Drawing heavily on the pioneering work of Rudolph Vecoli, Dominic Candeloro in the selection below (taken from his Chicago’s Italians: Immigrants, Ethnics, Americans) sketches out the various Italian neighborhoods in the Chicago area in the 1900s stressing a variety and a multiplicity that gave strength to the Italian sub-culture but which also served to scatter political and economic power of Italian Americans.
By Dominic Candeloro
There was never just ONE Little Italy in Chicago. If all Italian immigrants to Chicago had settled in the same neighborhood, the concentration of their political, economic, and cultural power would have produced a much different history. Because they came to Chicago to work, they lived near their places of employment. They clustered in the “River Wards” in all three directions from the Loop. There were outlying colonies like Roseland, near the Pullman works and there were Italian settlements in satellite suburbs like Chicago Heights. As chain migration proceeded, newcomers naturally headed to neighborhood of their paesani and family, solidifying the dispersal of the Italian population in Chicago.
Though in its heyday the Taylor Street area contained some 25,000 people—a third of the city’s Italian population, there was from almost the beginning an absence of one large and densely populated Italian district. Into the 1920s people moved around a lot. In fact, no Chicago neighborhood was ever exclusively Italian. Following the pattern of ethnic succession, there were always remnants from previous ethnic population, mixed with the current dominant ethnic populations, with a sprinkling of families from the ethnic group that might become the majority in a generation or two. Though the core Italian neighborhoods remained Italian, it was often different Italians who lived there, since earlier settlers were likely to have moved west to more desirable neighborhoods
Typical chain migration patterns prevailed with families and villages gradually re-forming in Chicago neighborhoods as workers accumulated savings with which to send for their relatives and buy homes. Since the major colonies had usually had a Catholic church as their focal center, a brief rundown of neighborhood/parish history offers a suitable structure for understanding the communal history of Chicago’s Italians as they moved from immigrants to ethnics.
The original Genoese/Lucchese neighborhood in the shadow of today’s Merchandise Mart produced the first Italian Catholic Church of the Assumption in 1881, staffed by Servite
priests. Fr. Sosteneus Moretti first built the basement foundation which was used as a place of worship until the fully completed church building was dedicated on the Feast of the Assumption, August 16, 1886. The generosity of the prominent Genovesi families and the artistic skills of Italian artisans made Assumption Church into a remarkable repository for devotional art. The splendid altar and spectacular stained glass windows were contributed by the Cuneo, Sbararo, and Lagorio families . As the first and only Italian Catholic Church in the city in its early years, Assumption claimed a congregation of 10,000. Fr. Tom Moreschini (pastorfrom1893-1903)directedthebuildingoftheschoolin1899. TheSistersoftheSacred Heart led by their founder, Mother Frances X. Cabrini, ran the school. Though she traveled the world to carry on her mission, she spent considerable time in Chicago. In fact, it is reported that Mother Cabrini died on December 22, 1917 while she was preparing Christmas gifts for the children at Assumption School.
Perhaps Chicago’s most colorful Italian sector was on the city’s near North Side. Known alternately as “Little Sicily” and “Little Hell” and featuring “Death Corner,” this neighborhood was home to some 20,000 native-born Italians and Italian Americans by 1920. Most originated from the small towns surrounding Palermo, but there were also important contingents from Catania, Vizzini, and Sambuca-Zabat in eastern Sicily. According to Dr. Bruce Zummo, on Larabee Street were many inhabitants from Altavilla Milicia. Those on Cambridge Avenue came from Chiusa, and Caccamo. On Milton Avenue (now Cleveland Avenue) were the immigrants from Sambuca-Zabat. On Townsend Street resided families from Bagheria and Burgio. On North Cambridge Avenue, Hobbie Street, and Elm Street, the residents originated from the town of Corleone. The mix also included a sprinkling of so called “Gai-gai” families– from Mezzoiuso–Albanian Sicilians from the Piana dei Greci. The Dillingham Commission reported only one northern Italian family, compared to 155 south Italian families, in the Gault Court block of this area.
The Servite Church of St. Philip Benizi provided the backdrop for a score of patron saint street processions each summer sponsored by paesani-based mutual benefit societies. As related by Joe Camarda, “The Feast in honor of the Blessed Mother took place at St. Philip Benizi Church on Oak Street and Cambridge Avenue extending to Larabee Street and Clybourn Avenue. I liked the way they used to decorate the street with festoons, banners, flags, illuminations—just like the old country. It lasted four days, always four days. The lodge’s first building was in 1916. This was about a block away from the Church. There were food stands, rides and games and we always had the flying angels.” Sicilians from Bagheria celebrated the feast of St. Joseph and those from Ciminn honored the Crossifisso and the Caccamesi honored Beato San Giovanni Liccio. Other Sicilian patron saints festivals that
crowded the St. Philip’s calendar were Santa Rosalia, San Nicola di Chiusa, the Immaculate Conception (Termini Imerese), Santissima Maria dell’ Udienza (Sambuca), and San LeoLuca di Corleone. There was a street festival almost every summer Sunday.
