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by Gary Potter  April 01st, 2009

The Church in the United States has always been predominately Irish as an institution. Even today, with Hispanics obviously bound to become the Catholic majority in the near future, she remains essentially Irish-American in character and spirit. Yet, non-Irish Catholics have figured importantly in the life of the U.S. Church from the earliest days. Very notable among these non-Irish have been ethnic Italians.
In 1812, the Italian Jesuit, Rev. John Grassi, became the president of Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning, 23 years after it was founded. He revolutionized its administration.
An Italian Vincentian, Rev. Joseph Rosati, in 1826, became the first bishop of St. Louis, “Gateway of the West.”
The first Italians arriving in the U.S. from the old country tended to settle in New York City. When St. Peter’s, the first Catholic church built there, was dedicated in 1786, the parishioners included Italians, as well as Irish immigrants, Frenchmen, and Germans. When the city’s second Catholic church, the original Cathedral of St. Patrick, opened its doors in 1815, a leading member of the parish was the wealthy Italian-immigrant merchant, Anthony Trapani. He was also the very first foreign-born to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Another Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen, Mother Cabrini, became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized. (That was in 1946, a mere 29 years after her death.)
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The miraculous statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The second was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (in 1975). Catholics know she was not an immigrant. Many do not realize that except for the influence of Italy and Italians, she might have remained the Protestant she had been raised as in New York City. It was in Italy that her husband, William Seton, died. She and their children had gone with him to that country in the hope he would regain his health in the sunny Mediterranean climate. Alone and without much money, she and the children were taken in and cared for by the families of the Filicchi brothers, Italian agents of the failed family business William had headed. One of the brothers, Antonio, accompanied her and the children on their return to New York, remained a close friend, and even paid the expenses of the boys when they left home for schooling. St. Elizabeth Seton had first seen the beauty of the Faith represented by the churches she visited in Italy. It was largely the prayers, persuasions, and example of Antonio Filicchi that finally led to her conversion in 1805.
Despite important contributions to the life of the Church in the U.S. made by sons and daughters of Italy, their citizenship in the Church in this country remained second-class for a long time. There were several reasons why it was so.
For one thing, they were very much a small minority in the U.S. Church until late in the 19th century. This made them and their needs easy to ignore. For another thing, they did not arrive English-speaking, as did the Irish. This meant it took them longer to be “Americanized”; and until they were it was easy to treat them as foreigners — as second-class. In addition, the style of their Catholicism was different from that of the Irish majority. The colonial masters of Ireland, the English, might view the country as a piece of Italy that had broken off and floated into the North Atlantic, but to the Irish in America, Italian Catholicism looked strange and even suspect.
To say it reflected the Italians’ Mediterranean culture would be a diplomatic way to evade the main point about it in comparison to Irish-American Catholicism: Italian Catholicism was free of any taint of Jansenism.
Finally, though the Italians were a minority in U.S. Catholicism, the Irish were themselves a minority in the Protestant United States. During the years when shopkeepers could and did post signs on their doors, “No Dogs or Irish Allowed,” the Irish had trouble enough finding jobs and feeding their families without “dago” competition. The situation was made worse because the Irish tended to come to America in family groups. Italian men often arrived alone, then sent for their families, or even returned to Italy, after making some money. This meant they were often willing to work for less than anyone else.
The upshot was that even when Italians began to arrive in greater numbers, first around 1850, and then by the millions between 1880 and 1920, they were nearly always denied the use of existing Catholic churches. More precisely, they were denied the use of the church proper. They had to worship in the basement — if they could find a priest.
When a priest finally was sent to East Harlem specifically to minister to the Italian-immigrant community at the beginning of the 1880s, he could not provide the sacraments in a church. He had to hear confessions and celebrate Mass in a first-floor apartment in one of the city’s “Little Italies.”
That particular “Little Italy” (one of three at that time) was in lower East Harlem. It is now mainly a Puerto Rican neighborhood. That fact itself testifies to the eventual success of the Italian immigrants. First, they transformed themselves from immigrants into Italian-Americans. Today, their descendants have long since moved to an affluent suburb in Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey or elsewhere. However, they left behind a monument in the now-vanished “Little Italy”: one of the first churches built by Italian immigrants in this country. It is a beautiful church, and it remains, changed as is the neighborhood, a veritable National Shrine of Italians in America.
