Italian Harlem

Robert Anthony Orsi. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Madonna of Mount CarmelWhen the Virgin Mary came to New York, old women had visions, men were healed, and babies were miraculously born. But unlike at Lourdes, Marpingen, or Ezkioga, no-one questioned whether she had really appeared. Italian migrants from Polla celebrated their first festa for the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in 1881. They built a church for her three years later and she became the center of religious life for Harlem’s Italian community for over seventy years. In The Madonna of 115th Street (1985), Robert Anthony Orsi explores how Italian Americans used Mary to maintain their community and family life. He writes, “the figure of the Virgin was a symbol at the center of a ritual, and both symbol and ritual were taken up into a communal narrative mythology. The Madonna was not a stationary icon to be worshiped, but the focus of a drama to be acted out.” And in that drama, “the men and women of Italian Harlem shaped and found themselves.”

Italian HarlemAmerican Catholics frequently complained the Italians of East Harlem. Their neighborhood was notorious for its mafia syndicates and was an immigrant quarter with overcrowded apartments and too many people who didn’t speak English. They only went to church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and rarely tithed and did not support Catholic schools as Polish or Irish Catholics did. But these people really were extremely religious, Orsi insists. For the purposes of this study, Orsi defines religion as “the totality of their ultimate values, their most deeply held ethical convictions, their efforts to order their reality, their cosmology.” And what lay at the center of the Italian cosmology in Harlem? Something Orsi calls the domus. He borrows this term from Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, who explains it as “at once building and family, the unifying principle that linked man and his possessions.” For the migrants in Harlem, the domus included one’s immediate and extended family, but also the food, customs, superstitions, and practices that they had brought with them from southern Italy.

Italian HarlemOrsi dedicates more than half of this study to examining the domus and explaining why it mattered so much to this community. To begin with, it connected them to relatives at home, and honoring the domus was a way of dealing with the guilt of leaving them behind. It also protected the neighborhood from untoward influences. Regardless of how powerful the mafia became, they were never a threat to the Italians because they respected the domus as something sacred. The unwritten rules of the domus protected unmarried girls from the advances of untrustworthy boys. Italian boys agreed that they would feel up as many American girls as would let them, but would never touch an Italian girl if their intentions were not completely honorable. Even having coffee with an Italian girl was tantamount to a marriage proposal. Most importantly, however, the domus protected the women who were simultaneously its masters and its slaves. In the words of Marie Concilio, a young Italian woman writing in 1940, a girl’s mission in life was to “help the mother in spoiling the father and the brother by waiting on them and by making them helpless around the house.” The crippling and tireless labor that this entailed took up all of a woman’s time and energy, but it also ensured her total power and absolute respect within the domus.

Madonna of Mount CarmelWomen were the most dedicated participants in the cult of the Madonna of Mount Carmel. They were the ones who walked barefoot through the streets carrying enormous wax candles or accompanying the Virgin on her migration through East Harlem during the annual festa. If men came, and many did, it was because they wives or mothers made them. Some of Orsi’s richest sources are letters to the parish newspaper in which the faithful detailed prayer requests and miraculous interventions that they attributed to the Madonna’s intersession. In the seventy year period Orsi covers, only two letters clearly came from men. Women wrote about being saved in childbirth, their men recovering miraculously from work-related injuries, marital problems, and bringing sons home from wartime service. “Two months ago my husband was laid off after having worked in the same place for nine years,” one correspondent wrote in 1946. “I was so worried I didn’t know what to do.” So she made a novena and her husband got his job back. In grateful recognition of the Madonna’s aid, it was common for couples such as this to vow to participate in the festa barefoot for the next five years, to crawl to the shrine on their hands and knees, or to wear a blue sash (like the one worn by the Virgin) for the next couple of months, including when at work.

Our Lady of Mount CarmelThe celebrations that surrounded the annual festa for Our Lady of Mount Carmel would last for days. It was a chance to catch up with relatives, meet girls, and solidify the values of the community by reminding people that Mary was watching over them. Devotees had an extremely intimate and personal relationship with the Madonna. One woman told a reporter in 1949 that “I have received many graces but now I want another one, and I’m sure the Madonna will listen to me, because I fight with Her, I get angry with Her, and then I always ask her pardon – this is the best system.” In the process, God became manifest in their communities, their loves, and their disputes. Orsi concludes his book thus: “The face of the man-god in the ecce homo tradition is bathed in blood – redemptive, life-giving blood, according to the beliefs in which these immigrants had been raised. This divine blood was the foundation of the covenant that existed between the divine and the domus. Just as blood ties demanded reciprocity and responsibility in the domus, so this image of a bleeding God established a profound intimacy between the people, who knew the meanings of blood, and the divine. Son and mother, brother and sister were bound by deep ties of blood, and so were the human and the divine.”

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