Between 1904 and 1954 parish books at St. Philip’s recorded 35,000 baptisms, 6200 marriages, 12,000 confirmations and 11,000 funerals. Since each of these 65,000 events represents a milestone in the life of an Italian individual and family, it is clear that the Church played an enormous role in this community.
The neighborhood was the focus of Harvey Zorbaugh’s classic sociological study of 1929, GoldCoastandSlum. Ashewrote,”Theextenttowhichfamilyloyaltygoesisalmostbeyond belief: no matter how disgraced of how disgraceful a member may be, he is never cast off; the unsuccessful are assisted; the selfish are indulged; the erratic patiently borne with. Old age isrespected,andbabiesareobjectsofadoration.”[p.167] TheNearNorthneighborhoodhad the highest number of welfare cases in the city and welfare agencies considered Little Sicily the poorest neighborhood in Chicago. Yet, Sicilian families in the area experienced almost no divorce and very little desertion.
Zorbaugh noted that even a moderately successful Sicilian in this neighborhood ran the risk of Black Hand extortion. The Black Hand was not an organization, but lawless individuals who sent blackmail letters and traded on the notorious reputation of the Mafia. The book took note of one Antonio Moreno who broke the tradition and cooperated with police after his son was kidnapped. Though the perpetrators were arrested and convicted, they returned to the neighborhood a few months later to a rousing welcome from their friends and family.
Within a half mile of the Sicilian neighborhood from 1910-1930 there were about 10 murders (usually unsolved) per year with many of them taking place at the infamous “Death Corner,” Milton (Cleveland) and Oak Streets. Typically, the police blamed Italian killings on the Mafia andconsoledthemselveswiththethoughtthattheyonlykilleachotheranyway. Ontheother hand, residents were convinced that all the police were on the take and that they were only making excuses for their corruption and/or their incompetence.
African American residents began appearing in the neighborhood as early as the 1920s. Photos of the St. Joseph of Bagheria festivals in the ’30s show Blacks and whites mixing. However, with the influx of Blacks to the area prior to World War II and the decision by the FHA to build unsegregated public housing toward the western part of the neighborhood, Italian settlement on the north side faced a major challenge. Long time Pastor, Luigi
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Giambastiani, used all his powers of persuasion both to slow down the rate of integration and to get the Italian community to buy into public housing units for themselves. It was through his efforts that the project bore the name of both an labor leader (Green) and the Italian saint who had lived in Chicago (Cabrini). He even spoke warmly at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1941 in hopes that Cabrini-Green would attract Italian tenants. His plan didn’t work. Integration went forward speeded up by the war. Except at the beginning, public housing did not appeal to the relatively large Sicilian families; and, finally, when the Italian boys came back from the War, their ambition was to buy homes on the West Side or the Western Suburbs along Grand Avenue. Within the next twenty years the whites fled the neighborhood, the project homes became overwhelmingly Black, and the venerable Church of St. Philip Benizi was demolished to make way for more public housing.
Nearby to the west, an Italian community that included Sicilians and Pugliesi ( Mola di Bari, Modugno, Rutigliano) and a smattering of immigrants from other parts of Italy grew up around the Santa Maria Addolorata Parish. The first pastor, a certain Anthony D’Ercole, ran up a parish debt of $180,000 before Archbishop Quigley removed him and brought in the Scalabrinians Benjamin Franch (briefly) and then Fr. James Gambera. In his 17 years, Fr. Gambera successfully launched the parish community. Among his innovations were a nursery and kindergarten which served 300 children and evening classes in sewing and music. Apparently he was competing with the settlement houses in the area for the loyalty of the residents. The rough parish boundaries included the Italians from Ashland Avenue to the Chicago River, and from Hubbard Street to Chicago Avenue. Vecoli reported that the 1910 population of Italian ancestry in this 22nd Ward was 8500. In 1924 Fr. Domenico Canestrini reported to Rome that the parish served 1500 mostly large families of Sicilian and Baresi (Puglia) origin. He estimated the average Sunday attendance to be between 1200 and 1500. As of that year, the parish had no school but was in the process of purchasing land for one.
The most significant event in the life of this community came in the early morning hours of January 9, 1931 when a fire destroyed the church. The Tribune described the details: “A spectacular fire early this morning swept through the Santa Maria Addolorata Catholic Church, on the south-west corner of Peoria Street and Grand Avenue, a Chicago landmark for 60 years. The fire caused a damage estimated at $125,000.00 by Fire Marshal Corrigan. Only the walls of the edifice were left standing. The glow of the fire was visible in the sky as far south as Roosevelt Road, and lighted the whole Italian district of the near North side.” The Fire Department Chaplain rescued the Blessed Sacrament from the flames while parishioners saw the flames gut the whole interior of the Church. Though the building was grossly underinsured, the parish was able to continue by purchasing a Swedish Lutheran Church on
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the north-west corner of May and Erie Streets which was refurbished and put into service as Addolorata Church until 1960 when yet another church building was erected.
