Thursday, November 14, 2013

Notes on Robert A. Orsi, Madonna of 115th Street

Orsi, Robert Anthony. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

The following are my notes on the title listed above. In a few minutes, you can get an overview of the contents of this book. The introduction and successive chapter titles appear in bold print.

Introduction: Popular Religion and Italian Harlem

Orsi begins by explaining, "This is a study of religion in the streets. It is the story of a religious celebration, the annual festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in New York City, . . . " (xiii).

He states that there are two senses of the word religion: (1) rituals, practices, symbols, prayers, statements of faith, creeds, etc., and (2) what really matters to people: their cosmology, the collection of their ultimate values, what they deeply care about. Naturally, this raises the question: So how does a historian get at (2)? Orsi says that there are basically two ways: (a) you talk with and ask people and (b) you observe, you watch people.

"The main subject of this study, then, is the history of the devotion to and the festa in honor of the Madonna of 115th Street and its place in the religious life of the people who lived in the tenements, shopped in the stores, courted in the parks, and walked the streets around la casa della Madonna in Italian Harlem" (xxi).

Orsi says that when conducting his research, he had some secondary interests as well:

1. To analyze a modern, urban religious experience. How to do that?
2. To make a contribution to the understanding of Catholicism. Orsi notes that official spokesmen for Catholicism often speak of only a slice of what that religion actually does and is all about.
3. To offer a social history of a religious symbol.
4. To show how popular religion serves as the sacred theater of a community like Italian Harlem.

1. The Days and Nights of the Festa

An engaging description of the festa. Pilgrimage to the church took place on July 16th, but special events carried on for days. People came to Italian Harlem from all over the Northeast U.S., and even farther away. The devotional activities were extravagant: candles that weighed as much as a man, wax body-part replicas, expensive outfits, plenty of food and drink. Orsi says that he wants to get at what this meant, what it was all about.

2. Italian Harlem

Italian Harlem was upper east side Manhattan. Italians came there from the old country and also from lower Manhattan. Orsi provides a good section on the realities and hardships of immigration. Many of the first immigrants were single men, working enough to either return to their families in Italy with money, or to send remittances on which their relatives could survive and eventually buy passage to America.  The author emphasizes how vulnerable immigrants were and how hard they worked. Italian immigrants were often despised by other ethnic groups in New York because the Italians were used by labor to end strikes. Apparently, Italians were hired to take the place of striking workers. They were much more desperate for work, willing to labor under all sorts of conditions.

Orsi emphasizes the slum character of Italian Harlem. It was overcrowded and conditions were poor. A very high rate of infant mortality in that part of the city. As Italians began to do better for themselves, they would sometimes move out to the Bronx or to Astoria Queens.

3. The Origins of the Devotion to Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem

The author describes the beginnings of the festa in the early 1880s. He notes especially how the status of the Madonna matched the status of her devotees. Orsi states that origins go back to the earliest mutual aid societies in Italian Harlem. He describes how that feste were very important in Italian-American Catholicism. The feste, and the Italians who held and participated in them, were looked down on and condemned by Irish Catholics. It should be remembered that the feste were largely conducted by the laity. Italian American Catholic clergy were also no fans of the feste. But the Catholic Church depended on the Italians because of the large contributions they made to feste societies.

Orsi says that there were really three festas of the Madonna on 115th Street: the one that took place inside the church under the direction of the Catholic clergy, the one that took place in the streets and had next to nothing to do with official Catholic teaching or liturgy; and the one that was somewhere in between the first two, and which was expressed in both the church and in the streets (p. 59).

In 1903-04, the Madonna of 115th Street was elevated by authorities in Rome from the status of a shrine to that of a sanctuary. This has occurred in only three places in the New World: New Orleans, Mexico, and 115 Street in Harlem. Orsi explains the Vatican's motives for doing this: the move appealed to Italians in America and sent a signal to American Catholic leaders that, although they looked down on the popular practices and devotional activities of Italian Americans, they were not in charge of the American church.

At the end of the chapter, Orsi describes the decline of the festa in Harlem; how that on 115th St. it went from a situation where a festa had a church, to one where a church had a festa. Italian Americans were moving out of the old neighborhood, going to places like the Bronx, New Jersey, and Westchester.

4. The Domus-Centered Society

An interesting chapter on the family as a near or virtual religion in Italian culture: Sunday gathering of the group was expected; people could be "excommunicated" for certain infractions, etc. This was reinforced by a kind of anti clericalism among Italians. Good section on the significance of rispetto (esp. 92-93).

5. Conflicts in the Domus

Emphasizes inter-generational conflicts; those between immigrants who had been born and raised in Italy and their American-born children. Rules and norms of the older generation seemed quaint and suffocating to the much-more-American second generation.

Also, conflicts within the domus that impacted particularly women. Wives and mothers were granted a large measure of authority within the home, although they were submissive in public. Seems like what Orsi is getting at is that men insisted on public authority, but that they did not accept an equal measure of responsibility at home. That burden fell to the wife and mother, who typically worked night and day, and who appealed to and empowered the eldest son to carry out her orders in public. (Was this because she resented her husband for this abdication?) Single women had virtually no autonomy.

6. Toward an Inner History of Immigration

Orsi describes the anxieties and paradoxes of the immigrant experience. They wanted to be free from desperate poverty. They came to America and met with back-breaking work, unscrupulous bosses, etc. There was the tug and pull of leaving Italy, and then wondering if it was the right decision. They had grandiose visions of what New York would be like, and were bitterly disappointed. They had not anticipated that they could not simply come to America and make money without America changing them and their families. After immigration, impoverished village or farm life in Italy seemed wholesome and preferable to the dark and hard, unhealthy life in the huge city.

7. The Meanings of the Devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street

A. The Madonna was seen as the person, the power who brought people together from across great distances, and who cared for and protected people who were distant.

B. The Madonna "was a visible link between Italy and East Harlem" (168).

C. The experience of the festa put Italians in touch with their "preverbal environment" (171). Orsi focuses on the combined power of sights, sounds, and smells. He also mentions the significance of scapulars.

D. "Participation in the celebration of the feste and worship of the summarizing symbol of the Madonna  became the nexus between the individual domus and the neighborhood in Italian Harlem" (178). Orsi mentions, among other things, the assertion of Italian presence and pride during the processions which marked off the boundaries of the Italian community in East Harlem.

E. "The community reveals itself to itself" says Orsi. One example he gives: Through volunteer projects for the purpose of enhancing, beautifying the church on 115th Street, the community became aware of what it could do. Also, the festa was a community expression of the solidarity of that group, a time of heightened awareness of and commitment to their interconnection.

F. Orsi says that devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street was partially the result of American Catholicism's rejection of the culture of Italian immigrants. Thus, the Italian community turned to the Madonna as a sort of alternative to a church that did not accept them.

G. Orsi says that the "sense world" of the festa was the context in which healing in the Italian community was effectual.

H. "The festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel announced that the entire texture of Italian humanity was good, that these people's needs and styles of organizing their inner and outer lives were good" (196).

8. The Theology of the Streets

A wordy condensation and summary of the book. It makes sense, but it's still hard to get a handle on this book, whose points are sometimes slippery and amorphous.