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. Hmmmm…delizioso. The inviting aromas of freshly made pasta and homemade meatballs and sausages greeted you as you entered her kitchen. While they cooked, nonna would simmer her remarkable home-made sauce in a pan, adding basil and garlic. The nonna (an Italian grandmother) is an extraordinarily unique person in the lives 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, how dough looked when it was ready for the raviolis, pastas and lasagna, creating a variety of delicious Italian dishes from the old country, enjoyed with a nice bottle of home-made wine.

“Mangia, Mangia” (eat, eat) she would say, standing by the table with a smile on her face, watching her children devour everything. It was a delightful moment for her. Nothing was ever left on the plate, especially after the crusty bread wiped it clean. The satisfied look on her family’s faces was all the reward that she needed for a hard day’s work.

The nonna has always devoted her life to her husband and children. Her Italian heritage brought her immense pride. She tried to instill in her children and grandchildren those same family values and traditions that were held sacred in the old world. She could not understand why her children were so different from her when this was not the way she raised them. Their ways of thinking, their lack of respect, their dress, their lifestyle practices, their choices of recreation and entertainment, and above all, failure to preserve the Italian language unsettled her terribly. They had become so Americanized, which sometimes created conflicts between them. In her broken English she would express her displeasure. They would roll their eyes, responding annoyingly: “Ma’, you’re in America now, not in Italy. Give it a rest.” Nonetheless, she passionately loved her family and cared very much about her fellow-man. The nonna was an instrument of Italian tradition and culture.

At the end of the day in the quietness of her room, nonna would sit by her dimly lit lamp, eyes closed, a picture of sweet serenity, praying with her rosary beads in hand. Bringing her rosary beads to her lips to kiss them, she would wipe her tears and bend her head again, moving her lips in silent prayer to the Madonna, asking her blessing for her family’s well-being.

Tearing of the Fabric

The advent of the public housing projects after World War II disrupted the peaceful life and relationships of thousands of Italian Harlem residents, demolishing the tenements which housed them. The demolition of block after block began tearing apart the interwoven fabric of Italian Harlem. Not only were the tenements demolished but 1500 retail stores, mostly owned by Italians, were run out of business, leaving 4,500 people without jobs. Only three notable Italian owned businesses from that era, Patsy’s Pizzeria, Rao’s Restaurant (where famous celebrities still dine) and Claudio’s Barbershop are still operating to this day. Thus, a steady migration of Italian Americans began moving 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 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 have the Italian religious feasts such as our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Feast of the Dance of the Giglio become so important for 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 promise of employment to the destitute masses in Europe. Most industrialists in America depended on cheap European labor to man the factories. Meanwhile during the 1800’s, Harlem was developing all sorts of transportation projects in an effort to promote northward expansion. America was expanding, growing, and integrating itself from one community to the other. In Harlem, these transportation projects attracted many immigrant wage laborers from many different ethnic cultures, mostly during the 1880’s and 1890’s.

Between the years of 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in 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 extremely valuable to the Italian community. They were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Having the right to worship in their neighborhood wasn’t easy. Most of the established Catholic churches within East Harlem were already accommodating the spiritual needs of the Irish population that dominated the area at that time. In the United States, the Church has always catered to the Irish as an institution, though it ministered to other European immigrant nationalities as well. Early Italian immigrants were considered a minority and treated as second class. Since they were not Americanized or couldn’t speak English as the Irish did, they and their spiritual needs were overlooked because they were seen as foreigners.

As Italians began arriving by the thousands, flooding East Harlem mostly between the early 1880’s and 1920’s, many would flock to the Catholic churches in the area. “When the Italian families appeared to attend services in the predominantly Irish parishes they were subjected to a barrage of insults and even beatings.” These early immigrant families, exceedingly poor, living under appalling conditions in a crowded slum-like district, earning the lowest wages from the least skilled jobs, were denied the opportunity to celebrate mass or partake of Holy sacraments in the sanctuary. Their worship was restricted to church basement services or a first floor apartment, when they were able to get a priest who spoke their language.

Meanwhile in 1882 the natives of Polla, a city in the Province of Salerno in Italy, began gathering to celebrate their hometown patroness, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, in East Harlem. The feast is held 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 community began to grow. A local emerging 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 assisted the Italian Immigrants in finding 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 Mt. Carmel. It is said that Petrucci even bought a statue of her, a replica of the one venerated in Polla, which was imported from Italy. The figure was dressed in extremely brocaded robes. The statue’s light weight structure made it possible for her to be carried in the procession of the feast.

Reverend Emiliano Kirner, a Pallottine Father, was the first priest that was sent in May of 1884 to specifically cater to the Italian community of East Harlem’s spiritual needs. Mass was celebrated at the chapel for the first time in 1884 on Easter Sunday.

Father Emiliano Kirner played a pivotal role in encouraging the Italian Immigrants to provide the Madonna with a decent home, a church. The Italians were fired up by the suggested project. Land was purchased at 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. Nonetheless, the Italian communities were thrilled because it was “their parish.” The upper part of the church was finished in 1887. This church was literally built by Italian craftsmen after coming home from their arduous jobs with the help of Father Kirner, who joined the workforce.

In part 3 of this series we will examine the all important progression of the celebration of religious feasts by the Italian community of East Harlem.

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