Santa Maria Addolorata Church was the site of the first efforts at a Scalabrini seminary in Chicago. Experience with the first half dozen seminarians at this location in the early 1930s convinced Fr. Franch and Fr. Pierini that there was enough support in the Italian community to expand the project and built the St. Charles Seminary in Stone Park. The Como Inn at Milwaukee near Grand was opened by the Giuseppe Marchetti in 1924. For the next 80 years, the restaurant served as the venue for both the neighborhood and city wide Italian market for wedding receptions and baptisms. Since it offered the hospitality of the Marchetti Family, was convenient to Downtown and had free parking, the Como Inn became the unofficial home of Joint Civic Committee receptions and dinners. Other important institutions in the neighborhood were the, Vitucci Funeral home, Battista’s Fish Store, Bari Foods, the Carpenter School, Vince’s Barbershop and the Near Northwest Side Community Committee. Daniel “Moose” Brindisi was the moving force behind this delinquency prevention organization from the 1940s to the early 1990s. City fathers recognized Moose’s lifetime of dedication by name a stretch of Grand Avenue in his honor. His sons Caesar and Tim continue his work with youth. Still under the direction of the Scalabrini Fathers, the Addolorata congregation is today a mixture of Italians, Hispanics, and yuppies. Though vestiges remain, the construction of the Kennedy Expressway and its ramps sliced up the neighborhood in the 1960s, undermining this once vibrant Sicilian/Barese neighborhood.
The Grand and Western Italian neighborhood grew up about a mile to the west of Addolorata and its residents worshipped at Holy Rosary Church. The 1910 population of Italians in the district was about 3000. The Rago Funeral Home, Paterno’s Pizza, and Armanetti’s Liquor store were among the Italian institutions in the area. North of this was the Terra Cotta neighborhood heavily populated by workers from the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company.
North Side Italians kept moving west along Grand Avenue and the 1990 census showed large numbers of them living in the Belmont-Craigin neighborhood, in the Grand and Harlem Avenue area, and in Elmwood Park. They brought many of their institutions with them including the Maroons Soccer Club, Pompeo Stillo’s Italian Tapes and Record Store, Gino Barsotti’s Piazza Italia, and a host of restaurants and Italian coffee bars.
Toward the south end of the Loop, near Clark Street and the Polk Street Station, was the earliest colony of southern Italians. Vecoli lists the towns of origin of these settlers in the 1870s and 1880s as: Trivigno, Corleto, Calvello and (especially) Laurenzana in Basilicata;
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Senarchia, Oliveto Citra, Teggiano and (especially) Ricigliano in Campania; Cosenza, Rende, San Fili and Fiumefreddo in Calabria. Starting in the 1870s Luigi Spizziri reportedly induced hundreds from Potenza to settle along South Clark Street. Ricigliano reportedly lost half of its population in the wave of emigration that hit southern Italy at the end of the 19th Century. Most of the migrants came to Chicago. Men and boys from Ricigliano eventually monopolized the Loop area news vending stands and members of this group were legendary for pushing their children and grandchildren into the professions.
The 1910 Census showed nearly 5000 persons of Italian ancestry on the near South Side. Over the years the colony moved further south into what is now known as Chinatown, where they were joined by Sicilians from Nicosia. The Scalabrinian Church of Santa Maria Incoronata (patron saint of Ricigliano) remained the focal center for the community until the 1980s, when it became the Chinese mission of St. Theresa. The Census showed 3100 Italians in the Bridgeport neighborhood, especially in the Armour Square are just north of Comiskey Park.
The Halsted and Taylor Street area contained about 25,000 (1910) one-third of the city’s Italians—a mixture of people from Naples, Salerno, Bari, Messina, Palermo, Abruzzo, Calabria, Basilicata, the Marche, and Lucca. For many, this district served as a place of first settlement from which there was constant mobility. Though it was a very Italian area, it wasn’t occupied by the same Italians year in and year out. Presumably the most fortunate moved west eight blocks to the Ashland Avenue neighborhood, making room for newcomers who were just starting out. Since the area was a multiethnic one, Italians shared the neighborhood with Russian Jews to the south and Greeks to the north. For the most part this area was considered a slum in the pre-1920 era. Under the headline “Foul Ewing Street: Italian Quarter that Invites Cholera and Other Diseases,” an 1893 Tribune article described the scene:
The street is lined with irregular rows of dinghy frame houses; innocent of paint and blackened and soiled by time and close contact with the children of Italy. The garbage boxes along the broken wood sidewalks are filled with ashes and rotting vegetables and are seldom emptied., Heaps of trash, rags, and old fruit are alongside the garbage boxes already overflowing. The dwelling houses and big tenement buildings that line Ewing Street are occupied by thousands of Italians. Every doorstep is well alive with children and babies dressed in rags and grime, many of their olive skinned faces showing sallow and wan beneath the covering of dirt. …Some of the dark complexioned men sit
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around tables through the day time hours and gamble at cards or dice with huge mugs of beer beside them. [March 30,1893]
From the time of its founding in the 1888, Hull House had Italian immigrants as a major object of its reform agenda. The settlement house did mountains of research and writing to prove the obvious: wages were too low, housing conditions were too crowded, municipal sanitary systems were inadequate, children need more protection, political representatives of the area were corrupt and so forth. More important, Hull house established a dizzying array of programs to help “settle” the immigrants into their new society. The persuasive Ms. Addams also acted as a diplomat to Chicago’s establishment and their wives. She was a champion fund-raiser and was able to build Hull House into a 13 building complex that really made a difference in the lives of thousands of Italian immigrants. Moreover, Addams invented the profession of social work and was the role model for the international movement to use progressive efforts to improve the environment of the poor and offer them opportunities to acquire the skills to make their own way in the world. The Chicago Commons and the Eli Bates House similarly served Italians on the North side.
