Procession

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F or 90 years on Elm Street, the Celentano family and its funeral home have seen people come and go.

They’ve seen the city change. Seen its factories emptied. Seen highways cut through it. Seen Italian residents like themselves go from a marginalized minority to major drivers of culture. Seen their neighborhood, Dwight, become a red light district, then rise out of it.

And to all these changes, the Celentanos have added a few changes of their own.

William C. Celentano was not only the founder of the Celentano Funeral Home but also the last Republican mayor the city had, back when trolleys were still circuiting its streets. And while he was the last mayor of one kind, he was the first of another: the first Italian-American. He was also, at 41, the youngest New Haven had ever had.

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Beating out incumbent John W. Murphy in 1945, Celentano held his post against Democratic and Socialist challengers for three more two-year terms, fending off Richard C. Lee twice before Lee finally beat him in 1953.

During Celentano’s term, there was a tongue-in-cheek saying around town that when someone died, the mayor took care of the funeral. And sometimes, he did. Throughout his tenure, Celentano kept the funeral home working, embalming citizens and putting on funeral receptions before running downtown for meetings or official obligations. Lee would hold it against Celentano during their mayoral contests, calling the incumbent a “part-time mayor.”

As for why Celentano was drawn to either the funeral business or politics, his son, William C. Celentano Jr., attributes both to his father’s desire to serve people in their hour of need.

The elder William was born on Howe Street, in 1904. His father, an Italian immigrant, ran a fruit market on Broadway, right across from what was then the Beecher and Bennett Funeral Home. As a boy, the future mayor would help his father run the market; as a teenager, he would get a job at Beecher and Bennett. He then attended school for funeral directing, which led to opening his own business, the Celentano Funeral Home, at 434 Elm Street in 1926. A few years later, he moved the business into the pillared house at no. 424, built in 1844, which the funeral home still occupies today.

His career in politics began with an aldermanship of the 21st ward, holding that post for 16 years before winning the mayor’s office in 1945. It was a difficult time for the city of New Haven, whose progress had stalled since the years of the Great Depression. Though Lee is credited with New Haven’s radical urban redevelopment program, which would reshape the city in ways that linger to this day, Celentano was mayor when the first domino, the Oak Street Connector project, began to fall.

Celentano Jr. says it could be difficult to be the mayor’s young son, though it had at least one distinct perk: he could hang out with firefighters. Every morning, Jr. would go down the street to Engine Co. 3, where Box 63 now stands, and make the firemen coffee. “I was the mayor’s son and they couldn’t get rid of me,” he jokes.

Decades later, firemen still can’t get rid of him, though odds are good they wouldn’t want to. Celentano Jr. is what’s called a “fire buff”—a fan and friend of fire departments. He’s served a total of 21 years over three terms on the New Haven Board of Fire Commissioners; co-authored New Haven Firefighters, a book on the history of New Haven’s Fire Department; and was named “Fire Buff of the Year” in 2001 by the International Fire Buff Associates.

In 1972, the Celentano Funeral Home passed to Jr., who was joined by his own son, Mark W. Celentano, in 1989. The two of them continue their work in the Dwight Historic District, where when Jr. was a boy, the neighborhood flourished, and after he’d become a father himself, houses stood abandoned and the area had became a hub for prostitution. Since then, Yale’s influence has changed the neighborhood yet again, creating a rental market for students and other more transient residents. “Now,” Mark jokes, “when pretty girls walk by, they’re college students.”

The city isn’t done being renewed, of course. Old things will go, and new things will come, though some things, like funeral homes, seem more immune than most to that sort of change—at least until the city’s burgeoning biotech sector, another sign of changed times, comes up with a cure for aging.

Celentano Funeral Home
424 Elm St, New Haven (map)
Accepts visitors by appointment.
(203) 865-1234
www.celentanofuneralhome.com

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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