Looking inside the box

From left, Dave Pignone of Stoneham, and John Burns of Tewksbury work to remove a timecapsule that they contributed to In 1951, when 2nd and 3rd graders at Saint Polycarp school in Somerville inserted items into a time capsule. Some 62 years later, the capsule was opened at the groundbreaking of 31 new units of affordable housing on former school site, known as Saint Polycarp Village.
From left, Dave Pignone of Stoneham, and John Burns of Tewksbury work to remove a timecapsule that they contributed to In 1951, when 2nd and 3rd graders at Saint Polycarp school in Somerville inserted items into a time capsule. Some 62 years later, the capsule was opened at the groundbreaking of 31 new units of affordable housing on former school site, known as Saint Polycarp Village.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

SOMERVILLE — When the metal box was stowed in the cornerstone of the new Saint Polycarp School in 1951, triple-deckers stood where Interstate 93 now passes through Somerville, the city had a population of about 100,000, and a movie ticket cost 16 cents.

Former students from the small Catholic grammar school gathered for an unusual reunion on Monday in the basement of the church, just a few hundred yards from the old school site on Mystic Avenue. 

They had a look at what was put inside the box 63 years ago, a time capsule they helped fill that was unearthed in January as the

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Somerville Community Corporation began building affordable housing on the site.

In the box they found old school yearbooks, a copy of the Catholic Archdiocese’s newspaper, The Pilot,  and pieces of paper on which students had written their names. But more interesting than the relics were the memories the students — now in their late 60s to early 70s — recounted of growing up in Somerville in a bygone era.

Carole Lanzoni Giordano, 70, who now lives in Malden, was in one of the first classes at the school, and she met her husband at the church where she was later married and her four children were baptized.

She saw the school grow during the years she attended.

“When we started, there were only three nuns,” she said, recalling the inspiration she received from Sister Georgina Therese, the principal and Giordano’s teacher for three of her years at Saint Polycarp. “But by the time we graduated, there were eight.”

The box might have been lost in the rubble of demolition if not for Camille (Amato) Long, 70, a former student who noticed the school was due for demolition. Long now lives in West Peabody, but she often drives by the old location when she visits her sister in Somerville.

“They had all these names of construction companies on signs on the outside, so I just started calling all of them,” she said.

She eventually was put in touch with the Somerville Community Corporation, and has been on the phone with them every few months since.

The cornerstone was dated 1950, but items were added to the box after the school’s contributions, including the May 12, 1951 edition of The Pilot, which in one front-page headline warned: “ ‘Femininity’ on Page Nine: Girl Scientists Now Threaten To Take Over Man’s World.”

Long was a member of one of the first classes to use the new building, and classes her first year were held in the basement of the old parish hall. Opening the box was never something she thought of when she was a child, she said.

“When you’re 9 years old, you aren’t really thinking forward,” she said. “I just thought it was going to be there forever.”

Long was joined by seven of her classmates on Monday to see the box’s contents, which have been donated to the Somerville Museum. 

David Pignone, 71, and John Burns, 72, used to walk to school together every day from Grant  and Wheatland  streets in Winter Hill. Both went on to graduate from Somerville High School. 

Pignone operated several businesses in Somerville in the 1970s and 1980s, including Penguin’s  Cafe & Grill and Sir Franco’s, both in Union Square, and Sunnyhurst  Farms convenience stores. He has since left for Stoneham, where he has his own cafe, but he remains loyal to his Winter Hill roots.

“The Hill always had a bad name, but Winter Hill was the best,” he said. “A lot of those guys, like Howie Winter, got a reputation, but they never bothered anybody in the neighborhood. He’s a good guy.”

Burns, who now lives in Tewksbury, remembers his old neighborhood as a place where no one was a stranger and people seldom locked their doors.

“It was a real neighborhood; everybody knew everybody,” he said. “It wasn’t like now, when you don’t even know your neighbor’s name.”

Burns also remembered going to the Capitol Theatre on Broadway, where it cost 16 cents for a movie and 10 cents for popcorn, he said.

The theater — which closed in 1963 and was torn down to make room for a supermarket — is one of many lost treasures the classmates remembered. They talked about an old fountain in Foss Park where kids would swim in the summer and ice skate in the winter, and the Ledge,  a spot near the school where, as Pignone recalls, kids used to light bonfires that burned 40 feet high, a “regular event on the Fourth of July,” he said.

There were also rows of homes and businesses, demolished in the late ’50s to pave the way for I-93. The family houses of Saint Polycarp students Jack Tripi, 70,  and Mario DiPerna, 69, on Bailey Road in Ten Hills, were taken. Tripi’s family moved to Lexington and he now lives in Woburn, and DiPerna’s family moved to Medford. He later moved back to Somerville and now lives in Winchester, along with another former classmate who attended the opening, Ursula (Salerno) Koslowski.

DiPerna and Tripi recalled growing up in a place where everyone knew each other; a “typical blue-collar neighborhood,” DiPerna said.

“Your parents were too busy making a living. Everybody had to help out and everybody knew who you were,” said DiPerna, whose father was a meat cutter in the North End.

That also meant getting caught if you were doing something you weren’t supposed to, Tripi said.

“Every kid had several parents,” he said. “If you were smoking behind the drug store, you’d get reported by someone.”

Theresa Finnegan  — formerly Pappalardo — is 71 and grew up on Fremont Street. She now lives in Medford. “We used to have to say a Hail Mary every time a firetruck went by,” she said.

She said there was a little sadness in opening the box she and her classmates helped put together as children.

“I hate to let things go. Sometimes I like to live in the past,” she said. “But . . . time marches on.”

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