Unlike some of her successors in the field of social work, Jane Addams had a genuine love and respect for the culture of her clients. Working closely with Alessandro Mastro-Valerio, the editor of La TribunaTransatlantica, Hull House frequently scheduled “Italian Nights” with appropriate music and food to celebrate Italian heroes like Garibaldi and Mazzini. While Hull house was basically run by “do-gooding outsiders,” its system of organizing self- governing clubs to pursue various interests and hobbies did instill a strong degree of indigenous leadership in the participants.
Jane Addams had her limitations. In her early years Addams imagined that she could displace the obviously corrupt machine politicians in her area and even ran for alderman, but she learned from her experience that her adversaries had a “social work” system of their own. Alderman John Powers was not Italian but he called himself Gianni di Paoli and he used his influence to get Italians jobs on the city clean up crews, deliver coal to the needy in the dead of winter, and get Italian boys out of scrapes with the law. He attended every wake and at election time he did the rounds at the saloons and bought the paesani beers. How could Jane Addams match that?
The Catholic Church’s response to the Italian situation in the neighborhood resulted in the founding of the Holy Guardian Angel parish in the 1890s. A Jesuit teacher at St. Ignatius High School, Fr. Paolo Ponsilione took it upon himself to work with Italians in the area who found
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that Assumption Italian Catholic Church was too far away and because they felt unwelcome at the nearby Irish churches. Fr. Edmund Dunne, S.J., known a “Zi’ Prete” (Uncle Priest), took up the task by officially establishing the parish in 1898. The next year Dunne built a church on Arthington Street, then 2 years later a rectory building and addition to the church before he was elected Bishop of Peoria. At this point Archbishop Quigley entrusted the parish, Holy Guardian Angel (Sant’Angelo Cusode) to his friend, Pacifico Chenuil, thus creating in 1903 the first Scalabrini parish in Chicago. Weekly attendance was high. Serving an estimate 20,000 Italians in 5,000 families, the church averaged around 1,200 baptisms and 160 weddings a year from 1903-1911. After a good deal of foot-dragging, the parish opened its school in 1920. Family membership fell to just 500 in 1947 because of neighborhood changes in both land use and in population. In an effort to revitalize the parish, Fr. Italo Scola led a campaign to build a new combination Church/School in the late 1950s. Shortly after the project was completed the City of Chicago embarked on the building of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the University of Illinois. Since the Church was apparently located in the path of the Expressway and since the neighborhood served by the Church was slated for demolition, Guardian Angel was dissolved in 1960.
The commercial center of this Little Italy was at the intersection of Taylor and Halsted Streets, just a few blocks north of the Maxwell Street Market. Taylor and Halsted was the “Italian Downtown.” Over the years in this shopping district you could find the Conte di Savoia Food Store, Lezza’s Pastries, Serafina Ferrara’s (wedding cake) Bakery, Chicago Spices, Bragno wines and liquors, the Chesrow Drugstore, Edoardo Colombo’s Italian American Radio Programming, Sam Del Vecchio’s Grocery, Undertaker David Piegare, Cillel and Son marble works, Salvino-Personeni Pharmacy, De Cristofaro and Cambio grocery, the Nuti Bakery, Carlo Fillipelli’ s Grocery, Umberto Sarno’s candy company, the Banco di Napoli,
In its heyday, the Guardian Angel parish grew so quickly that an additional Italian church, Our Lady of Pompeii, was established just a few blocks west on Lexington at McAllister Street. Our Lady of Pompeii Church opened its doors in early April 1911 with Fr. Chenuil’s assistant, Fr. Peter Barabino as it pastor. The early parish boasted a church/school combination facility and proceeded on a lengthy campaign to continue to build the requisite physical plant consisting of church-school, convent, rectory, new church, and expanded school as the Italian population in the area continued to rise. When the current church building was erected in 1924 in the pastorship of Fr. Carlo Fani, the project was blessed with a gift from the estate of
Alderman John Powers of $12,000 for the splendid white marble altar.
