Women love to feed priests so the food in the cafeteria of Holy Apostle College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut was excellent. I also earned my Bachelor in Philosophy degree there. 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, and noted the author’s name, 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 grandmother enrolled my Uncle Joe (later called Bucky) in school.
When the schoolteacher, who we presumed was Irish, asked my grandmother for Uncle Joe’s full name, her response prompted the teacher to provide a culture lesson. “Since you are in America now, you should be using an American name. In Italy, your son’s name was Joseph Miceli, but in America, your family name would be Mitchell,” so the teacher entered Joseph Mitchell for Uncle Joe’s name.
My grandmother 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 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 is 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.
Since first publishing this story, I’ve had several conversations with family members and others, which has yielded more accurate information and some additional details. First, I’ve changed the reference re. the school teacher to my Uncle rather than my brother Joe. Uncle Joe provided a first hand account of the incident to one of my brother joe’s daughters at our family reunion. Second, another of my brother Joe’s daughters noted that when he got married, the wedding invitations listed his name as Joseph Mitchell Miceli, presumably so that people who knew us as Mitchells would not think they had gotten the invitation by mistake. Third, according to Uncle Buckey’s account to my neice, when the military changed his name back, they mistakingly entered it as Micelli, with two “Ls” on his military records. Uncle Buckey was so nerveous about possibly being deported that he did not challange it and was the only member of the family to continued to spell his name that way. Finally, I cited the title of the book Fr. Miceli had with him during our converastion, but I have been unable to verity the correctness of the title, so I’ve left it out of the story.
Chuck Miceli March 31, 2013