It sits on East 115th Street near the East River and is consecrated to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Inside the shrine is a statue of her. The statue is crowned, as is the image of the Holy Child the Madonna cradles in her arms. Dozens, if not scores or even hundreds of miracles are believed to have taken place in the lives of Catholics who have asked for the help of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel while kneeling before this statue.
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A veiw of the altar. The arch above the sanctuary reads, " Regina Decor Carmeli, Ora Pro Nobis" ( O Queen, who art the beauty of Carmel, pray for us)
We want to spend the balance of this article considering: the historical attachment Italians feel to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; the history of the parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and the statue of her; the coronation of an image of Our Lady and how it is done; and some of the miracles attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after prayers to her before her statue on East 115th Street. Our overarching point of view will be this: Whatever the number and kind of miracles obtained by Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for her Manhattan devotees, given the difficulties that had to be surmounted a century ago and the sorry state of the U.S. Church and society today, the construction of the shrine and its continued existence as a vital worship center is the greatest one of all.
We have said that Italian Catholicism is untainted by Jansenism. Apart from its verve and earthiness, reflected by the inclination of Italians to reprove first and most strongly sins besides common ones of the flesh, nothing shows this more clearly than the Italian attachment to the Mother of God, to the Madonna. This can be seen even in art. Think of the great representations of her, from Raphael’s Madonna and Child to Michelangelo’s Pieta, and most were painted or sculpted by Italians.
True, when Jansenism was most threatening to the Faith in the 17th century, it was not an Italian, but a Frenchman, St. Louis de Montfort, who countered it by teaching True Devotion to Mary. This is as much as to say, however, that the heresy hardly needed to be countered in Italy. It had scarcely any appeal there. It was Catholics living in more northern lands of the Faith’s heartland, Europe, who were most apt to be led astray by the severities arising from Jansenism, if not Jansenism itself.
To be sure, the Irish (like other Northern European Catholics) have their devotion to Our Lady, but the ones at all tending toward a dour form of the religion had the misfortune, if they came to the U.S. — and the Irish were the first Catholics to arrive in the young republic in sizable numbers — of encountering the still-strong Puritanism brought to these shores by the “Pilgrim Fathers.” It simply re-enforced their tendency.
The difference between the Irish and Italians is exemplified by the first churches built by each group in New York. The Italian Anthony Trapani was a founding parishioner of the original cathedral, yes, but it was mainly Irish who built it, and it was consecrated to their national patron, St. Patrick, as was the grander cathedral built later in the century on Fifth Avenue. The Italians consecrated their church in East Harlem to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and in following years they built and consecrated to her churches in the Bronx, White Plains, Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, Staten Island and elsewhere in the Archdiocese of New York.
This Italian devotion to the Mother of God as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel — the Madonna del Monte Carmelo — is especially striking, as is the fact that historically Italian parishes seem to be about the only ones still to keep the old practice of investing children with the brown scapular at the time of their First Holy Communion. Who, after all, more embodies the mercy of a mother, a mercy that any child is entitled to expect, than the Mother of God as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel? That is insofar as tradition holds that on the Saturday after their death she will rescue from Purgatory all who die wearing her livery.
Of course, Mary is not simply a mother, not simply Mother of the Church and therefore, spiritually, of each and every individual Catholic. She is also a Queen, as we are reminded whenever we come to the Fifth Glorious Mystery of her Rosary. Queens wear crowns.
To relate at this juncture how the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Manhattan’s East 115th Street came to be crowned and what is entailed in such a coronation would be to anticipate ourselves. Some history of the parish ought first to be traced. It will suffice to observe at this point that the statue on 115th Street is one of but four images of Our Lady in all North America that has been solemnly crowned with papal approbation by high Churchmen designated by the Supreme Pontiff.
The others are the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary in Cap de la Madeleine, Quebec, Canada; and the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Secour at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. (Of this latter image of Our Lady — the first in the U.S. — it must be reported that the Ursulines prayed before it when Andrew Jackson fought the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. After his victory, Jackson, who was not a Catholic, formally called on the sisters and thanked them for their prayers.)
