Faith and Community in Italian Harlem Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 15:25:15
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Orsi argues that, for the people of Italian Harlem, the sacred was located in the home, the domus, which was sacred space (Orsi 105). The domus, or family, was where vales were learned, where Italian Americans developed their sense of self. Family, they were taught, was what distinguished them from non-Italian Americans, Blood was the spiritual expression of value which expressed itself through family solidarity and loyalty (Orsi 85). To violate blood bond resulted in disaster and led to expulsion from the domus.

Expulsion from the domus meant exclusion from the deepest sources of self (Orsi 83). The domus was the heart of Harlem, the foundation of its culture (Orsi 75). The deepest values of the domus were family solidarity, respect for elders and placing the needs of the whole before those of the individual, so much so that There were no individuals in Italian Harlem, only people who were part of a domus (Orsi 78). The domus was the stage on which people showed their world their worth (Orsi 85).

Young women, for example, revealed the type of wives and mothers they would become. Marriage and roles such as God-parent created ties between domuses, which spread from the home into the neighborhood, where the same values of solidarity and mutual help applied (Orsi 92). Orsi pointed out how successive congressmen elected from Harlem supported social legislation to improve housing, working conditions and to create jobs, all of which reflected the values of the domus (96). Upward mobility was regarded with suspicion if it damaged the domus (Orsi 98).

Religion and the domus were interchangeable. The Sunday Meal was a sacred occasion, more than the Mass: the shared meal, eaten in near silence, was sacramental in nature, binding the family together and reinforcing its values. Cooked by women of the house in traditional style, the food strengthened communal self-definition (Orsi 105). The sanctity of the domus was expressed through numerous sacred objects found there such as shrines to favorite saints and to the Madonna. Lighting candles before the saints was an important ritual of the domus (Orsi 105).

Candles created a link between the domus and the Church of Mount Carmel, where they were lit before the image of the Madonna. The annual Fiesta at 115 Street on July 16th was marked by a fluid relationship between the domus and the church: the domus and the church merged in the celebration (Orsi 106). The religious feast of the Madonna of 115th street revealed the innermost values and deepest experiences of the people of Italian Harlem by linking the migrant experience of life in the USA with memories of Italy.

For those born in America, it was through the domos and participation in religious feasts that traditional values of family and community solidarity were learned. Although conflict existed between the older, migrant generation and the American born generation, the fiesta did serve to reinforce the identity and values of the older generation to some degree within the new generation. One aspect of the expression of religious faith explored by Orsi was that Catholic identity was maintained more through ritual in the domos and through the fiesta than through participation in the worship and rites of the Church.

Indeed, secular priests (priests who do not belong to religious orders) were looked on with suspicion because they lived outside a domos, although nuns and religious priests and brothers were respected, since they, too, belonged to a domos (Orsi 84). Thus, attendance at Mass, saying confession or church centered activities did not sustain the spiritual life of Italian Harlem. Rather, it was the rituals of the domos and of the feast of the Madonna, which were not controlled by the priests that nurtured and sustained their religious experience.

The feast was a time for family and neighborhood activities, involving street parades and feasting, none of which required priestly supervision but re-created the environment and ethos of Italy within the US urban space. Indeed, women played a vital role in preparing food and in the celebrations, in contrast to the few opportunities they have to take an active part in routine Catholic. The feast involves Italians from across the regions, discouraging isolation and individualism in favor of community.

This is symbolized by the Bell Tower, which was built by all members of the Italian Harlem community not by immigrants from any one region (Orsi 65). Many stories surround how adoration of the Madonna broke down the distance between petitioners and their far-off loved one and minimized regional differences. One woman prayed for her son, from whom she had not heard for some time and soon after received a letter from him (Orsi 166).

The Parish Magazine, in 1929, spoke of how adoration of the Madonna triumphed over distance: O you who live in distant lands, in countryside far away, in remote regions, turn your eyes in this month to the Virgin of 115th St. who listens to all, helps everyone and comforts all (Orsi 167). Residents of Italian Harlem were connected with loved ones back in Italy and with relatives scattered in Diaspora. Healing was associated with the cult: because the streets were an extension of the home, this this annual celebration was a healing simply by the fact of gathering at the maternal shrine (Orsi 184).

The procession through the streets and the celebration at the Shrine also demarcated the difference between Italians and their fellow Catholic Puerto Ricans. When the procession passed through the Puerto Rican neighborhood, they treated it with caution ¦ understanding that this was an expression of local Italian prominence and that they were not, in the early years, welcome to join although over time this changed (Orsi 183).

The procession gave sanctity, and mapped out, the sacred zone of Italian Harlem (Orsi 184). Italians brought with them from Italy a love of the streets and it was the feat that blessed them. On the one hand, they feared the streets for their crime and violence. On the other hand, they needed the streets and were compelled to spend much of their time there (Orsi 183). Arguably, their migrant experience was made easier by using the feast to bless and to reclaim the streets.

This included asserting moral authority over them, cleaning up the neighborhood as the Madonna was asked to heal persons and families, so she was asked to touch the streets, where the hurt was deep (Orsi 184). Close identification of the feast with Italian culture tended to exclude others, illustrating how the Italian Harlem communitys experience of religion and their migrant identity were linked. Orsi stresses how the domos operated to reinforce Italian values and identity over-and-against others.

The prestige of the local elite, and the stories of healing-all found expression together in the church and the devotion so that Mount Carmel ¦ became the integrating center for the life of the whole culture, under the benign gaze of the Madonna (Orsi 185) and Italian Americans in Harlem preserved their sense of self, pride in their identity and recreated Italy in Manhattan. Reference Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. Yale Nota Bene. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

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