SCHENECTADY — With the passing Wednesday of Lilia Perreca Papa, a landmark Schenectady bakery lost its matriarch and the community lost a friend known for her compassion to those who needed help.
Lillian, as she was known, was 93 and had been in declining health since a fall the day after Thanksgiving. She’d lived with her daughter, Maria Perreca Papa, for the last few months.
Maria recalled Thursday that her mother's focus in life was her family and Perreca’s, the bread bakery opened by Lillian’s parents in 1914.
“She was cooking everybody dinner and family holiday dinners right up to this past Thanksgiving,” Maria said. “She always said, ‘While I can still do it, I want to see my family around my table.”
In many ways, bakery and family were one and the same for Lillian.
Born in 1925 to Italian immigrants Salvatore and Carmella Perecca, Lillian started working in the bakery at age 9 and made it only to middle school before dropping out to make the bakery her career.
Lillian was the one who kept the bakery going in the middle 20th century as her parents aged and her siblings took other career paths, Maria said.
In 1958, Lillian married a successful masonry contractor named Dominick Papa.
“She co-opted my father to switch careers and learn the bakery business from her father,” Maria said.
She gave birth to their first child, Tony, in 1961 at 36 — a late age to start a family in that era. At 38, she gave birth to Maria.
“She really was a pioneer to have children later on in life,” Maria recalls. “She really put her career first.”
Along with keeping the original coal-fired bread oven going all those decades, Lillian is recalled as someone who made her community a better place to live, with a kind word to many over her lifetime and donations of overstocked baked goods to those who didn’t have enough to eat.
JoAnn Aragosa recalls Lillian as a driving force behind one of the pillars of the Little Italy neighborhood.
“That street back then was so busy,” she said. “Sunday morning people would go after church to buy their bread for dinner. It was a wonderful street growing up.”
Aragosa’s great uncles ran Ferrucci’s Pastry Shop next door to the bakery in the building that now houses More Perreca’s restaurant, and her grandmother lived upstairs.
Her great uncles bought Aragosa’s first two-wheel bike secondhand for $14 from Lillian, and her grandmother would buy Perreca's bread — a round loaf — on a nearly daily basis.
“As I was reading the obituary this morning, I couldn’t help but smile,” Aragosa said. “I knew Lilia as a young woman — I have some wonderful memories.”
The families remained close over the decades. It was Dominick Papa who convinced the Aragosas to move Cornell’s restaurant from Van Vranken Avenue to Jay Street, Aragosa added.
The Papa family recruited Aragosa’s late husband Americo to play accordion at one of Lillian’s and Dominick’s final anniversaries, Aragosa said, by which time Dominick had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak.
As Americo launched into an old Italian song on his accordion, Aragosa said, “I’ll never forget this image of Dominick reaching for Lillian’s hand and the two of them holding hands listening to it. I get choked up thinking about it.”
Pat Popolizio, now 76, recalls meeting Lillian as a 12-year-old immigrant.
“When I first came to this country from Italy, the economy was tough, especially for a large family, and so I used to go down and ask her if there was any work I could so I could make some money.
“At the end of the day she used to give me a loaf of bread.”
Popolizio remained friends with Lillian as he grew into a successful businessman.
“Sixty years go by, I go in one day, she came up to me and said, ‘Here’s a loaf of bread for you.’”
He added: “She’s always been a very inspiring person. When it was slow, we’d talk for hours. I used to stop in all the time just to see her.”
Popolizio marveled at the longevity of Perreca’s Bakery. “1914, my God, that’s incredible. And they still have the same oven!”
Lillian gave Marlene Nellis, a native of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, her first job back in 1982 (Lillian’s niece was Nellis’ best friend).
She worked there until 1995, mostly in the front of the shop.
“For 11 of those years I drove from Johnstown to work there,” Nellis said. “It was a great family to work for. She was a mentor, she taught me a lot of life lessons.”
A quarter century after she left the bakery to start a family, she still eats Perreca’s bread six days a week: Her husband, Jim, has been a baker there for the last 17 years.
“You walk in there, it’s like walking back in time,” she said of the Jay Street bakery.
James Tedisco is another longtime patron who found good company as well as good bread at Perreca’s, starting about 60 years ago.
“I was a little kid — not so little, 10 — my parents used to go over there and get the bread, the tomato pie,” he said.
“They made it all good. But she was beyond that — she left the world a better place when she left it than she came into it.
“A big part of Perreca’s is how they contributed to the community, every organization in the community. And the leadership came from her.”
Tedisco, a city councilman then assemblyman and now senator, said he found a respite from politics with Lillian.
“She was a joy just to talk to her. A very positive person, I never heard her say a negative thing. She’d always take time to chat, especially after she handed off running the business to her kids.
"I said, ‘Lilia, I should work over here in Perreca’s.’ I felt like a member of the family.”
Tedisco, like others, remembers all the loaves of bread that went to various shelters around the city, and all that this gesture meant.
“So we honor and celebrate her contributions,” he said. “She impacted a lot of lives and the family will continue to do so, I’m sure.”
Maria thinks Lillian inherited her compassion from her father, who gave away so much bread that she took over the delivery routes to temper his instincts.
But Lillian wound up doing the same thing herself, Maria added.
“For a long time there were a lot, a lot of homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters,” she said. “My mother knew where all those secret houses were and took them food.
“My love for Schenectady really, really stems from my mother’s love for Schenectady.”
The family business appears to be in good hands with the third generation to run it, Lillian’s son and daughter.
And a fourth generation — Tony’s son Nicholas, age 19 — has begun learning from his father the delicate balancing act of instinct, science and experience that is needed to bake a loaf of bread in a 105-year-old coal-fired oven, adjusting the flour-water ratio to the day's heat and humidity, stoking and piling the coals just right so the heat is even and the temperature correct.
“It takes a while for really getting the feel of the bakery,” Maria said. “There’s no dials that we set or temperature gauges. You’ve got to play with that oven.”