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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 neighborhood. Hmmm… delicious. The inviting aromas of freshly made pasta and homemade meatballs and sausages greeted you as you entered their kitchen. While she cooked, nonna would simmer her remarkable homemade sauce in a pan, adding basil and garlic. The nonna (an Italian grandmother) is an extraordinarily 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 when the spices were just right by sight and taste, what dough looked like when it was ready for the raviolis, pastas and lasagna, making a variety of delicious old country Italian dishes, enjoy with a nice bottle of homemade wine.
“Mangia, Mangia” (eat, eat) she would say, while standing at the table with a smile on her face, watching her children gobble up everything. It was a wonderful moment for her. There was never anything left on the plate, especially after the crusty bread cleaned it. The satisfied look on her family’s faces was all the reward she needed for a hard job.
The nonna has 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 ancient world. She could not understand why her children were so different from her if this was not the way she had raised them. Their ways of thinking, their lack of respect, their clothing, their lifestyle practices, their choices of recreation and entertainment, and above all, their failure to preserve the Italian language, made them terribly uneasy. They had become so Americanized, which sometimes caused conflicts between them. In her broken English she would express her displeasure. They would roll their eyes, answer in annoyance: “Ma’, you are now in America, not in Italy. Give it a try.” Nevertheless, she loved her family passionately and cared deeply for her fellow human beings. The nonna was an instrument of Italian tradition and culture.
At the end of the day in the silence of her room nonna sat by her dimly lit lamp, eyes closed, a picture of sweet serenity, praying with her rosary beads in hand. She brings her rosary beads to her lips to kiss them, she wipes her tears and bows her head again, moving her lips in silent prayer to the Madonna, asking her blessing for the well-being of her family.
Tearing of the fabric
The advent of the public housing projects after World War II disrupted the peaceful lives and relationships of thousands of Italian Harlem residents, demolishing the tenements that housed them. Block by block demolition began to tear apart the interwoven fabric of Italian Harlem. Not only were the tenements demolished, but 1,500 retail stores, mostly owned by Italians, went out of business, leaving 4,500 people out of work. Only three notable Italian-owned businesses from that era, Patsy’s Pizzeria, Rao’s Restaurant (where famous celebrities still eat) and Claudio’s Barbershop still operate today. Thus began a 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, taking advantage of the improvement in the American economy, moved from East Harlem to the suburban areas of New York City.
So now I ask you “How did this neighborhood of East Harlem become known as Italian Harlem and why did the Italian religious festivals like Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Feast of the Dance of the Giglio become so important to this neighborhood? A question we will try to answer as we move forward.
Italian Immigration to America
Industrialization and the establishment of the factory system throughout America offered the promise of employment to the poor masses in Europe. Most industrialists in America depended on cheap European labor to staff the factories. Meanwhile, in the 1800s, Harlem developed all kinds of transportation projects in an effort to promote northward expansion. America expanded, grew and integrated itself from one community to another. In Harlem, these transportation projects attracted many immigrant wage workers from many different ethnic cultures, mostly in the 1880s and 1890s.
Between the years 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians came to the United States. Many settled in the Mulberry Bend neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, others fanned out 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 the Early Italian Immigrant
Worship was very valuable to the Italian community. They were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Having the right to worship in their neighborhood was not easy. Most of the established Catholic churches in East Harlem already met 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 also served other European immigrant nationalities. Early Italian immigrants were considered a minority and treated as second class. Because they were not Americanized or did not know English like the Irish did, they and their spiritual needs were overlooked because they were seen as foreigners.
When the Italians began to arrive in their thousands, which usually flooded East Harlem between the early 1880s and 1920s, many would flock to the Catholic churches in the area. “When the Italian families showed up to attend services in the predominantly Irish parishes they were subjected to a barrage of insults and even beatings.” These early immigrant families, very poor, living in appalling conditions in an overcrowded slum-like neighborhood, earning the lowest wages from the least qualified jobs, were denied the opportunity to celebrate mass or participate in e Holy sacraments in the sanctuary. Their worship was limited to church basement services or a first floor apartment, when they could get a priest who spoke their language.
Meanwhile, in 1882 the residents of Polla, a town in the province of Salerno in Italy, began to gather to celebrate their homeland patron, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in East Harlem. The celebration will be held on July 16. This religious event was humbly initiated in the front yard of a residence on East 110th Street and First Avenue.
As a result of the celebration, which grew each year, a sense of community began to grow. A local rising political figure by the name of Antonio Petrucci was instrumental in fanning the flame of passion. He organized a club called “Congregazione del Monte Carmelo.” He also helped the Italian immigrants find a place where they could worship. The rental of a first-floor apartment on East 111th Street, just west of First Avenue, became the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is said that Petrucci himself bought a statue of her, a replica of the one venerated in Polla, which was imported from Italy. The figure was dressed in extremely brocade colors. The light structure of the statue made it possible for them to be carried in the procession of the party.
Reverend Emiliano Kirner, a Pallottine Father, was the first priest sent in May of 1884 to specifically meet the Italian community of East Harlem’s spiritual needs. Mass was celebrated for the first time in 1884 on Easter Sunday in the chapel.
Father Emiliano Kirner played an important role in encouraging the Italian immigrants to give the Madonna a decent home, a church. The Italians were outraged by the proposed project. Land was purchased on 115th Street, the foundation was laid in September, and by the beginning of December the lower church in the basement was finished and ready for service. Nevertheless, the Italian communities were happy because it was “their parish”. The upper part of the church was finished in 1887. This church was literally built by Italian craftsmen after they came home from their hard work with the help of Father Kirner, who joined the work.
In part 3 of this series, we will examine the all important progress of the celebration of religious festivals by the Italian community of East Harlem.
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