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Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part 3 Of A 3 Part Series

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part 3 Of A 3 Part Series

In the conclusion to this 3 part article, we will examine the progression of the Italian heritage and community that began and grew from East Harlem as Italian immigrants migrated to New York and assimilated into the community. In part 1 we examined the neighborhood of Italian Harlem and it’s people, in part 2 we examined the importance of family, birth of the Italian community and the church to this community, now we examine the all important heritage of religious celebration that so defines this community.

Settlement of Italian Harlem

The first Italian immigrants in East Harlem arrived as early as 1878, establishing their place in the vicinity of 115th street. They hailed from Polla of the province of Salerno. The first Italians in East Harlem were employed as strike-breakers for an Irish American Contractor, J. D. Crimmins. They worked on the First Avenue Trolley Tracks when strikes occurred, infuriating the Irish workers. As a result the striking Irish workers were all fired. Great tension existed between the fired workers and the newly arrived Italians. They coexisted within blocks of each other in East Harlem. There were also numerous instances of gang violence erupting between the Irish and the Italians over turf issues.

During the 1880’s, East Harlem was of great interest to New Yorkers. Masses of Italian immigrants escaping the congestion of the legendary Mulberry Bend area, with its filthy overcrowded tenements, moved to East Harlem. Italians from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily bypassed the lower Manhattan area, establishing communities here during the last quarter of the 19th century. Italians from the same villages and towns would huddle together in niches, limiting their associations mostly to family and fellow villagers, laying down stakes all along the streets of East Harlem. On 112th street was a settlement from Bari; on East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River were people from Sarno (near Naples); then on East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues, were the Sicilians from Santiago. A small group of Genovese settled south of 106th street. Neapolitans settled in the space between 106th and 108th streets. Also, there were northerners from Piscento that settled on East 100th Street and Calabrians that settled on 109th Street. They were satisfied. In this new neighborhood they were allowed to use their own language, eat their own ethnic foods, and practice their customs and religion as they did in their homeland, though there were other nationalities that lived in the adjoining streets.

The Celebration Of Religious Feasts in East Harlem

1) The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

July 16 is the day of Italian Harlem’s Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It has been the most attended feast in the entire United States. “Its popularity was ensured when in 1903 Pope Leo XIII awarded the statue a set of golden crowns (one for the Madonna and one for the child Jesus) and declared the church a basilica, a status which in the entire United States is shared only with Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans.”

At the height, of the 1930’s, Italian Harlem’s population had reached approximately 100,000 or more. Even during the Depression years, this was the largest colony of Italian-Americans who had ever attended the festivities. Therefore, the combination of the local community along with people on pilgrimages from as far away as New Mexico, California, Florida and even Canada provided a total of circa 500,000 participants attending the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This annual procession is the most prideful external expression of Italian Harlem’s cultural identity.

Since the 1960’s, there has been a steady decline in Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s feast gathering, resulting from Italian people moving out of East Harlem. Nonetheless, the passion is still there, bringing back Italians year after year to worship together as they once did. Friendships are rekindled, long-lost neighbors are reunited, and neighborhood memories are revived in regards to an era that once existed. They not only come to the feast, but they come back to the church to attend the novenas which are prayed in Italian or to celebrate a particular Mass for the dead. Over the years, a new group of participants has given impetus to the “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” feast, which is sponsored and produced by Italian Americans. The Haitians have been coming in pilgrimage to East Harlem from many areas within New York and from other states. These Haitians are familiar with the location of the Church of “Our Lady of Mount Carmel.” Many of them visit the Church because of their French Mass, held on the first Saturday of every month. They seek spiritual guidance and the Blessed Mother’s intervention on their behalf. “Elizabeth McAlister, a graduate fellow at Yale University who has been studying the festival, says the growing number of Haitians who have been participating since the 1980’s see the Madonna through the prism of both Roman Catholicism and Afro-Haitian traditions.”

Last year was the 126th annual procession with many more to come.

