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Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part 2 Of A 3 Part Series
Nonna and the importance of family
Let’s not forget the traditional Sunday family gathering at nonna’s house in the old quarter. Hmmmm…yummies. When you entered her kitchen, you were greeted by the pleasant aroma of freshly prepared pasta, homemade meatballs and sausages. While they cooked, nonna cooked her remarkable homemade sauce in a pan, adding basil and garlic. Nonna (Italian grandmother) is an extremely unique person in the life of her family. Boy could she cook. Everything she put on the table was made from scratch, no matter how long it took, she loved every minute of it. She could tell by sight and taste when the seasoning was just right by the way the dough looked when it was ready for ravioli, pasta and lasagna, creating a range of delicious old country Italian dishes to enjoy with a nice bottle of homemade. wine.
“Mangia, Mangia” (eat, eat) she said, standing at the table with a smile on her face, watching her children devour everything. It was a wonderful moment for her. Nothing was ever left on the plate, especially after the toast wiped it. The satisfied look on her family’s faces was the reward she needed for a hard day.
Nonna always dedicated her life to her husband and children. Her Italian heritage brought her immense pride. She tried to instill in her children and grandchildren the same family values and traditions that were held sacred in the old world. She couldn’t understand why her children were so different from her if she didn’t raise them like that. Their ways of thinking, their lack of respect, their dress, their lifestyles, their choice of recreation and entertainment, and most of all their inability to maintain their Italian, worried her terribly. They became so Americanized, which sometimes caused conflicts between them. She showed her displeasure in her broken English. They rolled their eyes and replied in annoyance, “Mom, you’re in America now, not Italy. Give up.” Still, she loved her family passionately and cared deeply about her fellow human beings. Nonna was an instrument of Italian tradition and culture.
At the end of the day, in the silence of her room, the nonna sat by her dimly lit lamp, eyes closed, a picture of sweet calm, and prayed with a rosary in her hand. She brought the beads of the rosary to her lips to kiss them, wiped away her tears and bowed her head again, moving her lips in silent prayer to the Madonna, begging her blessing for the welfare of her family.
The advent of public housing projects after World War II disrupted the peaceful lives and relationships of thousands of Italian Harlem residents and destroyed the tenements in which they lived. Block by block demolition began to tear apart the interwoven fabric of Italian Harlem. Not only were the apartment buildings demolished, but 1,500 retail stores, mostly owned by Italians, went out of business and 4,500 people lost their jobs. Only three notable Italian establishments from that era, Patsy’s Pizzeria, Rao’s Restaurant (where famous celebrities still dine) and Claudio’s Barbershop, are still operating today. Thus began the steady migration of Italian Americans away from East Harlem. The split became unbearable for many families and close friends, torn apart to make way for progress. Others, benefiting from the improving American economy, moved from East Harlem to the suburban areas of New York.
So now I ask you, “How did this neighborhood of East Harlem come to be known as Italian Harlem, and why did Italian religious holidays such as Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Feast of the Giglio Dance become so important to this neighborhood? The question we will try to answer is how we will move forward.
Italian immigration to America
Industrialization and the establishment of the factory system throughout the Americas offered the promise of employment to the poor masses of Europe. Most industrialists in America depended on cheap European labor to staff their factories. Meanwhile, during the 1800s, Harlem developed all kinds of transportation projects in an effort to encourage northward expansion. America expanded, grew, and integrated from one community to another. In Harlem, these transportation projects attracted many wage laborers from many different ethnic cultures, mostly during the 1880s and 1890s.
Between 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States. Many settled in the Mulberry Bend neighborhood of lower Manhattan, while others spread across the country. The vast majority of Italian immigrants who remained in Mulberry Bend were extremely poor and lived in appalling conditions.
Worship and its conflicts for early Italian immigrants
Worship was extremely valuable to the Italian community. They were mostly Roman Catholics. Having the right to worship in their neighborhood was not easy. Most of the established Catholic churches in East Harlem already served the spiritual needs of the Irish population that dominated the area at the time. In the United States, the church has always catered to the Irish as an institution, although it has served other European immigrant nationalities as well. Early Italian immigrants were considered a minority and treated as second class. Because they were not Americanized or could not speak English like the Irish, they and their spiritual needs were overlooked because they were considered foreigners.
When Italians began to arrive by the thousands and flood East Harlem mostly between the 1880s and early 1820s, many flocked to the area’s Catholic churches. “When Italian families appeared to attend services in predominantly Irish parishes, they were subjected to a barrage of insults and even beatings.” These early immigrant families, extremely poor, living in appalling conditions in an overcrowded slum-like neighborhood, earning the lowest wages in the least skilled jobs, were denied the opportunity to celebrate Mass or receive the Sacraments in the sanctuary. Their religious services were limited to services in the church or in a first-floor apartment when they managed to get a priest who spoke their language.
Meanwhile, in 1882, natives of Polly, a town in the province of Salerno, Italy, began gathering to celebrate their hometown’s patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in East Harlem. The holiday takes place on July 16. This religious event was humbly initiated in the front yard of a residence at East 110th Street and First Avenue.
As a result of the feast, which grew each year, a sense of togetherness began to grow. A local upstart political figure named Antonio Petrucci was instrumental in fanning the flames of passion. He organized a club called “Congregazione del Monte Carmelo”. He also helped Italian immigrants find a place to worship. A first-floor apartment rental on East 111th Street, west of First Avenue, became the Chapel of Our Lady of Mt. Petrucci is said to have even bought a statue of her, a replica of the one venerated in Polla, which had been imported from Italy. The figure was dressed in an extremely brocaded robe. The light construction of the statue allowed it to be carried in the procession of the holiday.
Reverend Emiliano Kirner, a Pallottine father, was the first priest sent in May 1884 to specifically care for the spiritual needs of the Italian community of East Harlem. Mass was celebrated in the chapel for the first time in 1884 on Easter Sunday.
Father Emiliano Kirner played a key role in encouraging Italian immigrants to provide Madonna with a decent home, a church. The Italians were enthusiastic about the proposed project. A plot of land on 115th Street was purchased, the foundations were laid in September, and by the beginning of December the lower church in the basement was finished and ready for use. However, the Italian communities were enthusiastic because it was “their parish”. The upper part of the church was completed in 1887. This church was literally built by Italian craftsmen after returning home from their hard work with the help of Father Kirner who joined the workforce.
In Part 3 of this series, we’ll explore all the important steps in celebrating religious holidays in East Harlem’s Italian community.
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