Public Condomnation!

updated 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS THE CANDLELIGHT PROCESSION wound through the streets, bareheaded men and black-kerchiefed women recited the rosary and sang hymns. It could have been Palermo in the Middle Ages. Instead this was Cranston, R.I., this summer, where devout Italian-American Catholics of the Knightsville section were honoring the patron saint of their ancestral village in Italy and were about to be rudely confronted with the 20th century—in the form of a pink-and-white former Fotomat drive-through booth, just off the procession route, that had recently reopened as the Condom Hut.

"The women in the procession were all ashamed, embarrassed," says Joseph Manzi, 80, a member of the St. Mary's Feast Society, which sponsors the procession. "It doesn't belong there."

One Italian-American woman who isn't embarrassed by it is Emanuella Del Vecchio, 32, Condom Hut's founder. The owner of a nail salon in Cranston, she came up with the idea of a drive-through outlet after watching a TV segment about other stores specializing in condoms. Del Vecchio, who came to the U.S. from Italy when she was 7, sees her business as part of the battle against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases—and thinks her critics are indeed behind the times. "Don't these people watch television?" she asks. "They need to be educated."

None of this assuages the anger of many neighborhood residents. Vandals have thrown a rock through a window, and someone spray-painted the booth's facade. Far from intimidating her, however, the attacks made Del Vecchio determined to open before the procession. "They made me bitter," she says.

Stephen Burke, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, calls Condom Hut "a profit-making venture that sends young people a message promoting sexual activity, not abstinence." He also predicts that it will fold "for lack of privacy."

But Angelo D'Amore, 57, a member of the St. Mary's Society, thinks that's just what's good about Condom Hut. "I think what she's doing is great," says D'Amore. "There's a lot of things people want to hide—and sex seems to be one of them."

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