Paul Wilson: Hamilton mobster graces her mantel – and Virgin Mary too

Sarafina Perri died in Hamilton Saturday at 90. She came from the same small town in Calabria as her famous bootlegger relative, but chose a very different life.
Sarafina Perri and son Joe, some 10 days ago. Her memories of hometown Plati, where bootlegger Rocco Perri grew up, stayed sharp to the end. Her funeral is today. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Rocco Perri was a bootlegger, a mobster and surely had guys bumped off every now and then.

But here in the old brick house off Barton, nearly 70 years after he took a walk and vanished, Rocco has a place of honour. His portrait hangs in the livingroom, sharing the mantel with the Virgin Mary.

This is the home of Sarafina Perri. Or it was, until a few days ago. On Saturday morning, the cancer finally brought her to a last breath. She was 90.

The visitation is today – at Friscolanti, of course. The funeral is tomorrow – at All Souls, of course.

I met Sarafina just days ago. In her sunny back room we talked, her son Joe doing the translating when she got stuck.

Story about Rocco's will

Early this month, I wrote a story about Rocco Perri. The will he signed in 1930 is in the hands of a Hamilton widow. Her husband bought it in the ‘90s for $500 as a piece of local history.

But Dundas lawyer Helen Vukotic wants to look at that old document. She represents members of the Perri family and may want to file the will with the court.

The portrait of Rocco Perri gets a place of honour in Sarafina's livingroom. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

That CBC Hamilton story stirred the pot a little. There have now been several e-mails from Italy, from people who say they are descendants of Rocco Perri. They live in Plati, his hometown.

That is where Sarafina grew up too. And when she and her four children heard that someone is checking out the will, they hired Hamilton lawyer Doug Burns to do some checking himself. He’s contacted the Dundas lawyer, but they have not yet had a discussion.

"We are the only relatives here," Sarafina said firmly, on that afternoon about 10 days ago.

Little town of Plati made big news

She was born in Plati on Feb. 27, 1922. It is a town of less than 4,000 in the remote hills of Calabria, right at the toe of Italy. It made the news in a big way nine years ago.

About 1,000 paramilitary officers launched a raid at dawn on Plati. The town is known for its links to Mafia drug dealing and kidnapping. It has an underground village, a maze of secret tunnels equipped with TV, full fridges and secret hatchways.

In that raid, police charged through those tunnels and took more than 100 into custody – including the town’s current and former mayors, the head of the local police and a dozen present and past town councillors.

Rocco Perri went off for a walk in north Hamilton in the spring of 1944 and was never seen again. (Hamilton Public Library)

Sarafina was a girl there long, long before that. She grew up near Rocco’s parents. She said his father "was like a prince, very good with the people."

As for his mother, Sarafina said, "she told people that Rocco was too smart to stay in Plati." He was just a teenager when he left for Canada.

When Rocco vanished, Sarafina says, "his mother cried every day."

Sarafina became a Perri

Sarafina Agresta married Giuseppe Perri, Rocco’s nephew. When the young couple had their first child, Rocco’s mother had a request.

"She wanted us to name him Rocco," Serafina said. "But my father-in-law (Rocco’s brother Dominic) wanted the boy to be named after him."

By the time Giuseppe Perri struck out for Canada in the late 1940s, his notorious uncle had already been missing for several years.

Sarafina Agresta married Giuseppe Perri, nephew of Rocco Perri – who crowned himself king of the bootleggers. (Courtesy of Perri family)

Sarafina arrived in the early ‘50s with two children, Dominic and Anna. Here she had two more, Frank and Joe.

When the family first arrived they stayed with a woman they called Aunt Angelina. She was married to Tony Sergi and they lived at 208 Ferrie Street East, near Wellington.

They called me wop

Angelina had cooked for Rocco in the early days, and in return he helped her get started in the bootlegging business. After-hours liquor was always available at the house on Ferrie.

But after that early exposure to the shifty side of life in Hamilton, Giuseppe and Sarafina brought their family up the regular way. Giuseppe worked at Dofasco for 34 years, and died about five years ago. He loved Canada.

So did Sarafina, though it was hard in the early years. "A lot of people didn’t like me. They called me wop."

She discovered that some people grew a little afraid when they found out who she was. "They thought the name had power."

Sarafina did not drink. She did recite the rosary every day. And she did make a very good pasta sauce. "I cooked, I cleaned, I took care of my family," she said. "I had everything... I thank you, God." 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.