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In the Depression Era, Fr. Remigio Pigato worked to form the OLP Mothers’ Guild and reactivate the Saint Vincent de Paul Society to combat the poverty and unemployment among parishioners. It was also during this period that the Church developed a cooperative arrangement with the Near West Side Community Committee. Led by the young Anthony Sorrentino, this group was based on the philosophy of University of Chicago Sociologist Clifford Shaw. Contrary to the Jane Addams social work model, Shaw believed that social change would best take place through self-help and that the problems of the immigrants would best be solved by indigenous leaders, like Sorrentino, who had a better chance of being taken seriouslyby”atrisk”youth. Shaw’sChicagoAreaProject(CAP)providedsomefundingand Sorrentino was eventually able to win support from the religious leaders, businessmen, and political figures from the ares such as Paul D’Arco, Rev. Remigio Pigato, Sam Serpe, John Romano, Joseph Guinta, Louis Di Fonso, Luigi Rovai, Reno Alghini, Ralph Argento, Fred D’Angelo, Emil Peluso, who later became the organization’s President and Executive Director; Judge Peter R. Scalise (Ret.), Dr: Vito R. Lucatorto (Ret.), Joseph Rovai, Ernest Mategrano Sr., Ernest Mategrano Jr., Anthony De Raffaele, Pat De Mario, Carmen Carsello, Nick A. Taccio, James Serpe, Louis Lonigro, John Giampa and many others.
A major project of the NWSCC was the creation of Camp Pompeii in what is now University Park. As The Tribune described the camp in 1942: Now there is a neat little farmhouse on Moneeroad,justoftheSaukTrailfourmileswestofChicagoHeights. PasttheFarmhouse a narrow road winds back into the woods. There in a clearing, is the mess hall—nothing more norlessthantwooldportableschoolbuildingsjoinedasonelargestructure. ItcosttheWest Side Community council, 1035 Polk street, sponsoring agency, more to move the buildings out to the camp than it did to purchase them, but even so the cost was small. In the 60 years since it was established, thousands of urban kids have benefited from its sports and recreational opportunities. A similar indigenous neighborhood club from the Northwest Side was managed for many years by Moose Brindisi.
On the 50th anniversary of the parish, the commemorative booklet reported that Our Lady of Pompeii Church baptized 28,000 children, extended First Communion and confirmation to 17,500, married 7,150 couples and buried 9,100. The second fifty years of the history of OLP proved more troublesome as the University of Illinois in the 1960s replaced the homes of thousands of its parishioners. Enrollment dropped to the such point at the school that it was closed and eventually the Scalabrini Fathers gave up their interest in the facility. To avoid closing of the church, a group rallied around OLP to designate it as a shrine to serve Italians throughout the city. Fr. Richard Fragomeni for the past decade has presided over a lively Italian-oriented liturgical program and other community boosters like Paula and Oscar
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D’Angelo and Joe Gentile have done fund-raising to maintain the physical plant. In keeping with tradition, Columbus Day festivities begin at Our Lady of Pompeii.
The Scalabrini fathers also controlled St. Callistus Church a few blocks to the west of Pompeii Church which ministered to the flow of the Italian population going in that direction.
In addition to these major inner-city Italian enclaves, a number of outlying colonies formed in the pre-1920 period. Closest in was the settlement of Toscani at 24th and Oakley where manyworkedattheMcCormickReaperplant. TheycamefromPonteBuggianese,Bagnidi Lucca, Montecatini and other small towns near the ancient fortified city of Lucca in the Tuscany Region of Northern Italy. The Dillingham Commission showed sixty-seven northern Italian families and only one southern Italian family in a two-block sample of this neighborhoods. Historically socialist in politics and virtually crime-free, the population was much smaller than other Italian zones.
Sociologist Peter Venturelli, who has written a dissertation and several articles about his home neighborhood, documented the population at a steady 1200 in the period from the 1890s to 1981. Unlike the Near West and North Side Italian neighborhoods, there was not much turnover in the population; urban renewal and white flight did not uproot the community. However, a coterie of National Mealleable employees in 1910 followed their jobs a few miles west when Melleable opened its Grant Works in Cicero. Reportedly, their new neighborhood was replete with amenities but had no church, nor did they want one.
Over the past few decades the Oakley Italian population has dwindled and many have relocated in suburban Addison. Yet, for a century, the compact character of the neighborhood brought together many ethnic institutions that reinforced each other and make Oakley, today, perhaps the best preserved Little Italy in the city. Though St. Michael The Archangel Church has closed a few years ago, still functioning within a few blocks of each other are the Po Piedmonte Club, a funeral home, bakery, barbershop and several Tuscan Italian restaurants and groceries. The physical and social closeness of the community resulted in the greater retention of the Italian language in Oakley than in other immigrant neighborhoods. This ambience is I what makes the Oakley neighborhood ideal as the location for the annual “Heart of Italy” festival that has taken place here since the late 1990s.
