The National Catholic Review

Everyone knows what a diary is, but a house diary? In earlier times, Jesuit communities kept handwritten records of the comings and goings of their memberstheir apostolic work, their daily lives, their neighborhoods. The Nativity Jesuit community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has preserved at least one of its own house diaries, and recently I read through its account of the years 1926 to 1930. The neatly written pages open a window on a period when that part of New York City was bursting with newly arrived immigrants.

Parishioners at Nativity were a mix of Irish and Italian, with the latter predominating more and more as the years passed. Although the pastor in 1926 was an Irishman, his successor was an Italian, Dominic Cirigliano; and by the late 1920’s all the parish priests were Italian. Like many Jesuits, Father Cirigliano had a strong outside interest: in his case, Dante. He lectured on him at convents and colleges. In the parish itself, both English and Italian were used for major liturgies. At the midnight Mass, for instance, two sermons were given, one in each language.

The neighborhood was very poor. Even before the Depression, one entry notes that a representative of a relief board came to see the pastor about forming a cafeteria for the underfed children of the Lower East Side. Nothing came of it, but we are told that efforts were to be made instead to create a dental clinic for the poor children of the parish where all might receive immediate service gratis. The pastor also organized a concert at the Plaza Hotel to raise funds for a summer camp whereaccording to a faded newspaper clipping from The World attached to a page of the diaryparish children could be given respite from crowded homes and dangerous streets.

When the Depression set in, we find Father Cirigliano writing letters trying to get jobs for the unemployed of the parish. The same work occupied him for nine days within a two-week period: a sign that many parishioners were approaching actual destitution. The letters were addressed to the Emergency Work Bureau.

The rate of infant mortality was high. One day the pastor was called out during the night to baptize twin babies at 245 Eldridge St. Both died soon after. But the neighborhood was teeming with children. On a single October afternoon in 1928, 500 girls from three local public schools came to the church for catechetical instruction; an almost equal number of boys came the next day. For very young children, the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart opened a nursery in a converted tenement building a few blocks from the church. (The same building now houses the Nativity Mission Center School for Hispanic boys.)

The sisters’ spiritual requirements created a certain stress for the Jesuits, however, because of their insistence that one of the priests come daily to celebrate Mass and to serve as their regular chaplain. Since the Jesuits were already providing Mass for the De la Salle Christian Brothers next door to the rectoryas well as celebrating three daily Masses in the church and attending to many other dutiesa somewhat desperate Father Cirigliano wrote to his provincial superior asking for an extra priest. But the provincial’s terse reply was that he could not supply.

The sisters lived in five tiny bedrooms on the top floor of the converted tenement, and in their black habits must have broiled during the summer months. The lifestyle of the rectory Jesuits, though, was itself relatively simple. Indeed, when a Jesuit from another province came for a brief visit, the diary observes that the visitor evidently does not like this place of residencecalling it a dump. But the rectory has survived and accommodates seven uncomplaining Jesuits to this day.

With access to instant communication and a more rushed pace of life, few Jesuit communities keep a house diary nowadays. The loss is all the greater because records of this kind, full of homely details, evoke a time and place in a manner seldom reflected in more formal accounts of local history.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.

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