[Image: chruch.gif]The first priest sent specifically to minister to East Harlem’s Italian community arrived in the early 1880s (in May, 1884, to be precise). He was Rev. Emiliano Kirner, and it was no accident that he was a Pallottine Father.
His order’s founder, St. Vincent Pallotti, like Mother Cabrini later in the 19th century, was always deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of Italian immigrants in foreign lands, especially Protestant ones. These immigrants were without priests who spoke their language, usually lived in the crowded and often slum-like districts of big cities, and worked for little money as laborers when they managed to find work at all. St. Vincent understood that in such conditions the expatriates were too easy prey for Protestant Bible societies that promised some food and a bit of warm clothing to anyone who abjured the Faith.
Thus, the first two Pallottine priests sent on mission anywhere were sent to London. That was in 1844. Though they made St. Peter’s at Hatton Garden “the Italian church” in London, Fathers Raphael Melia and Faa di Bruno did not neglect their order’s apostolate to propagate the Faith among non-Catholics, as well as preserve it among immigrants. Many converts from Anglicanism were received at St. Peter’s.
The Pallottine Fathers’ work in London was flourishing when John Cardinal McCloskey, then approaching the end of his 21-year tenure (1864-85) as Archbishop of New York, was made aware that many Italian-immigrant laborers living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were being led out of the Church by former friars from Naples. Funded by the Episcopalians, the apostates operated a house they called Grace Mission on East 114th Street. They dispensed food and clothing, and provided a place for the immigrants, isolated in a foreign and often hostile city, to gather socially.
At about this time, a political “boss” was emerging in East Harlem, Antonio Petrucci. Further, natives of Polla, a city in the Province of Salerno in Italy, had begun to gather to celebrate their hometown patroness, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, whose feast is July 16. The first celebrations were very humble affairs, nothing like the big festivals back home. There was not even an image of Our Lady to venerate, except for a picture of her printed on paper. However, out of the gatherings, which became larger each year, a sense of community grew, and Petrucci went to work to keep it going. He organized a kind of society or club, the Congregazione del Monte Carmelo, and became its director.
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Street procession in 1959, celebrating the sventy-fifth anniversary of the shine.
It was Petrucci who rented the apartment on East 111th Street, just west of First Avenue, to serve as a chapel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. He also bought a statue of her, imported from Italy. It was a replica of the one venerated in Pola. The statue very much reflected the religious taste of the era. It was dressed in heavily brocaded robes, similar to those of the Infant of Prague, and only the face and hands were carved of wood. The body consisted of thin slats — a frame on which to hang the robes. (This meant that not only could the statue be installed in the little chapel; it could also easily be carried in processions.)
Mass was said in the chapel for the first time on Easter Sunday, 1884. The celebrant was furnished by the archdiocese and would not figure in the history of the parish that grew from the apartment on 111th Street. That is because New York’s Coadjutor Archbishop, Michael A. Corrigan, Cardinal McCloskey’s successor a year later, had by then contacted the Pallottines at St. Peter’s in London with an appeal that they look after the Italians in East Harlem. Fr. Kirner was sent, arriving, as already mentioned, in May, 1884. London’s Cardinal Manning, who greatly admired Kirner’s work among the poor, told Bishop Corrigan, “I am sending you my right-hand man.” He was the first Pallottine to come to the Western Hemisphere.
German-born, Fr. Kirner had trained in Rome to be a Pallottine. After that, he worked pastorally for a number of years among the Italians at St. Peter’s in London. He loved the people and spoke their language.
In New York, he energized the Italians of East Harlem. He fired them with enthusiasm, and was not above appealing to their pride. They ought, he told them, to provide their beloved Madonna with a decent home — a church.
Soon, land for one was bought on East 115th Street. Then Fr. Kirner personally joined men of his already growing flock to dig the foundations. They were laid by September, and by the beginning of December the lower church was finished, roofed and ready for worship. The statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was moved from the apartment-chapel to the new church. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
When Fr. Kirner saw his parishioners’ devotion to the Mother of God, he became convinced that the church they were building would one day be a true Marian Shrine.
