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William BoleSeptember 29, 2015
An Unlikely Unionby Paul Moses

NYU Press. 368p $35

Growing up in Brooklyn, I belonged to a predominantly Sicilian parish headed by a priest with silvery hair and wooly white eyebrows, whose surname was Riley. The pastor’s homilies often involved itemizations of parish expenses, and some say that on one occasion he held up a few fronds of the kind distributed freely on Palm Sunday and declared, “Do you think these grow on trees?” When he was not preaching about money, the Irish priest was, far more subtly, admonishing the Italians.

At some Masses, he was able to point to (very few) empty pews. In doing so, the priest would allude vaguely to the homebound piety of people like my first-generation Sicilian mother, suggesting some would rather stay home and supplicate in front of the saint prayer cards propped on their dressers. Or he might speak of others who had little esteem for the institutional church, in which case he could have been talking about my mildly anticlerical father, whose parents emigrated from Basilicata.

As a small child, I could hardly recognize the vestigial mistrust that surfaced in the pulpit of an aging (and dedicated) pastor in the late 1960s. That realization came many years later. But I did not realize how ferocious the battles once were between Father Riley’s tribe and mine until I read Paul Moses’ enlightening book about New York’s Irish and Italians. I also hadn’t appreciated the degree to which this history is also “a story of how peace was made,” as Moses styles it.

In taking on this project, Moses had all the tools and inspiration he needed. He is a veteran journalist who spent many years at Newsday, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting in 1992. He is also a third-generation Italian American on his mother’s side (he’s Jewish on the paternal side), as well as a lifelong Brooklynite. And he has been married to an Irish Catholic woman for nearly four decades, part of a personal story woven into the larger tale.

Now a journalism professor at Brooklyn College, Moses brings to his subject not only a writer’s touch but also a scholar’s appetite for research. He reaches deeply into archival sources, including letters and news items that reveal how the Irish and Italians clashed in parishes, neighborhoods and workplaces.

As Moses points out, the Irish came first—in the 1840s and ’50s. “After building their church, creating a school system, and seizing control of the city’s political machinery, the Irish were finally beginning to make it when the Italians arrived, willing to do their jobs for lower pay and longer hours,” the author writes. “Resentment and violence followed.”

The big waves of southern Italian immigration began in 1880, but Moses traces the animosity further back. In 1850, Italian nationalists, including the few New Yorkers among them, were aligned against the papacy in their struggle for Italy’s unification. Being faithful Catholics, New York’s Irish rallied behind the pope (an Italian opposed by most Italians). Rome fell to Italian insurgents on Sept. 20, 1870. And when Italians began pouring into New York with their anticlericalism intact, they celebrated that day each year. Irish Catholics looked upon the Sept. 20 festivities as “a sacrilege,” Moses notes.

Church leaders were no less appalled by Italian celebrations of religious feast days. In loud and colorful processions, Italian men would shoulder statues of favorite saints, while “women and girls followed, raising candles aloft,” Moses relates. Many New Yorkers, not just the Irish, saw these parades of piety as more superstitious than religious. For a time, the processions were banned by the Archdiocese of New York.

Inside the churches, Italian worshipers were relegated to the basement. Writing to Archbishop Michael Corrigan in 1885, a prominent Irish pastor in Lower Manhattan explained: “Why only the basement? Forgive me, Excellency, if I tell you frankly that these poor devils are not very clean, so that the others do not want to have them in the upstairs church.”

Moses takes the story far beyond parishes. In workplaces, ranging from loading docks in Manhattan to trolley tracks in Brooklyn, the melees involving Irish and Italian laborers were so common that The Brooklyn Eagle ran an editorial in 1893 headlined, “Can’t They Be Separated?” The Italian rank and file rebelled against Irish union bosses, but around that time, it began to dawn on labor leaders that they needed to organize Italians rather than exclude them. For their part, church leaders decided to set up ethnic parishes for Italians, with pastors from their homeland.

A splendid array of characters passes through these fast-turning pages. They include saints—literally, in the case of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, who stood up to New York’s archbishop in 1889 and was canonized a half-century later. And there are sinners, among them Al Capone, who murdered an Irish mob leader in Brooklyn and was an odd match for his loving Irish wife, Mae. (“She was tall, slim, pretty, quiet and blonde. He was stout and ill-tempered.”)

According to Moses, the worst of Irish-Italian bitterness had subsided by the mid-1930s. In the end, “peace was made” in no small part through strikingly high rates of intermarriage between the two groups after World War II. Moses digs into sociological research indicating that Catholic education, which intermixed Irish and Italian kids, was a standout matchmaker in that regard (a finding I could happily vouch for as an Italian who met my Irish wife at Fordham University).

Did the Italians come to resemble the Irish in the way they look at the institutional church? Moses believes they did. By the late 1960s, “They’d been Hibernicized,” he contends. He cites one study from that time that found that third-generation Italian parishioners in New York were, unlike their grandparents, just as likely as the Irish to pray first and foremost to God rather than to a saintly intermediary. That’s undoubtedly one measure, but Moses doesn’t quite muster the evidence for his larger assertion that Italians had “adopted a much more Irish outlook on the church.”

In his conclusion, Moses explores the question of whether intermarriage, which united the Irish and Italians, might eventually do the same for black and white America. He is right to leave the reader with no clear answer.

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