2) The Feast of Giglio di Sant’ Antonio

Originally this feast was commenced in the 1880’s in the town of Brusciano, Italy, which is about 20 miles outside of Naples. Francisco Vivolo, a local resident of Brusciano, prayed to Sant’Antonio (Saint Anthony) to help heal his deathly ill son. He promised Saint Anthony that he would have a Gigli constructed in his honor and dance with it in the streets of Brusciano if his prayer should be answered, in the same manner as the town’s people of Nola, Italy honored San Paolino di Nola. Vivolo’s prayers were answered, and thus the dancing of the Gigli in Brusciano was commenced.

Around the early 1900’s many of the families from the town of Brusciano migrated to East Harlem, New York, bringing their cherished traditions with them, including the annual Dance of the Giglio Festival in honor of Sant’Antonio.

“For those unfamiliar with the Giglio (pronounced JEEL-YO)-it is a 75 to 85 foot tall wooden structure weighing approx 8,000 lbs with a paper-mache face adorned with beloved saints and colorful flowers. On the platform just above the base of the Giglio sits a multi-piece band along with several singers. The music is an instrumental part of the dancing of the Giglio as it inspires the Lifters (also known as the ‘”Paranza” in Italian) to take on the burdening weight of the Giglio and band and dance it in harmony to the music being played.” The lifting of the Giglio requires over a 100 men working in unity.

Members of the Vivolo family have been involved with the celebration of the Giglio Feasts in East Harlem for many years.

Francisco Vivolo had three sons and two daughters. Of the sons, Rocco was the oldest, Gioacchino was the second son, and then there was Antonio, the youngest child who was healed. According to Francisco Vivolo’s great-grandson, Phil Bruno, a native of East Harlem, Rocco was the first one to come to America. He lived on Mulberry Street. He then moved to an apartment at 348 East 106th street sometime in 1906. Then Phil Bruno’s grandfather, Gioacchino, came in December, 1907. Gioacchino sent for his wife and child and settled in an apartment at 2053 1st Avenue. He lived there until 1958 when the tenements were torn down. Phil Bruno also lived in that same tenement. Shortly after, the first Giglio feast was celebrated on 106th street in the year 1909. Gioaccino became the first Capo Paranza (Head of the lifters). That is a position that commands the highest respect in a Giglio celebration. Several years later in 1918, the Bruscianese society was formed with Rocco as the President. The first celebration of the Giglio feast under the Bruscianese Society administration was in 1918.

Sometime during the 20’s and 30’s many Giglio’s were built and carried on 106th street during the feast along with a boat. The Bruscianese Society, who was running the feast on 106th street, was only able to do it until the mid 1930’s.

A statue of Saint Anthony was sent to Phil Bruno’s grandparents from a relative who was a priest in Brusciano. This statue was used in the feast from 1925 until 1955. It is still in his family today. Phil Bruno’s grandparents sat in front of the statue during every feast that was celebrated on 106th street along with his mother, aunts and uncle until 1955, the last Giglio feast on 106th street. Then in 1957 the Giglio Feast moved to 108th street where it continued until 1971. After a 29 year hiatus the feast returned in 2000, and since then continues to be celebrated annually. It is as strong and vibrant as ever. I should know, I was there in 2010.

As he carries on a family tradition, Phil Bruno’s passion for the old neighborhood and the celebration of its feasts is palpable. He has been and still is a member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Holy Name Society. He attends the monthly communion meetings at Mt. Carmel located at 115th street. Phil is also a board member and Capo at the time of the feast, and Lieutenant for the Giglio Society of East Harlem in charge of the Giglio restoration.

Among the many contributors that have made possible the success of both feasts, Bob Maida is by far one of the greatest. His love, tireless energy and passion for the old neighborhood is strong and contagious. Bob Maida is a volunteer photographer who willingly and magnanimously has given of his time and money to capture images of the feasts with actual emotions that are impossible to communicate with words. Year after year, these images have been added to the already swollen coffers containing Italian Harlem memories.

Although many former residents from Italian Harlem have passed on, it is their children and grandchildren that continue to support the memories of the old neighborhood, preserving the culture and bonds of friendship that have been passed down from one generation to another. They have experienced the best of both worlds while proudly retaining aspects of their culture, celebrating the heritage that their ancestors once brought to their newly adopted home.