Four Cranbury centenarians continue to live a life defined by faith and family

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Cranbury Mayor Michael Ferrante (left) with Elms of Cranbury Administrator Liana Reynolds (right) during ceremony in Cranbury on April 14. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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The Elms of Cranbury celebrates four centenarians residents.ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Liana Reynolds (left) with a proclamation and flowers for Grace Castellano (right) in Cranbury on April 14. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Liana Reynolds (left) holds the proclamation for Christine Fresolone (right) in a ceremony at The Elms of Cranbury. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Millie Banas (center) watches on as she is recognized during the ceremony. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Photo of Eileen Harding (center) displayed during the ceremony in April for the centenarians. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Cranbury Mayor Michael Ferrante (left) with Elms of Cranbury Administrator Liana Reynolds (right) during ceremony in Cranbury on April 14. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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The Elms of Cranbury celebrates four centenarians residents.ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Liana Reynolds (left) with a proclamation and flowers for Grace Castellano (right) in Cranbury on April 14. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Liana Reynolds (left) holds the proclamation for Christine Fresolone (right) in a ceremony at The Elms of Cranbury. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Millie Banas (center) watches on as she is recognized during the ceremony. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Photo of Eileen Harding (center) displayed during the ceremony in April for the centenarians. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF

Living a century of life or more is currently experienced by less than 100,000 Americans, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The report stated that there were 93,927 people who reached age 100 and older in 2018, which was triple the 1980 figure of 32,194.

In 2021, Cranbury’s Millie Banas, Grace Castellano, Christine Fresolone and Eileen Harding joined this club when they reached the milestone age of 100 in the months of January, February and March. The four women reside at The Elms of Cranbury, a subacute rehabilitation and nursing facility in Cranbury Township.

Born in 1921, Banas, Castellano, Fresolone and Harding have lived through key periods in United States and world history, which includes The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the first man on the moon with the Apollo 11 moon landing and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The women were honored and recognized in an April 14 ceremony at The Elms of Cranbury, each receiving a proclamation from Cranbury Mayor Michael Ferrante.

“I think The Elms has been in our thoughts through the COVID-19 period. We knew COVID-19 has been hitting nursing homes especially hard during this period, so it was very nice news to hear about four centenarians making through that difficult time and celebrate their 100th birthday,” Ferrante said. “We wrote the resolution and called out each of the four residents. The way we read it on April 14, we read the general wording and read each residents paragraph as we handed them their own plaque.”

He added that their story in Cranbury is testament to the four women and The Elms.

Each of these Cranbury centenarians have their own life stories and have impacted the lives of members of their own families.

Take for instance Millie Banas, who was born in Europe and made her way to the United States at age 16. Banas went through Ellis Island and had cousins in Newark at the time when she made the trip. She would marry Joseph Banas and settled for a time in East Orange and from there they moved to Aberdeen. She had two children. She later became a grandmother to four grandchildren.

“She is very energetic, loves to walk, have conversations with people and at the same time very religious. She instilled in me the notion to always be kind to people. If somebody needs help to always be there for them,” said Ron Banas, Millie’s son. “My mother is the type of person that would drop everything to help somebody.”

Millie turned 100 on March 27 but did not want too much attention paid to her new age.

“Her first thought when she turned 100 was that I do not want anybody to know. I do not want them to make a big deal about it,” Ron Banas said.

On top of turning 100, Millie Banas has also successfully battled COVID-19 and never lost the deep connection she continues to have in her faith.

“My mother looks at situations and just deals with it. Just makes sure she can power through it,” Ron Banas said. “When she had COVID-19, it was like having the flu for her or having a cold. She was not upset. She said if she was going to pass away she knew she would be in a good place if that happened.”

When Grace Castellano’s birthday arrived earlier this year on Jan. 24, she was the first out of the four women to turn 100.