In the early years, St. Michael the Archangel (patron saint of Lucca) Church had a difficult time asserting its leadership. For many years after the church was established in 1903, St. Michael wasfacedwithaneffectivesocialistcampaign”tofreemenfromtheslaveryofreligion.” This
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campaign thwarted the efforts of a rapid succession of earnest and hard-working Scalabrinians. As Eddie Baldacci remembered it:
In the early days sometimes people would try and harass the people going to church. They might harass them if they were maybe talking, around the corner. ‘Are you gonna go to church?’ Maybe something likethat.’Youstupidindividual.’ Ohyes,Icanvisualizethat…because Nello, this guitar player that was like my second father, he was dead set against the church.
Eventually radicalism diminished and by the 1950s Father Louis Donanzan was able to win the cooperation of former adversaries, finally build a school for St. Michael’s and erase the parish debt.
At 67th Street and Hermitage and in the Grand Crossing area were two settlements of migrants from Salerno and Calabria respectively. St. Mary of Mt. Carmel served the former. The Hermitage settlement traced its origins back to 1888 when railroad workers from Oliveto Citra (Salerno) realized the possibilities of this sparsely populated mid-southwest zone. They decided to move out of the slum conditions on South Clark Street and return to the kind of rural environment they knew as contadini without having to give up their railroad jobs. While Italian immigrants mostly resisted the blandishments by reformers to get them to go into farming full time, they still possessed the urge to grow things. They possessed gardening skills and they could feed their families abundantly with the fruit and vegetables they could grow; not to mention the more convenient wine-making that could take place in the wide open spaces around 67th Street. Vecoli tells how they purchased land at bargain prices, built wooden shacks, and in a few years converted the prairie land into verdant gardens. By 1910 over 1000 Italians lived there including immigrants from Contursi, Campagna, and Sanarchia.
They kept so many goats that people called the zone “Goatsville.” The errant behavior by some of the goats on neighbors’ property often got their owners into trouble with the police.
From the beginning the Olivetani celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and the event had a similar impact as the OLMC event had on Melrose Park: It attracted new Italian residents to the district. In 1903 Paul Carelli, a barber, also spearheaded the celebration of the Feast of San Rocco di Potenza Lucania which continued to be observed at St. Mary Mt. Carmel into the 1960s when white residents began moving out of this part of the South Side. Due in no small part to the efforts of a Sears executive, Leonard Giuliano and his family, the
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feast continues to this day. It was most recently celebrated at St. William Church on the city’s northwest side.
Also to the south, in the famous planned company town established by and named after George Pullman, there was a colony of Italian brickmakers and others from the Altopiano Asiago area of the Veneto region. The nearby Roseland neighborhood was also home to a contingent of Piedmontese and Sicilians. The Scalabrinian Church of St. Anthony of Padua (1906) served this group. About 1600 Italian-born residents were reported in this part of the city in 1920. Secondandthirdgenerationoffspringmultipliedthosenumberssignificantly. Inthenext70 years the Church presided over 11,120 baptisms, 8,060 first communions, 3,922 weddings, 4,782 burials, and 2400 eighth grade graduations.
Culturally, Roseland was probably the most exciting Italian neighborhood. Mario Manzardo described the scene in a 1973 newspaper article (on file at the Casa Italia Library):
The Giovanni Bartoli Music School was flowering: Antonio Zordan, Agusto Dalle Molle, and Peter Toniazzo were emerging as some of the new talented musicians in the area. A popular military band held weekly practice in the back of Gasperini’s shoe repair shop and another band that later became known as the Bell’Italia Band, were much in demand for concerts and local parades….Often on weekends there was cabaret entertainment for families… singers would sing the romantic Italian songs of Paolo Tosti and Enrico Toselli, as well as operatic arias.
The Roseland Operetta Club also provided a steady diet of high Italian culture to large and appreciative audiences. Amabile Santacaterina (later known as “Mrs. Belgo” for her Italian frozen foods) was only one of dozens of people in the Roseland area who actively participated in the elaborate stagings of the Operetta Club. In the 1930s they had a lot of time to devote to the musical productions because almost everyone was out of work. She later became one of the many Italian language radio personalities who promoted the building of the Villa Scalabrini.
Roseland was the best organized Italian community in Chicago. The greater Roseland area boasted more than its share of mutual benefit societies including the San Luigi di Tresche Conca, Cesuna, Caltranese, San Alessandro Del Caretto, and the Piedmontese societies as well as the Unione Veneziana, the Anita Garibaldi, Tito Schipa, Umberto I, and the Roma Lodge. And that doesn’t include a dozen or so church societies or the various socialist organizations! Most impressive of the Roseland voluntary organizations was the staff of the
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St. Anthony Broadcast. During World War II this group assiduously put together news of all the Roseland boys in the service. They got the addresses of each of the men, solicited information about them directly and through relatives and put out a monthly newsletter to hundreds of people stationed all over the world. The Broadcast contributed mightily to Roseland’s strong sense of community in the post war era by reinforcing the soldiers’ identities as Roselandites and as Americans.
