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Italian Catholics Paved the Way for Migrant Ministry, Scholar Says


Mary Elizabeth Brown, Ph.D., explains how Italians shaped the culture of New York Catholicism.
Photo by Ryan Brenizer

Italian Catholics who immigrated to New York City in the 1800s influenced the way the Catholic Church later ministered to migrants around the world, a scholar said on Sept. 25 at Fordham.

“The conduit was Bishop Giovanni Batista Scalabrini,” said Mary Elizabeth Brown, Ph.D., assistant professor in the social science division of Marymount Manhattan College. She also conducts research for the Center for Migration Studies on Staten Island.

Bishop Scalabrini wrote pamphlets on how to treat the migrants, and recommended that Italian priests assist the established clergy at New York parishes, thereby acclimating the Italian immigrants to their new homeland.

“Later, the whole Catholic world learned from the Italians as Scalabrini suggested that the Catholic Church use the Italian model for other ethnic parishes,” Brown said.

Brown was the guest speaker at an event co-sponsored the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Archdiocese of New York. She delivered the fifth lecture in a yearlong series to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the archdiocese.

Brown explained that Scalabrini’s suggestion of following the model of ministering to Italian immigrants was highly visible after World War II.

“In 1949, Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman’s (the ninth bishop and sixth archbishop of the New York Archdiocese) first effort in delivering pastoral care to Spanish immigrants mirrored that of the Italians,” Brown said. “But he had the local clergy learn Spanish so that the Puerto Ricans who were in New York could support their local parishes rather than joining other parishes.”

Brown said Cardinal Spellman also helped the Puerto Rican immigrants celebrate St. John the Baptist Day, which was a tribute to the patron saint of their island.

“It’s interesting to see the degree to which the Italians gave the idea of how to minister, and how not to minister, to new immigrants,” Brown said.

The history of Italian Catholics in New York runs deep, as they contributed to the numbers, structure, devotional life, art and architecture of Catholicism in the city.

Italians began migrating through New York Harbor in the mid to late 1800s, peaking in the 1930s. This led to the founding of Italian parishes throughout New York City and the surrounding areas.

The relationship between the church and the Italian immigrant community paved the way for scores of future Catholic immigrants, eventually resulting in the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants, established by Pope John Paul II in 1988, and dedicated to the spiritual welfare of migrant and itinerant people.

Italian Catholics also contributed through art and architecture, much of which can still be seen today. The Anthony of Padua Shrine Church on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village was among the first to be designed in a “Romanesque” fashion, Brown said.

“But it wasn’t just churches,” she added. “Our Lady of Mount Carmel grotto in Staten Island was built by an immigrant who promised to build it for the Blessed Mother if he got safely across the Atlantic Ocean.”


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