Torrington Church provides a home where lifelong friendships can be forged

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TORRINGTON — Shirley Durante and Mona Parker love their church and the many family friendships they have found there. Both are members of Workman Memorial AME Zion Church on Brightwood Avenue, where worship and fellowship are one.

Durante has lived in the city all his life. As a child, she remembers her mother, Maggie Rice, stopping to introduce herself to new people she met at the neighborhood grocery store.

“She said, ‘Do you have a church?’ then she would invite them to our house,” Duarante said. “She had this little thing that she said, ‘The friendly little church on the side of Brightwood Avenue, where a stranger will meet a friend, and a sinner will find God, and Christ is preached to all who enter. Come as you are.'”

This reflects Durante’s own feelings about the Workman Memorial AME Zion Methodist Church, of which she has been a member for many years and where she feels most at home.

“My brother was 10 years older than me, so I was like an only child, and my mom and I did everything together,” she said. “Mom worked at the Torrington Company from 2 to 10 p.m., and dad (Lyman Rice) worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we were doing things together.”

They were very close, she said.

“On New Year’s Eve we had a midnight service at church and then everyone was invited back to the family home and my mum would cook all day. She had sandwiches and snacks and pies and cakes, and people stayed until 2 or 3 in the morning. We were a family.

Although her family hasn’t held a New Year’s Eve like this in a long time, that same feeling remains at the church, she said. “We are a family.”

Escape from Boston

Parker found the Workman Memorial family after arriving in Torrington in 1992, through the Susan B. Anthony Project.

“I was a battered woman,” she said, adding that she grew up in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.

She was bullied as she got older, because of her fair skin and mixed race, she said.

“There was an AME Zion church down the street, and my grandmother was a member,” Parker said. “But I only started going when I was older.”

The Susan B. Anthony Project helped her move from Boston to Connecticut.

“I liked Torrington because it was calm. I liked the quiet,” Parker said. “In Boston, it seemed like you could hear all the gunshots, and there was a lot of crime. It got really bad in the 1980s.”

She also remembers the Ku Klux Klan marching through the city, in the neighborhood where she lived.

“They were walking down a main street with balaclavas and candles, and they were being escorted by police – can you believe that?” she said. “I was running to the window to look at them, and my grandmother was like, ‘Stay away from that window, you’re going to get shot.'”

By the time she arrived in Torrington, Parker was starting her life over.

“I was at Aldi (supermarket) one day and I was outside the store crying,” she said. “This pastor came up to me and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I said no, I wasn’t, and she invited me to a church barbecue. I met some people and they made me a plate. I felt so welcomed.

Parker said she was raised Catholic and her god was a punishing god.

“At Workman, I learned of a loving god and stayed,” she said. “Things worked out for me. I believe in angels and I’m still here.

To grow

Durante remembers a childhood when everyone played together and got along well in school.

“We had a good relationship with everyone in the neighborhood,” she said. “We never had black and white, we were just kids. I still have contact with people from back then; we were all so tight. I can sit now and remember that there were no insults, no fights.

“Saturday night my friends and I had a cooking night with my mom at home – we didn’t go out on Saturday, we were home,” she said. “We were four. She was making cakes and pies, and we were learning how to do different things. I still can’t make a pie crust to save my life, but we had a great time.

Durante later married, and she and her then-husband, Mel, had two sons and a daughter. Now she has three grandchildren and a great-grandson.

When her children were young, Durante remembers the Klan holding a rally at Coe Memorial Park. She was with her parents at the time.

“My dad wanted to get off, and my mom said, ‘Don’t you dare,'” Durante recalled. “One of my sons was around 14, and my dad said he wanted him to see how it was, so they went away, for about half an hour.

“I said, don’t look, don’t talk, look and come back. I was scared to death,” she said.

Although Torrington seemed poles apart from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Durante recalls being unable to comprehend what she saw on television and in the newspapers showing the violent events unfolding in South.

“I never even imagined something like this would happen,” Durante said. “It was so awful knowing that the children had to go through this. Here, however, what happened in the south stayed in the south. But it was very traumatic.”

find the strength

Today, the two women said they are worried about people’s mood in general and wish they could change it.

“On Migeon Avenue there’s a sign that says ‘F-Biden,’ and then there’s one on Wolcott Street that says ‘F-Trump,'” Parker said. “What are children supposed to think when they see things like this? It’s so shameful; nothing has been done.

“I noticed them too,” Durante said. “I don’t understand it.”

Durante and Parker draw strength from fellowship and worship at the Workman Memorial, and Durante praises Pastor Kevin Johnson.

“He’s like a son to me, really, and such a love,” Durante said. “He’s such a great guy. Before Kevin, we had four acting pastors, but when Kevin came along, it was over. We’re all having so much fun, laughing and talking.

Due to the pandemic, Durante has stayed away from in-person events, but she is fully prepared to return to Sanctuary and her friends, she said.

“I don’t like not being here,” she said. Because she is babysitting her great-grandson, she feared being surrounded by too many people.

But “I don’t think there’s anywhere I’d rather be than here,” she says.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Parker said.

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