The Abates homestead in St. Rose
Celebrating 100 years young, Mary Abate Desimone represents a living legacy of the Abate family.
“Take care of yourself,” said the centenarian. “Take care of your mother and father – and don’t stop. Keep going because when you stop, it’s all over.”
Mary hasn’t stopped going as matriarch of four generations of Abates (pronounced Aba-tay) who migrated from Sicily to St. Rose. They are proudly Italian, clinging to good food and observances like St. Joseph’s Day with wonderful pastries and traditions.
Throughout this time, Mary has lived in a house that evolved into a family homestead in St. Rose with her daughter Judy, said Brandi Hernandez, who represents the fourth generation of Abates. The homestead is smaller today, but the family has grown to where they’re still thriving in that same location being Italian and being family. Karen Abate, spouse of Mary’s youngest brother, still resides in the original home Peter built for his family.
“It started right there at the corner of Almedia Road and River Road,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez’s great grandfather and his father had arrived from Sicily and were headed to New Orleans for find work. A yellow fever outbreak prevented them from docking there so they went further down the Mississippi River to Destrehan.
“The first night they camped out on the river and were awoken by a woman who asked them if they needed work,” she said. “The woman turned out to be a plantation owner. Rumors through the family speculated it could have been Destrehan Plantation but was never able to find documentation supporting that. They stayed in the old white Ferrera house (where Charleston Apartments are today) when they sent for my grandfather’s siblings and mother.”
Vincenzo and Leonarda Abate were the homestead founders.
When Vincenzo died, his son, Peter, was asked by the “plantation owner” to fill his place at work at the same wage.
“He started raising his family at nine years old,” Hernandez said.
Later, Peter married Rose and this is when Mary and her siblings were born in the Ferrera house. The family acquired property on Almedia Road, where the couple and their eight children lived.
Mary recalled coming home from school as a child. She went inside the house, got a piece of bread and went straight to the fields to pick the beans.
As the children got older and started marrying, the property was divided and they started homes of their own. Among them was Aunt Mary, who along with her husband bought land that extended the family homestead.
“The first night they camped out on the river and were awoken by a woman who asked them if they needed work. The woman turned out to be a plantation owner.” – Brandi Hernandez
And from them came Hernandez, as well as her daughters, who represent the fourth and fifth generations of Abates still living on the homestead.
“We’re traditional people,” she said. “We’ve got a very tight bond. When one had a party, we all had a party. All the mommas were cooking and the dads were outside snapping peas and making homemade ice cream.”
They honor St. Joseph’s Day with a meal every year and the traditions that come with the observance.
“We all sit at the same table that our grandparents sat at,” she said. I’m 45 and I’ve been at 45 of these meals. We appreciate food. We’re proud of who we are. We say we’re Italian – that’s my life.”
Hernandez said they are not just family they are a community. Grandfather Sam Abate, Mary’s brother was a deputy with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office. Her father, Sam Abate Jr. and Uncle P.J. Abate grew up among the family community with their many aunts, uncles and cousins.
When Hernandez asked family members why their ancestors left Sicily and settled in St. Rose, they readily explained it was for work and money.
“It was the American dream,” she said. “Everybody wanted it. The word had spread and they wanted it. Opportunity”
But, for the Abates, there was much more to the family story.
From her grandfather’s deathbed, Hernandez recalled him saying, “Never forget who you are and where you came from.”