In the postwar period, the people of Roseland were confident about their future; employment was high, the stores on the commercial streets were doing good business and membership at St. Anthony Church has reached 2500 families with 700 students in the school. In 1959 ground was broken for a new church building. Opened in 1961, the new St. Anthony of Padua Church had an interior that resembled a basilica. Then came an expansion of the African American community that encompassed almost all of the South Side. At the same time, St. Anthony began attracting Mexican American worshippers.
Just Fifteen years after the dedication of the new church, Carmen Adducci suggested to her readers in the 70th Anniversary Booklet that the Church would persevere with its mission to help immigrants whether they spoke Italian or Spanish. In any case, the dynamics of blockbusting, panic peddling and white flight kicked in with a vengeance, dispersing Roseland Italians to Chicago Heights, Lansing, and points south. Others ended up in the western suburbs.
Melrose Park, sixteen miles to the west of the central city, was a place of second settlement attracting Riciglianesi (“Richies”), Trivignesi (“Trivies”), and others from the inner city to the wide open spaces of the western suburbs. Gabriel and Leonard DeFranco (from Castiglione, Abruzzi) were the first Italians to settle in Melrose (1888). They established a barbershop-cigar store-real estate business and Leonard emerged in 1903 as the first Italian Village Board member in 1903.
The Melrose Park Italian community owes its existence to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Emanuella De Stefano, a native of the town of Laurenzana, (Potenza) prayed to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for the life of her gravely ill husband Emilio De Stefano, the well-known leader of the Laurenzanesi community. He recovered. In gratitude, Emanuella and her friend, Anna Marie Prignano, organized in July of 1894, the first Festa Della Madonna in Melrose Park on the DeStefano farm on 25th Avenue at North Avenue. The mass was presided over by Fr. Thomas Moreschine, the pastor at Assumption Church.
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The rest is history. The tradition has entered its second century. More than a million people have at one time or another attended the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In the early years, increased numbers of inner city Italians attended the feast and liked the gardening possibilities (the Melrose Pepper) presented by the rural atmosphere of Melrose. The De Stefanos urged them to come live in Melrose Park. The parish grew along with the Italian population. The faithful pressed for a church for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and in 1905, finally the Scalabrini Order sent Fr. Benjamin Franch to lead the congregation to a new church in 1906 and a school in 1913. He stayed for firty years!
Melrose Park became identified as the quintessential Italian suburb in the Chicago area. Italians dominated the politics of Proviso Township and at one point were successful in controlling the board at Triton College. Melrose Park remains the town shaped by devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This Italian identity is so strong that it will, no doubt, endure even the demographic change that is making Melrose Park population more Hispanic that Italian.
The town of Blue Island at the southwest border of the city was heavily settled by Italian railroad workers from Potenza, Melfi, Avigliano, and some from Cosenza, and Catanzaro, but mostly from Ripacandida (Basilicata) who had first migrated to Altoona, Pennsylvania. In 1905 they formed the Society of San Donato, martyred patron saint of Ripacandida, in hopes of founding an Italian Catholic Church in Blue Island. Within a few years, their hopes were realized and a sizable settlement grew up around the St. Donatus Church north of 127th Street east of the Rock Island Railroad tracks. The Church was not staffed by the Scalabrini Fathers. The concentration of Italians was great enough to elect Italians as aldermen beginning in 1919 and extending into the 1980s, when one of their own, John Rita, was elected Mayor. Though there has been movement of Italians away from Blue Island, the August Feast of San Donatus maintains some flavor of Italianita’ in the town.
Chicago Heights, 30 miles to the south of the Loop and a satellite suburb similar to Blue Island had a population of 20,000 with 50 percent Italian stock by 1920. For most, it was a place of first settlement. The majority were Marchigiani, hailing from San Benedetto del Tronto. They made up about 60% of the Italian population. There were more or less equal numbers from Amaseno (Frosinone), the Sicilian town of Caccamo near Termini Imerese. Many of the latter came by way of New Orleans. Castel di Sangro (Abruzzi) also contributed a good number of immigrants to Chicago Heights.
The wave of Italian immigration coincided perfectly with the rapid expansion of heavy industry in Chicago Heights and the Italian colony prospered along with the industries.
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During the Prohibition Era several Sicilian bootleggers developed connections with Al Capone and the town gained some notoriety for well-publicized beer barrel-busting raids by federal agents.
Their church, San Rocco, was founded in 1906 by Fr.Pasquale Renzullo. Renzullo remained pastor until to 1922 and had to battle apathy, anti-clerical outbursts by Italian socialists, and competition from the Presbyterian Italian mission, the Church of Our Savior. Despite setbacks, however, the pastor succeeded in establishing the Mt. Carmel School in 1912, staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Also high on the agenda was the Athletic Club in 1919, an institutions that played an important role in the community for years to come. The school taught some Italian, and the athletic club taught leadership and discipline, also providing an entree for Italian youth into the very important amateur sports scene in Chicago Heights.
