The Madonna of 115th Street

The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950; Second Edition

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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    The Madonna of 115th Street
    Book Description:

    In a masterful evocation of Italian Harlem and the men and women who lived there, Robert Orsi examines how the annual festa of the Madonna of 115th Street both influenced and reflected the lives of the celebrants. His prize-winning book offers a new perspective on lived religion, the place of religion in the everyday lives of men, women, and children, the experiences of immigration and community formation, and American Catholicism. This edition includes a new introduction by the author that outlines both the changes that Italian Harlem has undergone in recent years and significant shifts in the field of religious history.Reviews of the earlier edition:"A richly tapestried portrait-narrative. . . . Orsi is to be commended for a truly significant contribution to the annals of American social history."-Francesco Cordasco,USA Today

    "Orsi has fashioned an impressive fusion of the inner histories of immigrant social and religious life."-John W. Briggs,American Historical Review

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16867-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction to the Third Edition: History, Real Presence, and the Refusal to be Purified
    (pp. ix-xxvi)

    The letter, posted from an old industrial city in the northeast, is undated, but the letter writer includes her home address and phone number on the upper right-hand corner of the first page. The handwriting is scrawled and shaky, and the letters are very large, suggesting that the writer is an older woman. The text runs to five pages. There is no salutation. The letter opens in the middle of the story.

    My mother had an answer to a Novena Prayer she made to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. My Mother and Father were married 4 years before my sister,...

  4. Introduction to the Second Edition: Fieldwork between the Present and the Past
    (pp. xxvii-lvi)

    When I climbed aboard Metro North in New Haven one day in the late 1970s, en route to New York to begin my research on Italian-American Catholicism in the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I understood myself to be a historian and I thought of my trip as being in search of archives where I hoped to find documents that would allow me to tell this story. I have heard historians proudly say that they study only dead people, and in those early days I, too, was looking for dead people. The archival moment—descent into moldy, poorly...

  5. Introduction: Popular Religion and Italian Harlem
    (pp. lvii-lxx)

    This is a study of religion in the streets. It is the story of a religious celebration, the annualfestaof the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in New York City, and of the devotion to this Madonna which flourished among Italian immigrants and their American-born or-raised children who lived around her. It is also, necessarily, a study of the community in which that celebration took place—the troubled, poor, constantly changing, culturally isolated and neglected community of Italian Harlem.

    It is the central assumption of this history that the celebration cannot be understood apart from an...

  6. CHAPTER I The Days and Nights of the Festa
    (pp. 1-13)

    SHORTLY after midnight on July 16, the great bell high in the campanile of the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 115th Street announced to East Harlem that the day of the festa had begun. It was a solemn moment; the voice of the bell seemed more vibrant and sonorous on this night. The sound touched every home in Italian Harlem. It greeted the devout already arriving from the other boroughs and from Italian communities in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even California. The sound filled Jefferson Park, where pilgrims who were not fortunate enough to havecompari...

  7. CHAPTER II Italian Harlem
    (pp. 14-49)

    THE story of Italian Harlem begins in work—or in the realities of work as these were experienced in the burgeoning period of American capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century. The first Italians arrived in northern Manhattan in the 1870s. They were brought there from Italy and from the Italian colony in lower Manhattan by an Irish American contractor, J. D. Crimmins, as strikebreakers to work on the First Avenue trolley tracks. An Italian workers’ shanty town developed along the East River on 106th Street in an area called Jones Woods, once used as a picnic ground by...

  8. CHAPTER III The Origins of the Devotion to Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem
    (pp. 50-74)

    THE Madonna of 115th Street shared the history of the people of Italian Harlem. She journeyed to the new world with the immigrants and lived among them in their neighborhood. She shared the poverty and ostracism of their early days. When Italians were relegated to the basements of churches in East Harlem, so was she; like the immigrants, she was an embarrassment to the Catholic church in New York City. The Madonna left the basement of the church on 115th Street at the same time that Italians and their children were beginning to take control of political and social life...

  9. CHAPTER IV The Domus-Centered Society
    (pp. 75-106)

    THE source of meaning and morals in Italian Harlem was the domus. Men and women in the community defined and determined who they were according to the standards of the domus. This is how they knew what was good and what was bad, how they defined the good life, how they understood what it meant to be human. An Italian American’s most intimate perceptions about the nature of reality and about the bonds that exist among people originated in the domus. The people of Italian Harlem distinguished themselves from Americans with reference to the domus. This was the heart of...

  10. CHAPTER V Conflicts in the Domus
    (pp. 107-149)

    ALOUD and unceasing lament rose from the streets and apartments of Italian Harlem throughout its history warning that the domus was in danger in American society. Although there was little evident reason for this dirge, since the domus remained the essential focus and source of the culture of Italian Harlem, still it persisted. The intensity of these expressions of fear and threat seems to have been in inverse proportion to the success of the maintenance of the domus in the community. One man, an immigrant from Sicily who had been in East Harlem for about fifty years, told Covello that...

  11. CHAPTER VI Toward an Inner History of Immigration
    (pp. 150-162)

    THERE is a hidden history of immigration that needs to be studied in order to understand the immigrants themselves, however difficult it may be to locate the appropriate tools with which to do this. Immigration was as much a spiritual event as it was a political and social response to particular historical conditions; the outward journeying was matched by a changing inner terrain. Anticipation of their new life in America was powerful among the men and women preparing to emigrate. The United States was imagined as a “mythical land immense and magnificent, opulent with food and flowers.”¹ one immigrant wrote...

  12. CHAPTER VII The Meanings of the Devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street
    (pp. 163-218)

    THE devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street existed in the interstices between anticipation and reality, between the old and the young, the individual and the domus, between the United States and Italy, severed memories and emergent aspirations, the fear of success and the longing for it, between the old moral order and the discovery of the new. 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...

  13. CHAPTER VIII The Theology of the Streets
    (pp. 219-232)

    SOUTHERN Italian popular religion gave voice to the despair of men and women long oppressed—oppressed with peculiar, sadistic ingenuity—and reinforced attitudes of resignation and fear, as well as a sense of the perversity of reality. All of this was certainly present in the devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street—but this is not the whole story. The immigrants were people strong enough to leave southern Italy and to struggle with the many hardships of migration to secure “Christian” lives for themselves and their families; their religious vision expressed both fear and courage, exile and security, submission and...

  14. A Note on Abbreviations
    (pp. 233-234)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 235-270)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 271-282)
  17. Index
    (pp. 283-287)