‘We truly are brothers and sisters’

Johnston formalizes Sister City partnership with Italian town of Panni during special ceremony

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“This is without question one of the highlights of my career,” Mayor Joseph Polisena said Monday evening following the historic signing of Johnston’s Sister City partnership with Panni, Italy. “This begins a very special relationship with a very special town.”

Polisena emceed a night of extraordinary pomp and circumstance at the Johnston Senior Center, which included brief remarks from all four members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, Gov. Gina Raimondo and a host of state and local elected officials, as well as the singing of the Italian and U.S. national anthems.

Polisena and Panni Mayor Pasquale Ciruolo signed executive orders in front of 350-plus people to formalize the unique Sister City partnership, which was first launched two years ago when members of the reorganized Pannese Society of Providence visited the Italian town.

While the largest crowd to ever attend an event at the senior center witnessed Monday night’s signing ceremony, upwards of 100 people reportedly gathered inside Panni’s new town hall to watch the ceremony via Skype.

Panni is located approximately 90 miles from Naples, in the province of Foggia, on a mountain some 2,600 feet above sea level. The town spans 12.85 square miles and has a population of 850, far less than the nearly 29,000 residents of Johnston.

Pasquale Ciruolo, who also gave a keynote address through a translator, is 42 and married with two children. He was elected mayor in 2007, the same year Polisena became Johnston’s chief executive.

The Sister City partnership – which has been a dream of Pannese Society vice president Louis Spremulli of Johnston – is designed to involve education, commerce and trade, community improvements, tourism, and municipal collaboration.

“Our citizens and the town of Panni, Foggia, have much in common,” Polisena said. “Most important are our family values, citizens who are always ready to help others and who give back to their community, and especially citizens who want the best for their children and the generations to come.”

Take Giovanna Mansolillo, a native of Panni, who has lived in Johnston for the past 34 years. She took in Monday’s greeting brunch for Ciruolo and housed Panni’s leading business executive, Antonio Rucci, during his stay here this week.

Yet another Johnstonian, Town Council President Robert Russo, remembers continuously hearing “Panni” and “Pannese” at home while growing up.

“I had no idea what my father and aunt were talking about,” Russo said. “Every time we would meet someone that my father knew that was Italian, they were either Italian or Pannese.”

Russo continued: “The only historical lineage I had to Panni was from my father, Vito Russo, who has passed on, and my Aunt Angie, who is almost 90 and claims her grandfather was mayor of Panni at one time.”

WPRI-12 and Fox Providence news anchor Mike Montecalvo, who took part in several presentations, also has roots in Panni, where his late grandfather was born.

Former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci delivered an information speech that took people back to 1885. It was then, he said, that Panni native Giuseppe Anzevino journeyed to Rhode Island and settled on Federal Hill.

“His hard work and commitment to providing opportunity for all encouraged others to come to America,” Cianci said. “He opened a bicycle shop and provided for his family. Yet through it all, he never forgot where he came from, and later formed the Pannese Society that has brought us together tonight.”

Janet Whiteley, Polisena’s administrative assistant, received high praise from her boss and other state and local officials for her coordination of Monday’s program, which began at mid-morning and didn’t finish until late in the evening.

Whiteley, Polisena wanted it known, coordinated Monday’s tour of Johnston businesses for Ciruolo, travel for his special guests, and the night’s speaking program.

Monday night’s program featured impressive and welcoming remarks from U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Raimondo, U.S. Reps. David Cicilline and James Langevin, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, General Treasurer Seth Magazine, Monsignor Carlo Montecalvo, Italian Consul General Nicola DeSantis, Judge Frank Caprio, Cianci, Russo and Dr. Giulio Diamante, the night’s sponsor.

The Most Rev. Robert C. Evans, Auxiliary Bishop of Providence, delivered a powerful invocation and benediction, while state Sen. Frank Ciccone and state Rep. John Carnevale made special plaque presentations to both mayors on behalf of the Senate and House.

“Janet helped make this night special,” Polisena said. “She was on vacation, yet she came in and dealt with all sorts of little things that help make a major event special … the whole night could not have come together without her. She is so valuable, I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Among the aspects of the day Whiteley coordinated was a visit to Verde Vineyards, where owner Giacomo Verde greeted Ciruolo, Polisena and their guests and proposed a special toast with a wine named for his late mother.

There was another interesting stop at AG&G Viesta Creations, a Johnston-based jewelry company that employees 72 people and occupies 26,000 square feet in a building located on Mill Street in the “Frog City” section of town.

“It’s a small world,” Polisena said during the tour at AG&G Viesta Creations, which is owned and operated by his wife Lucy’s five nephews – Francis, Angelo, Matthew, Anthony and Giovanni Giarrusso, whose father just so happens to be from Panni.

Throughout Monday evening’s program, Polisena told people, “I’ll be speaking through a translator, so my speech will be a little slower than usual. I normally speak somewhat fast, but I want Mayor Ciruolo to understand what I will be saying and I know he’ll be able to understand my hand movements.”

Polisena said the significance of the Sister City partnership extends far beyond the signing ceremony.

“It is for the thousands and thousands of immigrants who came to America to find a better life for themselves and their families and chose Johnston as their new home,” he said. “To me, as an Italian-American, I share the same values with those people back in Panni … and those citizens have the same family values with us.

“We make speak a different language and live an ocean away, but we truly are brothers and sisters in our cultures and in our hearts,” he added.

Louis Spremulli, who revitalized the Pannese Society of Providence along with his father Joseph Spremullli, closed out the program by presenting special plaques to Ciruolo, Polisena and Diamante.

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