The Italian community maintains an active sister city relationship between Chicago Heights and San Benedetto del Tronto. The Societa’ Amaseno, re-vitalized by a post World War II migration, stages the very successful Feast of San Lorenzo each August. Over time they became the most important ethnic group in the city, dominating local politics in the last half of the twentieth century, even though their percentage of the population has been steadily dwindling. For a full discussion of Italians in Chicago Heights, consult the author’s article listed in the bibliography.
The Highwood community, twenty-eight miles north of the Loop, developed after the turn of the century when migrants from the Modenese towns of Sant’ Anna Peligo and Pievepeligo settled there after venturing into the coal mining towns of downstate Illinois. As explained by Adria Bernardi in her Houses with Names, they made their way in the world “working for some rich people” doing landscaping (Donald Bernardi, Tino Pedruci, Angelo Gualandri) and housekeeping for North Shore business leaders. Highwood artisans and their brethrern throughout the Chicago area gained early prominence in the marble and stone carving business. Antonio Ferrarini’s Italian Marble Company, Alfred Galassini’s National Marble, Peter Lamberti’s monument statuary work, the Fabbri and Fiocchi stone carving firms, and the leadership of the Marble Setters Union (Peter Zini) represent the artistic role played by Italian workers in creating the beauty and grace of public buildings, churches and homes in the city.
Since most nearby towns on the North Shore are wealthy residential suburbs with very restrictive zoning and liquor laws, soldiers and sailors from the nearby Ft. Sheridan and Great Lakes Naval Base often sought out restaurants and bars in Highwood. The town is known for its fine Italian eateries which include the venerable Del Rio—run for three generations by the Pigato family.
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Into the 1980s there were a large number of recent arrivals and it was common to hear Italian spoken on the street of Highwood. Fr. Joseph Currielli, the pastor of St. James Church estimated in that year that half of his parishioners were bilingual.
The Bocce Club of Highwood is World Class. Its dozen top-notch indoor courts make it possible to host national bocce tournaments and to sponsor its own Silver Cup competition each November. The Club carries on a long Highwood tradition of women’s bocce which was pioneered by the 500 member Italian Women’s Prosperity Club and its longtime president, Mary Somenzi.
Another community in Chicago usually not mentioned as an Italian area is a West Side neighborhood near Chicago Avenue and Pulaski with no special name. Originally Irish, this was a blue collar neighborhood of second settlement for second generation Italians who made up about 60% of the residents, with about 30% Irish and rest Polish and Eastern European ancestry. Italians owned many of the small shops along Chicago Avenue near Kedzie. The neighborhood Catholic Church was Our Lady of the Angels. The parish included 4,500 registered families and was one of the largest and most thriving parishes in the archdiocese. Masses and confessions were done in both English and Italian. Two of the seven priests, Joseph Ognibene and Alfred Corbo, were Italian.
A little after 2:30 p.m. on December 1, 1958 their world fell apart when a fire swept through Our Lady of the Angels School, killing 88 students and three nuns. Another 90 students and three nuns were seriously injured. Several injured children subsequently died, bringing the death toll to 95. In such a disaster, ethnicity loses relevance. Yet the fact is that that 40 of the children killed in the fire bore Italian names. The 1200 students attending the school and their families were traumatized by the catastrophe and the event effectively killed the neighborhood.
There was no ONE Little Italy and there was no ONE town or region of origin that defines the world that the Italian immigrants made during the past century. The pattern that emerges from is a varied one. Though merchants came first, mostly contadini (small farmers) from scores of towns in Italy, both north and south, settled around the core of the central city and in selected suburbs. They practiced campanilismo, living near others from the same village or region. The inner-city colonies were considered slums, and their inhabitants were the object of intensive efforts by social workers to make them middle class. Political ward bosses wanted their votes and the Church wanted to save their immortal souls. And they had their own ideas about how to advance their families.
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Though the Italian communities had a lot in common, each colony developed and changed at its own pace, depending on its geographic location and the dynamic mix of the Italians and other immigrants who lived in them. Their world was not a static one. Most of the neighborhoodslastedprettymuchintactuntilabout1960whentheroofliterallyfellin. The pressures of urban life mangled or completely destroyed many of the churches and the neighborhoods and community networks they had built. With the demise or decline of St. Philip Benizi, Holy Guardian Angel, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Santa Maria Incoronata, Our Lady of the Angels and the Italian communities they represent, we are left with very little physical evidence of the Italian immigrant presence in Chicago. The Pompeii Shrine and parts of the Near West Side, the 24th and Oakley area, and the Assumption Church survive as the only material links (within the city limits) to the world the Italian immigrants made and the lives that they lived.