The upper church was finished in 1887, but the unforeseen took place that same year. It was a tragic event.
A few years before, seeing that the largely immigrant Catholic population of the nation needed education if its members were ever to amount to more than poor laborers and factory hands, the bishops of the United States had mandated that parishes provide schools wherever possible. Fr. Kirner and his faithful were on the crest of the first wave of parochial school-building. They began construction of one even as their church was still being built. In October, 1887, Fr. Kirner was inspecting his new school when the walls of it collapsed upon him, killing several workers. Kirner himself died of his injuries the next day.
When the building was finally done and the school opened, Sisters of Charity were put in charge. There was wonderful historical symmetry in this. After all, the sisters would be educating Italian-immigrant children in a parish school built by Italians, and it was owed largely to the influence of Italy and Italians that their foundress, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, became a Catholic.
The details of the creation of the school, parish and shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel are beyond the scope of an article of this length. It deserves mention that the Italians were not the only Catholics in East Harlem, there were plenty of English-speaking Catholics (Irish) on hand. Mt. Carmel was a bilingual parish from the very beginning. And the Irish were not just in the background of the building of the Church and school. In fact, because they had more money than the Italians, and were generous in donating it, they provided many of the funds for the erection of the buildings.
That, however does not justify the later turn of events.
Italians remained an overall minority on Manhattan’s East Side, as nearly everywhere that Catholics lived in the U.S. This meant that for years to come — it is a nearly awful thing to relate — they and the statue of their beloved Madonna del Monte Carmelo continued to be relegated to the lower church. Mass in the upper church was for English-speakers. The injustice of this is further underlined quantitatively by parish baptism records. In 1885 there were 302 baptisms, of which 229 were Italian. The next year, there were 345 Italians baptized out of a total of 511 infants. By 1898 there were 1,660 baptisms, with Italians once again the majority.
Still, the lower church was made into a beautiful shrine, and there was one time of year when the Italians outnumbered everybody else: July 16. On that day and for the preceding vigil, the shrine and the street outside were crowded with Italians from the Upper East Side, Manhattan’s other “Little Italies,” from Brooklyn, and then — as Italians began settling in other boroughs — from throughout the city. In time, they would come to 115th Street from all the Northeast and even from across country. Not merely was the number of Italian immigrants increasing (three million arrived in the U.S. between 1880 and 1920); so was the number of cures and other miracles reported to take place after pilgrims prayed at the shrine. The news of them drew more and more to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and not merely on July 16.
Yet, that was the Big Day. There was dancing and laughing and food and wine, as well as processions, prayer and Holy Mass. Today, everyone is familiar with such street festivals, if only from film and television, but for a long time there was nothing Catholic in New York or anywhere in the U.S. to equal July 16 on 115th Street. It became the Italian event of the year.
Meanwhile, Protestant efforts to proselytize the immigrants did not cease, as they haven’t even today. (Only the target has changed; now it’s mainly Hispanics.)
Other Pallottine Fathers from London followed Fr. Kirner. One was Rev. Scipione Tofini. He arrived in 1892 and observed with alarm the inroads of the sectarians. They may not have been as deep as in the years before the Pallottines were on the scene, but it was intolerable to Fr. Tofini that there should be any.
He remembered the ceremonies of solemn coronation of certain images of Our Lady that he was fortunate enough to witness in Italy. He thought then of the number of cures and other miracles obtained by Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for those who sought them in prayer before her statue in the shrine. He ended by believing that if papal homage was paid to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the form of the Supreme Pontiff granting permission for the solemn coronation of her shrine statue, the local faithful and Italian immigrants well beyond the parish boundaries would take such pride in their patroness being so honored, that it would help insulate them from Protestant blandishments.
However, their just pride would not be alone in insulating them. The papal approbation would amount to recognition of the reality of the cures and other graces resulting from the people’s prayers. Thus would it be seen by all that faith in Our Lady and her Son — the One who actually gives graces, but through her hands — is not misplaced.
That graces have resulted abundantly from appeals to Our Lady is a requirement for papal permission to be granted for the coronation of one of her images. There are two others. One is that the image must be popular — many faithful must venerate it. (This condition obviously could be easily met in the case of the shrine statue.)
