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Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part 2 Of A 3 Part Series
Grandmother and the importance of the family
Let’s not forget the traditional Sunday family gathering at Grandma’s house in the old quarter. Hmmmm…delicious. The inviting aromas of freshly made pasta and homemade meatballs and sausages greet you as you enter their kitchen. While they were cooking, Nonna cooked her homemade sausage in a pan, adding basil and garlic. A grandmother (an Italian grandmother) is an extraordinarily unique person in the life of her family. The boy could cook. Everything she put on the table was made from scratch, no matter the time, she loved every minute of it. He could tell when the spices were right by sight and taste, how the dough looked when it was ready for ravioli, pasta and lasagna, creating a variety of delicious Italian dishes from the old country, enjoyed with a nice bottle of homemade . wine
“Eat, eat” (eat, eat) she said, sitting at the table with a smile on her face, watching her children devour everything. It was a pleasant moment for her. Nothing was ever left on the plate, especially after the bread crust dried it. The satisfied look on his family’s faces was all the reward he needed for a hard day’s work.
The grandmother always dedicated her life to her husband and children. His Italian heritage brought him immense pride. He tried to instill in his children and grandchildren those 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 when that wasn’t how she raised them. Their ways of thinking, their lack of respect, their clothing, their living practices, their choices of recreation and entertainment, and above all, the lack of preserving the Italian language worried him terribly. They had become so American, that sometimes it created conflicts between them. In her broken English she expressed her displeasure. They rolled their eyes, they answered annoyingly: “But, you are in America now, not in Italy. Give me a break.” However, he loved his family passionately and cared deeply for his companions. The grandmother was an instrument of Italian tradition and culture.
At the end of the day in the silence of her room, Nonna would sit by her dimly lit lamp, eyes closed, a picture of sweet serenity, praying with her rosary in hand. Bringing his rosary to his lips to kiss, he wiped away his tears and bowed his head again, moving his lips in silent prayer to the Madonna, asking her blessing for the well-being of his family.
Tearing of the Fabric
The advent of public housing projects after World War II disrupted the peaceful lives and relationships of thousands of Italian residents of Harlem, demolishing the houses that housed them. Block by block demolition began to tear apart the woven fabric of Italian Harlem. Not only were the houses demolished, but 1,500 retail stores, most of them Italian, went out of business, leaving 4,500 people without work. Only three notable Italian businesses from that era, Patsy’s Pizzeria, Rao’s Restaurant (where famous people still dine) and Claudio’s Barbershop are still operating today. Thus, a steady migration of Italian-Americans began to move away from East Harlem. The split became unbearable for many families and close friends, torn to make progress. Others, who benefited from the improvement of the American economy, moved from East Harlem to the suburban area of New York City.
So now I ask you “How did this neighborhood of East Harlem come to be known as Italian Harlem and why did Italian religious festivals such as Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Festival of the Lily Dance become so important to this neighborhood?we’ll try to answer as we go along.
Italian immigration to America
Industrialization and the establishment of the factory system throughout America offered a 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 1800s, Harlem developed all kinds of transportation projects in an effort to promote expansion in the north. America was expanding, growing and integrating from one community to another. In Harlem, these transportation projects attracted many immigrant wage workers from many different ethnic cultures, especially during the 1880s and 1890s.
Between the years 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States. Many settled in the Mulberry Bend neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, others scattered across the country. Most of the Italian immigrants who stayed in Mulberry Bend were extremely poor and lived in terrible conditions.
Culture and its conflicts for the first Italian immigrant
Worship was extremely valuable to the Italian community. They were very Roman Catholic. Getting the right to worship in his neighborhood was not easy. Most of the Catholic churches established in East Harlem were already meeting the spiritual needs of the Irish population that dominated the area at that time. In the United States, the Church has always looked after the Irish as an institution, although it has also served other European immigrant nationalities. The first Italian immigrants were considered a minority and treated as second class. Since they were not American or could not speak English like the Irish, they and their spiritual needs were neglected because they were seen as foreigners.
When Italians began arriving in the thousands, flooding East Harlem especially between the early 1880s and 1920s, many flocked to the Catholic churches in the area. “When Italian families appeared to attend services in predominantly Irish parishes they were subjected to a barrage of insults and even beatings.” These first immigrant families, extremely poor, living in 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 participate in the Holy Sacraments in the sanctuary. Their worship was restricted to services in the basement of the church or an apartment on the first floor, when they could get a priest who spoke their language.
Meanwhile in 1882, the natives of Polla, a town in the Province of Salerno in Italy, began gathering to celebrate their hometown patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in East Harlem. The party is held on July 16. This religious event was humbly started in the front yard of a residence on East 110th Street and First Avenue.
As a result of the festival, which grew every year, a sense of community began to grow. An up-and-coming local political figure named Antonio Petrucci was instrumental in fanning the flame of passion. He organized a club called “Congregazione del Monte Carmelo”. He also assisted 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 Mount Carmel. It is said that Petrucci also 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 clothes. The light structure of the statue allowed it to be carried in the procession of the festival.
The Reverend Emiliano Kirner, a Pallottine Father, was the first priest who was sent in May 1884 to respond specifically to 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 crucial role in encouraging the Italian immigrants to provide the Madonna with a decent home, a church. The Italians were fired from the suggested project. The land was purchased at 115th Street, the foundation was laid in September, and at the beginning of December, the lower church in the basement was finished and ready for service. However, the Italian communities were excited 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 force of work
In part 3 of this series we will examine the all-important progression of the celebration of religious holidays by the Italian community of East Harlem.
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