In Ages Past
From Columbus to Cabrini: America's Italian Catholics
Much of the Irish-Italian conflict was based on different religious styles. One stressed institutional affiliation, while the other simply emphasized being a Cristiano. Although clergy bemoaned their lack of formal religious education, Italians had a definite religious worldview. One scholar calls it a "distillation of the lives of saints, stories of miracles, and some prayers, along with protective incantations, passed down from generation to generation."
Nowhere was their religious life more publicly expressed than at their festivals. Food, games, and music attracted thousands, but these were incidentals. Ultimately, the purpose was to honor the saints who guided and protected the people. In his 1943 memoir Mount Allegro, Jere Mangione writes:
A guardian saint was like a friend in court. He had special access to God's ear. If you took care to remember the saint with prayers and an occasional candle, you could usually count on him to remain loyal and carry out your wishes.
In New Orleans, once home to a large Sicilian community, the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19th) is still a major event. Neapolitan immigrants began Manhattan's San Gennaro Festival (September 19th). Each summer, New York City hosts three separate festivals for Our Lady of Mount Carmel (July 16th). Its founders, Robert Orsi writes, wanted to honor the Madonna who "consoled them during the trials— both physical and spiritual—of immigration."
Long before people arrived in large numbers, Italian priests played a major role in developing Catholic higher education. Father John Grassi was one of Georgetown's first presidents. Out West, Italian Jesuits founded universities: Regis, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Gonzaga. (In Montana they served Native Americans; Ravalli County is named for a Jesuit.) Italian Vincentians established seminaries nationwide, while Italian Franciscans founded St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York.
In 1889, Mother Frances X. Cabrini arrived in New York with six Sisters. In his history of the New York Archdiocese, Monsignor Thomas Shelley writes: "They were active in the Italian community as teachers, nurses, social workers and counselors even ministering to prisoners on death row in the prisons." In 1946, Cabrini was the first American citizen canonized. (In 1975, Elizabeth Seton became the first American-born saint.) A model of urban ministry, St. Francis Cabrini is also the patron saint of immigrants.
Few groups have labored under more degrading stereotypes than Italian-Americans, who had to overcome prejudice inside and outside the Church. Buried beneath these typecasts is a rich heritage of service, scholarship, and hands-on ministry dating back centuries and continuing today. In the wake of March 19th, therefore, I offer readers, Italian and non-Italian, a belated Buona Festa di San Giuseppe!
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.