Newark Tales: The bakers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel

The ladies at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel are baking again – which means only one thing: the annual feast is just around the corner.

Catherine Pannullo, a retired school cafeteria cook and a member of the parish for all of her 80 years, was in her glory last Wednesday afternoon, putting a batch of chocolate chip cookies into the oven in eager anticipation of the 124th annual Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel which runs from July 16 through 20 at the Oliver Street church in Newark’s Ironbound.

The street festival that is part of the celebration will run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on each of those days.

It’s a tradition Catherine knows well: for the last 20 years, she and her friend, Fran Campbell, 77, the secretary at the nearby Oliver Street Elementary School, have been in charge of making the goodies – from the biscotti to the perfectly textured meat balls – that are cooked from scratch and then sold during the street festival.

Every day, for the two weeks prior to the feast, they can be found here in the kitchen of the church rectory, 259 Oliver St., enjoying each other’s company as they roll out the dough and make sure the meat balls don’t get overcooked on the rectory’s six-burner stove.  

Fortunately, the kitchen is cool, thanks to the air conditioning, and there’s help. Don, Fran’s husband and ace bargain hunter, is the designated shopper and gravy (sauce) maker. And this year, they also have a self-described apprentice, Lizett Acosta, 42, and Lizett’s 8-year-old daughter, Izabela, who is rewarded for her efforts with cookie dough.

Last Wednesday, as the evidence of a hard day’s work could be seen the overflowing trays of scrumptious-looking anise cookies cooling on the tables and waiting to be glazed and sprinkled, Catherine and Fran ticked off just some of the ingredients on Don’s massive shopping list: 45 dozen eggs,  80 pounds of chopped meat for the meatballs, 28 pounds of almond paste for the pignoli cookies and God knows how much sugar and flour for everything from the pepperoni-filled pretzels to the aforementioned chocolate chip cookies. (By the way: last Wednesday's round of baking consumed 60 pounds of flour.)

By then, it was almost 5 o’clock, and they had been working since 9 a.m.  Everyone was looking forward to ending the day with the 7 p.m. novena in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

Next week, during feast week, the hours will be even longer. “Forget about it – next week we’ll be here til it closes,’’ Catherine said.

When all’s said and done, quitting time will be one o’clock in the morning.