Saturday, June 11, 2011

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, N.Y. Pt. 2 (b)

By Miriam B. Medina

(Continue from the previous page)

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.

To be continued: Part 3a

If you want to learn more about Miriam's writing, her old neighborhood's religious feasts, or if you want to see the dancing of the giglio and feel the jubilation of the moment, please visit: The
History Box
for an unforgettable experience.

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