This a third in a series of stories and videos on local traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon.
As in so many Italian homes, something wonderful was always cooking in Mary Battaglia’s kitchen when she was a child growing up in Koppel, Beaver County. But nothing made the family clap their hands in delight quite like her mother’s Easter bread.
Kneaded into a soft, elastic dough and then left to rise in a warm corner of the kitchen a few days before the most holy day of Easter, the bread was probably the most delectable — and anticipated — food to come out of the oven: slightly sweet, flavored with lemon and studded with plump raisins. It was especially delicious toasted and buttered.
Naturally, Mrs. Battaglia brought the recipe with her when she started married life in 1942 with husband, Joe, a Johnstown native whom she met when she was 19.
It probably would have stayed in the family had their priest not urged Mr. Battaglia to come up with a fund raiser for the mens’ group that he’d founded in the early 1970s at Queen of Heaven Roman Catholic Church on Sixth Avenue in Koppel, just around the corner from the tidy two-story house where they raised six children.
Most parishioners at that time raised money through raffles. Yet Mr. Battaglia, who worked at the hulking B&W steel processing plant across the train tracks from the church, was tired of “tickets.”
“So I came home and tried to think of something else” as a project for The Holy Name Society, he recalled.
It was Mary who suggested selling those heavenly loaves of Easter bread, then taught the men how to make it just as her mother had taught her.
That inaugural bread-making session in 1973 netted 35 loaves, sold for 4 bucks apiece. The fundraiser has since become one of Koppel’s best-known Easter traditions — and a pretty big one at that. This year’s crew of volunteers cranked out nearly 2,000 loaves over the course of the four-day baking period which started at 5 a.m. last Tuesday. The last of the loaves, now $8, were sold Sunday.
“Surprises the heck out of me why people started buying it,” said Mr. Battaglia, 93, who was responsible for “proofing” the dough (at first on top of the boiler and eventually in a dedicated room) until 2010 while his wife, now 89, checked every loaf. “I guess once they got a taste of it, they clamored for it.”
But, a year ago, the bread-baking tradition that uses a ton of flour, 300 dozen eggs and 400 pounds of sugar appeared over. Less than three weeks before Easter, a fire raged through the church’s office and sacristy. No one was hurt, but the building was so badly damaged that the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh closed it.
“It was terrible, absolutely heartbreaking,” recalled Mrs. Battaglia, who heard the fire whistles blowing at around 2:30 p.m. April 1, 2011, but never imagined the fire trucks were rushing to the church where all of her children were baptized.
After the flames were extinguished, the realization hit that four stained glass windows and a pipe organ weren’t the only things to go up in a cloud of smoke. The ingredients needed for the bread, mostly donated, also were ruined, and with them, any hope of continuing a long-standing religious tradition.
To understand how devastated people felt, you have to realize how important Easter is in Western Pennsylvania. Part of what makes the region so special is the large number of the ethnic groups who’ve settled here, and the cultural and religious traditions they brought with them. For many — Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian — the holiday wouldn’t be complete without a golden braided loaf of bread on the table..
“Easter bread is symbolic of the rebirth of Jesus Christ,” said the pastor, the Rev. Mark Thomas, who at the time of the fire was splitting his time between Queen of Heaven with Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic in nearby Ellwood City.
For the men of Holy Name, the loss of the annual fundraiser would cost them thousands of dollars it earned for parish projects. They also feared losing the fellowship and camaraderie the breadmaking inspired, and the way it brought their tiny community together.
As Father Thomas put it, “This is what we do, our celebration of Easter. So it was really important the tradition be continued.”
The logical solution was to move the operation to Holy Redeemer, where the much-smaller Koppel parish already had been holding some of its events. The only problem was that the women there were busy with their own nut roll, pierogie, pepperoni puff and meatball fundraisers. Plus, its parochial school kitchen, which feeds 100 a day, wasn’t set up for bread-making.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” remembers David Kosior, a construction worker and part-time church organist who’s been the head baker for 14 years. Rather than one compact area in which to mix, roll, bake and then cool the sweet bread, plus a dedicated proofing room in which to let it rise, they’d have to set spread out operations across several areas in the gym.
“We had such a system — it was right out of the pan and into the ovens,” said long-time volunteer Darlene Esoldo, sighing at the memory. “I really didn’t think we’d be able to do it.”
Even if they could somehow manage the change, how could they overcome feeling like interlopers in their new surroundings?
The answer lay with Father Thomas, who not for one minute thought the two parishes wouldn’t come together.
“There’s always new possibilities to keep faith alive,” he said.
Everyone stepped gingerly at first, as neither group of volunteers wanted to get in the other’s way. But Holy Redeemer’s welcome was so warm that the bread-makers never missed a beat. A few long-time Holy Redeemer parishioners volunteered to make bread with the men.
There were challenges. Mr. Kosior had to get used to new ovens, and the carpeted music room where they proofed the dough using portable heaters ended up being a bit too damp. (It’s been much more successful this year in an old shower room.) But it was nothing they couldn’t handle.
“When the first one rolled out of the oven, we were like ‘Yay!’ ” said Shirley Nardone of Koppel. “Everything just fell into place.”
It’s been much smoother sailing this year, though they’re still perfecting the system. With six ovens, they can bake 51 loaves at a time, or more than 400 a day. Even so, the church, which officially merged with Holy Redeemer in November, still sold out.
No longer able to drive the 3 miles to Ellwood City and admittedly moving a bit slower, the Battaglias aren’t actively involved in the fundraiser that’s become their legacy.
“We got lazy,” Mr. Battaglia joked.
But his wife still bakes bread and rolls whenever she can. She hopes her 11 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren will continue the tradition.
As for the rest of us, it’s too late to buy a loaf this year, but not too early to put a mark in your calendar for next year’s orders, which if course you should because, as Mrs. Battaglia likes to point out, “You can’t go to the store and buy this bread.”
This is a bread that comes from somewhere else.
Said Pastor Thomas, “It’s a beautiful thing to see faith in action.”
Queen of Heaven Easter Bread
This recipe from Mary Battaglia makes about a dozen loaves, enough to start your own fundraiser.
- 3 1/2 cups sugar, divided
- 3 1/4 tablespoons dry yeast
- 4 cups warm water, divided
- 17 cups flour
- 1 1/2 cups dry milk
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 12 eggs
- 1 cup oil
- 1 ounce lemon flavoring
- 1/4 cup lemon zest
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 pound raisins, optional
Stir together 1 tablespoon sugar and dry yeast into 1 cup of warm water. Let sit until it foams well. Mix all dry ingredients together in a large pan or bowl. Make a well in the middle. Beat eggs in a separate large bowl, then add oil, remaining 3 cups water and lemon flavoring, zest and juice. Pour mixture into well. Add proofed yeast mixture. Mix and knead till smooth, adding flour as needed. Dough should be just past sticky, not too stiff. Stir in raisins, if using.
Place in a greased pan and grease top of dough. Cover. Set in a warm place (between 72 and 80 degrees) and let rise till it doubles in size. Punch down and allow to rise again. Cut into 1-pound sections. Roll each section into a 14-inch rope. Braid with 2 ropes to form a loaf, tucking ends under. Repeat with remaining ropes.
Place loaves on greased cookie sheets. Cover, and let rise again, about 45 minutes. Brush exposed loaf with beaten whole egg. Bake at 250 degrees for 30 minutes. Raise temperature to 300 degrees and bake an additional 15 minutes. Bottom of loaf should be light brown and sound hollow when tapped.
Makes 10 to 12 loaves.
— Mary Battaglia, Koppel