By Pete Kennedy
Bernadette Barbone Wesler grew up in an Italian family and is a lodge president with the Sons and Daughters of Italy – but she has never traveled to Italy.
Next year, she’ll go twice.
As the leader of LAM Valley Forge Lodge No. 1776, Sons and Daughters of Italy, Wesler is organizing two 2022 trips – Tuscany in the spring and Sicily in the fall. She’s also setting up Italian language classes to help her traveling companions prepare.
“I never learned Italian, except for the bad words,” she said. “When my grandparents were saying bad words, they would say them in Italian, so I knew. And I knew aspetta
(wait) and mangia (eat).”
Wesler, 72, grew up in Conshohocken. Her Italian father was a truck driver for the Tose trucking company, a big name because the owner, Leonard Tose, also owned the Philadelphia Eagles. Her mother, half-Irish and half-Italian, was a bookkeeper.
Both parents were active with the lodge, often helping out with fundraisers.
“My brother and I joined as we got older, as we wanted to learn more about our Italian heritage,” she said.
She has fond memories of processing through the streets of Norristown each summer – a tradition that has endured.
“We carry the flags of the Italian regions and our banner. They love us, they love us. Years ago, Norristown was all Italian, so they’d be all out on the streets,” she said.
The lodge has about 220 members and was formed by the mid-1990s merger of Valley Forge Lodge 1776 and Lodge Antonio Meucci (LAM) in Norristown. In 2013, the name underwent another change – from Sons of Italy to Sons and Daughters of Italy – when the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania voted to resign from the Order Sons of Italy in America because the national association wasn’t transparent about its spending.
Wesler became lodge president in 2015 at the urging of the lodge’s board of trustees. She didn’t have the corporate background of previous presidents, but she accepted the position with their encouragement and pledges of support.
“The Times Herald had a big article on it – the first woman president,” she said. “I was excited. My whole family came.”
Wesler is currently in her third two-year term. Her brother, Louis Barbone, is the longtime financial secretary. As president, she has kept up the lodge’s busy social calendar and philanthropy as much as possible through the pandemic.
In addition to the upcoming trips to Italy, the lodge hosts an annual picnic and monthly dinners featuring guest speakers. There have been trips to New York to visit Ellis Island and the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum and Italian Cultural Center.
“We always find some great Italian restaurant that treats us like royalty,” she said. “We come in with like 50 people, and they give us these 10-course dinners, it’s amazing. Italians are great. We love to eat, you know.”
On Columbus Day, Oct. 11, the lodge will join a ceremony at the Christopher Columbus statue in Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, “whether it’s boarded up or not,” she said. The following day, members will gather at the statue in Norristown’s Elmwood Park.
The lodge also raises funds for charities focused on Alzheimer’s disease and Cooley’s Anemia, a genetic blood disease common among Italians. Wesler said her lodge has always been proud to bring in the biggest donations at the state convention.
“They’d announce, ‘Now we’re taking donations for Alzheimer’s,” she said. “And we’d say, ‘Here is $25,000 from the LAM Valley Forge Lodge!’ And we would be crying because we would be so excited.”
The pandemic has forced the cancelation of fundraising events like the annual golf outing, but Wesler continues to keep members engaged through other activities and the lodge newsletter.
“Always our big goal is to get more members, and we need young members,” she said. “A lot of our young members have families. So their time is spent going to soccer and football games. They’re family people, which we love. We know eventually their kids will grow up, and we hope they’ll be more active in the lodge.”
Wesler has a son and two daughters, and two grandchildren in college. She worked as a medical billing supervisor – which turned out to be good training for collecting lodge membership dues – before retiring in 2020.
“Everybody was working from home. I had about 10 people under me,” she said.
“There were computer issues. I wasn’t getting work done. I said, ‘I’m 71 years old. Do I need this?’ And I gave 30 days’ notice.”
She’s active in her church and the Legion of Mary, where she spends time visiting and praying with older members of the community.
“I’m definitely a family person,” she said. “I still live in the same house in King of Prussia, but I sold it to my daughter and son-in-law. They’re taking care of me. My bedroom is downstairs, where my father lived when I took care of him.”