By LINDA MOSS
A handful of Montclair officials next week will head to the township’s sister city in Italy, visiting the small town where a number of local residents trace their roots.he delegation traveling to Aquilonia will include Township Mayor Robert Jackson and his daughter Danielle, Deputy Mayor William Hurlock, Councilman-at-Large Rich McMahon, Municipal Clerk Linda Wanat, Deputy Police Chief Tracy Frazzano and the man who led the effort to forge the sister-city relationship, Raffaele Marzullo.
For Marzullo, the trip marks a return to the place where he was born, a town with roughly 1,800 residents, and where he still has many family members. The Montclair visitors will be staying at the Gronki Hotel courtesy of Aquilonia. The hotel is a vaulted facility that’s just four houses away from Marzullo’s mother’s house in the Italian village.
Hurlock, who is of Italian descent, will have the opportunity to visit Airola, just two towns away from Montclair’s sister city. Airola is where Hurlock’s maternal great-grandfather immigrated from, coming to Ellis Island in 1901.
“It’s kind of full circle for me to come to where my ancestors started,” Hurlock said.
The Montclair group has a packed itinerary for its trip, arriving next Monday, June 12, in Naples, which is about two hours from Aquilonia, and departing Italy on Monday, June 19. Montclair officials will join in celebrating the feast and procession of St. Vito Martire on June 15, and have a number of visits to historic sites in the region on their agenda.
Aquilonia, in a mountainous region in the southeastern part of Italy, is the fourth sister-city relationship that Montclair has established over the years through Sister Cities International, a nonprofit whose mission is to create “relationships based on cultural, educational, information and trade exchanges,” according to its website.
Montclair’s other official sister cities are Barnet, which is part of London; Cherepovets, Russia; and Graz, Austria. The township also has an informal relationship with Laguna de Perlas, or Pearl Lagoon, in Nicaragua, according to Wanat.
In a ceremony in January, Jackson signed the papers that made the sister-city relationship between Montclair and Aquilonia official. Marzullo stood in for Aquilonia Mayor Giancarlo DeVito, who will sign the papers during the township group’s visit.
Marzullo, whose family owned Marzullo’s restaurant in town for 32 years, came to the Unites States when he was 7 ½ years old. Many of his family members, and others from Aquilonia, settled in Montclair, where Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Pine Street in the Fourth Ward was their parish. Marzullo is part of a committee that has been fighting to prevent the church from being shuttered by the Archdiocese of Newark following its merger last fall with the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Hurlock and Jackson stressed that everyone going to Italy is footing the bill for their own airfare, with generous Aquilonians providing their housing and food.
“We get the question all the time: We paid for our airfare and the sister city pays for everything else,” Hurlock said. “The town does not pay a penny.”
For Jackson, the trip’s purpose is twofold.
“So many of the Italian-Americans who live in our town have their roots in Aquilonia,” he said. “The proportion is unusually large. So I think it’s a great opportunity for the delegation and me personally to learn more about their culture, to see where so many of our residents hail from.”
Jackson also views it as an opportunity to see how the council’s counterparts in Italy run their local government.
“I’m looking forward to spending some time with our colleagues in our sister city and seeing how they do things, how their government functions, and maybe perhaps to get an idea or two from them and be able to bring some things back home,” he said. “So in that regard I think it’s hopefully going to be an enlightening trip.”
Jackson’s daughter Danielle, 32, studied in Florence and has traveled all over Italy, according to the mayor. She welcomed the opportunity to return, and she speaks Italian.
“So she’ll be able to help us out in that regard,” Jackson said.
Hurlock has been to Rome, but never to Airola, the birthplace of his forebears. His Aquilonia hosts were able to locate two of his relatives in that hometown, and Hurlock said he plans to take a side trip to meet them. One of them, ironically, is an attorney just like him, according to Hurlock.
Hurlock, who has also visited one of the town’s other sister cities, Barnet, said that sister-city arrangements are great forums for cultural exchange and sharing experiences.
McMahon traveled to Graz in 2015 and said he enjoyed that trip. He’s eager to see Aquilonia.
“I’m at a point in life where you have to take the opportunities as they come,” he said. “The few regrets I have is when I could have gone on a trip and I didn’t. I’ve been to Italy a number of times but I never really got to explore that area [where Aquilonia is].”
There are downsides to the trip, McMahon said, joking.
“Unfortunately I’m going to miss Father’s Day, I’m going to miss the U.S. Open: This is the cross I’m going to bear,” he said, laughing. “It’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime shot, so I might as well take it.”
As part of their visit township officials will be touring Benedettina’s Abbey, a national monument that dates back to 1126; the Amalfi Coast; and the Sanctuary of St. Michael the Archangel, which is embedded into a mountain with a cathedral. Pompeii was also added to the agenda at the request of the Montclair delegation.
There will also be a stop at Danny’s Pizza, which got its start in Montclair in the 1960s. The owners, who were originally from Aquilonia, decided to return to their hometown and opened up shop there, Marzullo said.
As part of the sister-city arrangement, officials from Aquilonia will be coming to Montclair in October, Marzullo said. The Italian delegation will be in the Unites States for Columbus Day on Oct. 9.
Marzullo is still rallying support to keep Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a church of immigrants, open. He said that both mayors, Jackson and DeVito, will be writing letters to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Newark’s archbishop, to keep the parish’s doors open because of its value to the Fourth Ward.