Their cup runneth over
A famous cinematic scene would come to mind whenever Eileen Capritto and her husband biked to Mass at St. Pius X Church with their flock of children.
As the Capritto brood cycled along Lakeshore Drive from their house on Turquoise Street, the riders in the front would pass along alerts of road hazards – such as glass – in a sing-song chant that ultimately reached those bringing up the rear.
“It was kind of like ‘The Sound of Music,’ when they were in the drapery clothes,” chuckled Capritto, now 74. “At that time, the older girls would wear shorts (for the bike ride) and carry their wrap-around skirts to wear at Mass. People used to wait to see when spring would come if I was pregnant or not, because we had all these little kids. They were like ducks in a row.”
Such moments, lovingly branded as “Capritto Chaos,” are all in a day’s work for the matriarch, this year’s recipient of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Regina Matrum Award recognizing outstanding exemplars of Catholic motherhood.
Capritto, who was selected for the annual distinction by the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs, will be recognized at a May 11 Mass at 7 p.m. at St. Pius X Church, 6666 Spanish Fort Blvd. Archbishop Gregory Aymond will be the main celebrant.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no. This can’t be!’” said Capritto of the moment news of her accolade broke at a surprise party she thought was being thrown for one of her seven daughters. “It’s a very difficult thing for me because I feel like I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do – I’m not doing anything extraordinary or exceptional,” she said. “I’m just me – nothing special.”
Longed for a large family
Born Eileen Frisbee in New Orleans, Capritto grew up in Raceland, attending Mount Carmel Academy in Thibodaux and playing basketball on the levee in a tiny neighborhood of eight houses.
“At that time, you didn’t have any kind of class distinctions – it was either the ‘good kids’ or ‘bad kids,’” recalled Capritto, whose devoutly Catholic parents took her and her three brothers to Mass at St. Mary Nativity Church.
Faith bolstered the family when Capritto’s father died when she was 12. Capritto said her mother, who had a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, kept the family afloat by working as a bookkeeper.
“She was a rock and she never complained,” Capritto said. “She was very religious in a quiet way. She didn’t expound or preach. She was just a fantastic mother, always behind us, encouraging us. She was president of my fan club!”
Capritto married her husband A.J., an attorney, in 1964, meeting him a year into her career as an R.N. at her nursing school alma mater of Hotel Dieu. As luck would have it, A.J. Capritto had been sent to the hospital to retrieve his mother’s eyeglasses, and Eileen was the charge nurse on lost-and-found duty. Their first date was at Antoine’s.
“He knew I came from the country, so he wanted to impress me,” said Capritto, noting that she and her husband had agreed from the outset that they wanted a large family. A.J., an only child, wanted 10, while Eileen wanted a baker’s dozen – 13 – the same number of siblings as her roommate in nursing school.
Faith and hope amid grief
In the midst of raising their family, tragedy struck.
In 1974, the Caprittos’ seventh child – 16-month-old Thomas – died after wandering into a swimming pool. Ever since, family members have asked Thomas to pray for them every time they say “grace” at the dinner table.
“We have canonized him ourselves. He’s our ‘St. Thomas,’” said Capritto, explaining that her son’s passing reversed her and her husband’s feeling at the time that they would limit their family to seven children.
“After Thomas died we said, ‘Who are we to say seven’s enough?’” Capritto said. “We decided we were just going to do what God wanted us to do, and that he would provide.”
They went on to have three more children. Altogether, they range in age from 50 to 35: Ann Dowling, Jane Alvarez, Michael Capritto, Margaret McFarland, Elizabeth “Beth” Traina, Alice Cibilich, Judy Muscarello, David Capritto and Mary Smith. The Caprittos also have 25 grandchildren.
“They’re a fun bunch. We love to be together. Our kids are amazing. They’re so good to us; they’re kind to us,” said Capritto, who carried on her own mother’s practice of sitting down as a family at dinnertime.
Capritto also channeled her mother’s quiet strength when it came to managing her large and lively household. For example, she never thought twice about giving her master bedroom to her husband’s aging parents for nearly 20 years or piling her children into a 15-seat van for cross-country road trips.
In the summer, each child’s chores for the day were listed on a kitchen chart. The rotation of duties included being the “Good Samaritan of the Day” – the sibling charged with doing an act of kindness for another family member.
Capritto said one of her go-to meals as a young mother was chicken and mushroom stew served over noodles.
“That was our ‘loaves and fishes dinner’ because I could really stretch that,” she said. “(The children) could only have candy on Sunday. A.J. would buy a Mars candy bar and cut it into 10 pieces!”
Daily encounters with Christ
After a four-year post-Katrina detour to Baton Rouge, the Caprittos settled in the Warehouse District. Now parishioners of St. Patrick Church on Camp Street, they have been daily communicants for 10 years, attending weekday Masses at sites including the Redemptorist chapel on Jackson Avenue, St. Francis Xavier, Chateau de Notre Dame and Immaculate Conception in the CBD.
“Sometimes I’ll walk to the cathedral for the morning Mass,” said Capritto of her daily search for the Eucharist.
“To me, (daily Mass) is an invitation from Christ to come to his table. If somebody invites you to breakfast, to dinner or to lunch, you go,” Capritto said. “Christ invites us every day, and it’s only in recent years that I have thought, ‘Who am I to say, “God, I’ve got to do this other thing that’s more important than coming to the table with you?”
As a busy young mother, Capritto, who had at least one child enrolled at St. Pius X from 1970 to 1993 and who earned her former parish’s St. Louis Medallion in 2003, somehow found time to serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, scout leader, school board member, Mother’s Club president and CCSCC president.
Her longtime volunteer endeavors include serving St. Elizabeth’s Guild, which assists St. John the Baptist Head Start, Padua House and Catholic Charities’ Independent Living Skills program; as a Lady Grand Cross in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, which supports Catholic ministries in the Holy Land; and in various capacities for the New Orleans Opera Association’s Women’s Guild.
But don’t expect Capritto to accept praise for any of her good works. She still modestly insists she’s a work in progress.
“My trust in God has been my foundation. My only talent was having children and that’s finished,” she said.
“I used to have my kids pray for patience when we said prayers at night,” Capritto added. “They would say, ‘God, give my mother patience,’ and I attribute my patience to the fact that they prayed.”