Of Many Things

As the church looks for new ways to respond to the needs of poor immigrants in urban areas like New York City, are there lessons we can learn from efforts to help earlier arrivals? Although The Godfather might lead us to believe that joining the Corleone family was the dream of every young Italian immigrant, Our Lady of Loretto Mission on Manhattan’s Lower East Side offered an alternative in the early 1900’s. Its Loretto Clubmostly working boys who have to earn their daily bread, according to its Club Notes, which I recently readencouraged its members to engage in the types of educational activities that could give them a step up in the world.

Members themselvesyoung men in their late teens and early 20’swrote the Club Notes, and this too had its purpose: to cultivate good taste in literary matters. Sons of poor Italian families though they were, at the mission’s school they received the beginnings of a solid education.

With its 50-plus membership, the club also served as a source of vocations to the Jesuits and other religious orders. By 1916 nine had joined. Among them was Dominick A. Cirigliano, one of the first members of our Club and one of the first fruits of this Mission. Ordained in 1917, he later became pastor of nearby Nativity Church.

The neighborhood was a mix of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and tensions arose among them. As their numbers grew, the Italians encountered housing discrimination. Many Jewish landlords are trying to exclude Italian tenants, an issue claimed, but the Italians are steadily pushing east.

The notes also contain allusions to discrimination by Protestant groups. In another issue, for example, we are told that the constitution of the Y.M.C.A. explicitly discriminates against Catholics in excluding them from office, and the same article deplores the proselytizing influence the organization exercises on our young Italian men here on the lower East Side. Part of Father Ciriglano’s later work was, in fact, to undo the effects of many years of proselytizing...and check its progress.

Other perceived dangers included the nickel movies. A contributor wrote in 1912 that an estimated 1,200 picture theaters were in operation in the greater New York City area. The worst of it, the author said, was that children of all ages are admitted to moving picture theaters and thus the innocence of thousands of boys and girls is plucked from its bud. Here one senses the well-intended but distinctly moralizing hand of the club’s moderator, William H. Walsh, S.J., who was also pastor of the mission.

Activities with an educational purpose included debates. Two club members defended the affirmative side, two the negative. While some topics were of a theoretical nature, others were practical, such as: Resolved: That the Interborough [Rapid Transit] should build the Subway. It did. Generally both sides acquitted themselves well, though at times the speakers faltered. After the Interborough debate, for instance, we learn that of the speakers on the negative side, one suffered from a cold and the other had lost his notes. At an early debate, two associate editors from the then-new America served as judges.

All was not education-oriented, however. Every June, the club organized a day trip to Staten Island. Following an early Mass, the group departed from Elizabeth Street and, after a pleasant sail and a...trolley ride, arrived at 10 a.m. for a day of swimming and feasting at Woodland Beach. Later, Father Walsh purchased property in Monroe, N.Y., for a boys’ summer camp. The Club Notes were discontinued after 1918, but their printed pages open a window into the lives of Italian youth in the first quarter of the last century, young men who were helped to find their way successfully through the maze of a complex city filledthen as nowwith pitfalls.

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