Women love to feed priests so the food in the cafeteria of Holy Apostle College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut was excellent. The college was also where I earned my Bachelor in Philosophy degree. While eating at the dining hall one day, one of the priest/professors sat next to me. Being polite, I introduced myself, “Hello Father, I’m Chuck Miceli.”
The priest shook my hand and smiled, and then asked me how I spelled my name. After I told him, he said, “And you pronounce it MA-CELL-EE?” and I said yes.
The priest nodded, took another spoonful of his soup, and then asked, “Why do you not pronounce your name correctly?” He must have seen the shocked look on my face and continued, “In Italian, the correct pronunciation of your name is “ME-CHEL-EE,” after which he immediately returned to his soup.
I sat there for a while seething, that this man whom I had only just met, should presume to tell me how to pronounce my own name. I steeled myself to confront the priest when I noticed the book sitting on the table in front of him. Many of the professors were also authors who used their books in the classes they taught. This was obviously one he had written. I scanned the cover, The Cloud of Unknowing by Father Vincent Miceli. I sat back, smiled and then remained silent for the rest of my meal.
For the next several days, I tried out the alternate pronunciation of my name. At work, I answered the phone, “Hello, this is Chuck ME-CHEL-EE.” The experiment only lasted those few days. I realized that I did not know this other person. I had grown up Chuck MA-CELL-EE, and that was the only person I knew how to be. Then I realized that wasn’t quite true either, and recalled the colorful history of the given name in our first generation Italian-American family.
My father and mother were both born in Italy, but came to America as children. The family settled in the small coal-mining town of Pittston, Pennsylvania. Like many first generation Italians, their fathers had arranged their marriage for them. I suspect that in those early days in Pittston, they pronounced their last name the same way as Father Vincent, but that all changed when my mother enrolled my older brother Joe in school.
When the schoolteacher, who we presumed was Irish, asked my mother for Joe’s full name, my mother’s response prompted the teacher to provide mom with a culture lesson. “Since you are in America now, you should be using an American name. In Italy, your son’s name was Joseph Guido Miceli, but in America, we don’t use names like Guido, and your family name would be Mitchell,” so the teacher enrolled Joseph Mitchell into the school.
My mother returned home and reported that we had a new family name. Eager to become fully part of this “American” culture, the entire family: father, mother, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, adopted our new name. As time passed, we became known as the Mitchells and, growing up in Pittston, I was one of the “Mitchell kids.” The name stuck. We would probably still be the Mitchells had my Uncle Bucky not entered the military. As the story has been handed down, while standing guard at a military installation one day, a uniformed escort and two men in civilian clothes approached Uncle Bucky. They relieved him of his post and brought him inside where the two civilians introduced themselves as FBI agents. They asked Uncle Bucky what his name was. Nervously, Uncle Bucky answered, “Joseph Miceli,” to which they replied, “Yes, that’s your name, not Joseph Mitchell, the one you put on your induction records.” That’s when Uncle Bucky related the story of the schoolteacher and that’s when the family got its second culture lesson: that you cannot just change your family name without filing the proper legal paperwork.
Following the incident, Uncle Bucky phoned home and related the story, after which, the family returned to its previous name. That’s probably when we lost the Italian pronunciation that Father Vincent had retained.
There was one notable exception, however. To my Uncle Jimmy, one name change per lifetime was enough, and he remained a Mitchell for the rest of his life. So if I visit his grave in Pittston Pennsylvania, I won’t despair if I can’t find one for Miceli. I’ll just look for the one that reads James Mitchell.
March 28, 2013