to visit Italy again someday. 

The classes operate from September to June and students can join at any time.