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,ย The Madonna of 115th Street, 168-169.

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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,’ andย 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,ย The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 163-165.