“When you ask her how old she feels, she will often say she feels young. She always looked at herself as younger,” Grace’s grandson John Paul Castellano said. “That milestone to her is just a number. I did ask her, ‘Can you believe that you are 100?’ and she goes, ‘I do not feel a day over 21.’ ”

She was born in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, and would stay in Olyphant until she was 19 in 1940. Castellano married her husband John Castellano that same year and would be married to him for 70 years.

From Olyphant, Grace Castellano would move to Newark with her husband during 1945, eventually calling Spotswood home in 1950. When Grace and John retired they moved to Honesdale, Pennsylvania, before returning to New Jersey in 2019.

She had three children with her husband, Grace, Domenick and Gary. Grace experienced the loss of her daughter shortly after her birth.

Grace Castellano is a grandmother to five grandchildren and a great-grandmother to three great-grandchildren

John Paul Castellano describes her as fun, hardworking, faithful and friendly.

“I learned a lot about loyalty and faith from her. One of the things I am proudest of is how she always overcame adversity,” John Paul Castellano said. “She lost a daughter, her husband was then drafted into World War II six months later, she lost her husband later in life when he was 90, and also lost her eldest son. She never really let it get her down.”

Just like Banas, Grace Castellano would have her own bout with COVID-19 and also successfully battled the virus at the age of 99.

“At 99 her symptoms were very mild and we told her that she beat a virus that can be deadly to people and she kind of shrugged her shoulders and that is where her faith and will comes in,” John Paul Castellano said. “She is very stubborn in good way. She will put her mind to something and pursue it. It plays into longevity and something I think people overlook.”

For Christine Fresolone, a dedication to family and a strong work ethic throughout her life have defined her 100 years. Fresolone may not have any children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, but she does have 12 nieces and nephews. She has called New Jersey home her entire life and reached the age of 100 on March 21.

“I think she was a little surprised when she turned a 100. She knew it was coming and I think in this last year with the COVID-19 pandemic the 100 snuck up on her,” Christine’s niece Anita Fresolone said. “Every time we talk to her or see her the first thing she says is, ‘I miss my family, how are all of you?’ She never complains and even at 100 still puts family first.”

Christine Fresolone’s career was as a longtime beautician, who would also end up doing the family’s hair throughout her life.

“She has this work horse mentality and has been a nice rock in our family for everyone. She was never about procrastination and always had the attitude of let’s get things done,” Anita Fresolone said. “She also did have a good sense of humor as well. Her life isn’t the cookie cutter example of most other peoples lives and I do not think she would have it any other way. She was successful in her career, surrounded by a lot of family and has overseen a bunch of generations now.”

Rounding out the four women is Eileen Harding, who turned 100 in February. She was born in Vermont on Feb. 16 and grew up in Saranac, New York.

“I do not think her turning 100 really struck her the way it struck people around her and her family. She just took it in stride and kind of sat back and said, ‘Wow 100,'” Eileen’s son John Harding said. “I do not think she was expecting to get there. Longevity runs on her side of the family with women. She was one of six children and the three sisters are still with us.”

In her early years, Harding’s life would take her to secretarial school and after she ended up working in the federal government in Washington, D.C., she moved from Washington D.C. to Governors Island in New York near Lower Manhattan.

After the passing of her husband in 1989 she moved from Staten Island to relocate to New Jersey. Her move to Rossmoor in New Jersey in 1992 would place her location directly between her children, who also live in the state.

“She was always looking out for us,” John Harding said.

She had two children, John and Dorothy. Harding is also a grandmother to one. As a devout Christian, she taught Bible school and Sunday school.

“Even at 100, she does her daily devotions first thing in the morning. A big part of her life was her religion,” John Harding said. “I am proudest of how she led her life. She was a housewife and a mother. Actually she went back to work in 1979 and commuted to Manhattan as a secretary for Chase Manhattan in downtown Manhattan and she did that for three years until the commute got to her. Her work ethic has stood out to me throughout her life and also how to treat people properly. That is the way she brought my sister and I up.”