Women’s prominence in devotion

“Women outnumbered men in the devotion since the time of the earliest available documents, although they were not included in its organizational life. They have always been the primary economic support of the devotion. With only about two exceptions, women wrote in to report the graces granted by the Madonna even when the grace had been bestowed on a man. Women were also the central figures in the life of the church….

“Women felt a profound sense of identity and a special closeness to the Madonna, as they reveal in their letters to her requesting graces or thanking her for favors granted. When their sufferings as mothers and wives were most intense, as these women tell their stories, when they felt that no one else could understand their particular agonies, they turned to the one who long ago had appealed to the masses of Europe because of her evident participation in humanity’s trials. The mothers and grandmothers of the women of Italian Harlem had contributed to the evolution and popularity of this image, which now found an urban restatement. The Madonna to whom these women were so attached was not a distant, asexual figure, but a woman like themselves who had suffered for and with her child. Her power was located precisely in those areas where the power of Italian women, in all its complexity, was located: the domus. Like Italian women, the Madonna was expected to hold families together. She was also asked to forgive and to protect, suggesting a complex and considerable power–and one that could be wielded capriciously.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 205-206.

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Blood ties

“According to the values of the domus-centered society, there were no individuals in Italian Harlem, only people who were part of a domus. Italians had a very intimate sense of the way a person was formed in and according to the values of the domus. Many in the first generation believed that a mother’s blood was mixed in with the milk her child suckled. This blood-sharing was thought to be the essential foundation of personal identity and morality. ‘Blood’ was the symbol of this deepest intimacy: it was the spiritual expression of value placed on family solidarity and loyalty in the domus-centered society.

“Individuals were warned that to violate the blood bonding of the domus meant disaster. There were a number of levels to this blood unity. It referred, first of all, to the blood-bond existing between mother and child, the essential blood tie; it also meant the special bonds that exist among siblings: the brother-sister relationship or the brother-brother relationship was thought to be closer than the father-son or father-daughter relationship because brother and sisters were of the same blood, had suckled their mother’s blood. But a blood-bond was also thought to exist among Italians. According to one of Covello’s sources: ‘Italians must marry Italians. They may be Sicilian, Calabresi, Neapolitans–but they have the same blood. They belong to the same nation. Hungarians should marry Hungarians. Jews marry Jews. Everyone in his blood.’ If one married outside the blood, one might not be able to incorporate his or her children into the domus and this meant that the blood violator and his or her offspring would be doomed to living like ‘animals.'”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 82.

Penitence as gratitude

“At the very rear of the procession walked the penitents. All of them walked barefoot; some crawled along their hands and knees; many had been walking all night. For the most part, it was the women who walked barefoot on the searing pavement, though one of my informants told me that men would do this if their wives insisted. In his words, ‘You do that, or you don’t get any food.’ Women bore huge and very heavy altars of candles arranged in tiered circles (‘like a wedding cake,’ one of my East Harlem sources told me) and balanced on their heads with the poise that had enabled them and their mothers to carry jugs of water and loaves of bread on their heads in southern Italy. Sometimes white ribbons extended out from the tiered candles and were held by little girls in white communion outfits. Some of the people in the rear had disheveled hair and bloodied faces, and women of all ages walked with their hair undone. Some people wore special robes–white robes with a blue sash like Mary’s or Franciscan-style brown robes knotted at the waist with a cord; they had promised to wear these robes during the procession, though some had promised to wear their abitini for several months, or even a year. Although the rear of the procession was the area designated for these practices, a penitential motif characterized the entire procession and, indeed, the entire day.

“This behavior was governed by the vows people made to la Madonna. The seriousness with which these promises were made and kept simply cannot be overemphasized. All my East Harlem sources told me, matter-of-factly, that people did all this, that they came to East Harlem–and kept coming even when Italians grew frightened of Spanish Harlem and knew that the neighborhood was no longer theirs–because they had made a vow. One of my sources described the promise like this:

You see, these elderly women would make a vow, you know, they would pray for something, say, if I ever get what I’m praying for… you know, a son was sick or someone had died [at this point, another former East Harlem resident interjected, ‘Like some kind of a penance’], and they would amke a vow… they say, maybe for five Mount Carmels we would march with th eprocession without shoes. In other words, do some sort of a penance to repay for the good that they’d gotten.

“In later years, as the older generation passed away or became too sick to come to the festa, their children came and kept their promises for them.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 9-10.

Devotional candles

“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who had been healed–or hoped to be healed–by the Madonna of headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and the wax body parts.

“The most sought-after items were the big and enormously heavy candles that the faithful bought, carried all through the blistering July procession, and then donated to the church. There was a wax factory at 431 East 115th Street, and candles were available at several stores on the block near the church. According to one of my informants: ‘They sold candles. They did a tremendous business in candles for years.’ In the June 1929 issue of the parish bulletin, in time for that year’s celebration, Nicola Sabatini, who owned a religious articles shop at the prime location of 410 East 115 Street, advertised: ‘The faithful who need candles of any size, votive articles of wax and silver, and other religious articles can get them here directly at reasonable prices and made to their specifications.’ The weights of the candles chosen by the people corresponded to the seriousness of the grace they were asking, and this was carefully specified in the vows made to the Madonna. A bad problem or a great hope required an especially heavy candle and weights could reach fifty or sixty pounds or more. Sometimes the candles weighed as much as the person for whom prayers and sacrifices were being offered. In 1923, for example, Giuseppe Caparo, sixty-nine years old, who had recently fallen from the fifth floor of a building without hurting himself, offered the Madonna a candle weighing as much as he did, 185 pounds. If, as often happened, the candles were too long or two heavy to be carried by one person, other family members and friends would share the burden.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, pp. 3-4.