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.

The sense-world of the festa

“The festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel recreated the primary and traditional environments of the Italians–the preverbal environment, on the one hand, and the remembered environment of Italy, on the other–in the presence of a quasi-omnipotent mother who healed or did not heal, depending on the behavior of the individual. For the older immigrants and their Italian-born children, the sense world of the festa was the sense world of their southern Italian childhoods; for the later generations in East Harlem, the sense world of the festa recalled the smells, sounds, and tastes of life in the domus. In both cases, the festa and the domus, the sense world was shaped and presided over by a powerful woman. The religious experience of July 16 had the power to evoke memories that were extraordinarily basic: the people seemed to be returning not only to their paese but, more profoundly, to their mothers. The festa was a time of regression, in other words, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of it helped to precipitate and sustain this regression. The devotion summoned people into the sacral domus and surrounded them with familiar tastes, smells, sounds, colors, and textures; in this way, in the presence of their ‘mamma,’ the people returned to the world in which they had first learned, from their mothers, what reality was, what was good and what bad, what their basic values were and the values of their community. The festa and the long-passed intimate moments of moral formation smelled, tasted, and sounded the same.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 171-172.

Italy or East Harlem?

“For the most part, however, the continuity of faith and devotion which the parish journal made explicit was seen as a faithfulness to southern Italian traditions. The procession, we are told, recalled the great traditional religious processions of southern Italy, just as the Italian American societies consecrated to particular saints resembled those in Italy. The people were urged to relive their Italian past, to reaffirm their Italian selves during the festa. They were told to recall the little shrines to Mary scattered all over Italy–in valleys, beside rivers, deep in forests–and in this way to travel again the spiritual geography of their youth as they worship at the shrine on 115th Street. Though they could not actually be in southern Italy, they could behave as though they were there; indeed, there are times when the author of the parish bulletin actually confused the two places, so that it is occasionally difficult to tell whether he is writing about Italy or East Harlem.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, 168-169.

Journey to la festa

“The devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street met the emotional and moral needs of a population that had emigrated. In the earliest period, from its founding to the time of Dalia’s pastorate, which paralleled the first period of Italian immigration to the closing of the gates, when men were coming alone to New York, participation in the cult assuaged the complicated guilt of the immigrants. The devotion allowed men to be faithful to a woman on these shores as a sign of their faithfulness to the women they had left in Italy. Attendance at their mother’s house located the men in the familial strategy of immigration: they had come because of their families and they could remember and acknowledge this in the devotion. In the earliest writings extant at the shrine, the church is identified strongly as ‘mamma’s house,’ and la Madonna is called by the familiar and childlike nostra mamma’. By initiating and attending the devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street, the men were declaring their faithfulness not only to their women but also to the moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women. The dimly glowing vigil lights which the earliest male immigrants kept burning in their rooms before images of the Madonna and the saints recalled the men to their moral culture: each night, with the sound of the elevated train coming in through the open windows, the noise of the street and the glowing of the gas factory’s stacks, the red lamps summoned the men to be faithful to the values of their people. The devotion and the festa confirmed this and allowed the men to act out their faithfulness.

…There is a way in which the entire festa recapitulated the experience of immigration. The annual celebration also involved a journey… Al of my informants stressed the fact that faithful came from ‘all over’ to the annual celebration, and they particularly wanted to call to my attention long trips that involved crossing water–from Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey; in each case, it was emphasized that a bridge had to be crossed or a boat taken but that this did not deter the faithful.

“By the principle of ‘inverted magnitudes,’ the signification of great realities or events by the smallest symbols or objects, the difficulties encountered in getting to the shrine opened out in meaning for the immigrants and played out again the movement of their migration, ending, as we were told their migration had ended, at their mother’s feet. The younger generations were invited to share in a very physical way the central event of their parents’ histories both by participating in the annual procession as children and by undertaking their long journeys back to Harlem for the devotion in later years.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 163-165.

 

Applying domus-logic to holy figures

“Holy figures were also celebrated by the people for their place in the domus: the most cherished and important Catholic figures in Italian Harlem were sacred figures in domus relationships. The Madonna held her infant in her arms; Saints Cosmos and Damian were brothers who died together; Saint Ann was loved as the mother of the Madonna. Covello discovered that southern Italians conceptualized the Trinity as the Holy Family, with Sant’Anna, Jesus’ nonna (Grandmohter), always in the background as an additional figure.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.

Being cristiano

“The meaning of the words good and bad were determined by the domus. The immigrants in Italian Harlem spoke of their deepest and most fundamental aspiration as the desire to be ‘Christians.’ (The opposite of living like a Christian was to live like a Turk.) A Christian was defined as a person rooted in and responsible to the domus. One woman explained the word to her children: ‘When you all grow up and are earning money and are married, we must buy or build a house which will hold our whole family together. That’s the only way to live like Christians. The American way is no good at all for the children to do as they please and the parents don’t care.’ Another young woman held out as an example of Christian living the insistence of a young woman that an importuning suitor come and meet her family before she allowed him to walk her home from work. The old woman emphasized her point: ‘He came three times and then both families got together to arrange for the engagement. They were ready to be married when the war came along. This girl will marry and be blessed because she revered her parents and did the right thing. I call that living like a ‘cristiano’ not behaving like a Turk.’ A Christian had a domus sensibility; he or she was ready to sacrifice without question for the good of the domus.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.

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.