As for the third requirement, Fr. Tofini was at first at a loss. That requirement: The privilege of a coronation depends on the antiquity of the cult. That is, not simply must veneration of the image be popular, the image must be venerated for a very long time, preferably for centuries. No one had prayed before the shrine statue until 1884.
If Fr. Tofini was initially at a loss, he was not daunted. Before he became a Pallottine he had worked in the Vatican as a monsignor. He knew the workings of the place, and he still had friends in Rome.
Though he was familiar with the procedures for petitioning the pope for the privilege of crowning an image of Our Lady, or fast made himself familiar, it is not known whether Fr. Tofini knew the history of such coronations.
When the first image was crowned cannot be said, but a Capuchin who died in Parma in 1620, Girolamo Paolucci da Forli, is credited with popularizing the custom.
A nobleman of the day, Count Alessandro Sforza Pallavicini, then endowed the Vatican with funds for the purpose of having crowns made for images of Our Lady “in Rome and elsewhere.”
A procedure was established at that time. Briefly: The three conditions, the ones described above, were settled on. Then it was decided that a petition for the privilege will go directly to the pope, who has it examined by competent Vatican authorities. If the privilege is granted after their recommendation, a decree is sent to the dignitary who will represent the pope at the coronation. The coronation itself takes place with solemnity, according to a set ceremony. If the image of Our Lady depicts her holding the Holy Child, both must be crowned. Finally, the crown must be gold and adorned by precious stones.
In regard to that last requirement, about 300 images of Our Lady, including the four in North America, have been crowned worldwide. Since most of the coronations had taken place before the one in New York, the funds provided by Count Sforza in the 17th century were depleted. Accordingly, the gold for the crowns of the shrine’s Madonna and child would have to be provided by the faithful of the parish and pilgrims to the shrine. It was mostly from rings and other jewelry. (It testifies to the love they must have felt for Our Lady that poor women would part with items that, for many, were probably the only material things of value they owned.) The gold was then taken to Italy to be blessed personally by the pope before being fashioned into crowns.
The pope of the day was Leo XIII. It was he who was petitioned for the privilege of the New York coronation. According to the procedure, the petition had to be made by the local bishop. At the time, that was the Irish-born Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Farley. After Fr. Tofini had explained to him the benefits he envisioned as arising from a coronation, the prelate readily agreed to petition the pope. Fr. Tofini then traveled to Rome to press the petition.
There remained the problem of how to get around the requirement that for an image of Our Lady to be papally crowned it is supposed to have been venerated for centuries. Once in Rome, Fr. Tofini addressed the problem as directly as possible. He pointed out, quite simply, that nothing Catholic in the U.S. had existed for centuries. The Church herself, in the U.S., was less than 120-years-old. Ought the coronation of the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel wait until, say, 2300 A.D.?
Pope Leo saw the point of Fr. Tofini’s argument and waived the third requirement. He signed the documents authorizing the coronation. Alas, he died a few days later. Like all business of the Holy See, the coronation was held in abeyance for the reconfirmation of Leo’s successor.
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Pope St. Pius X, shown here as Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, blessed the crowns and donated an emerald for our Lady's.
That was Pope St. Pius X, who did not hesitate to reconfirm the coronation. He was also the pope who actually blessed the gold for the crowns, contributing an emerald from the papal treasury for Our Lady’s. He also personally blessed the crowns once they were crafted.
Back in New York, the feeling on 115th Street was euphoric. A day for the coronation was set and planning for it begun. The day: July 10, 1904.
There were clouds that morning, as if a summer storm might be possible. They dampened no one’s spirit. On that day and during the two that preceeded, the church counted 50,000 visitors. Finally, the moment for the great event was at hand. So were choirs, musicians, outstanding members of the community, civic leaders, Church dignitaries and, of course, the crowds. The coronation itself took place outside in nearby Jefferson Park. The statue of Our Lady was borne in procession from the church to the park while the choirs sang and musicians played. Bringing up the rear of the procession was Archbishop Farley. It was he, as the pope’s designated representative, who placed the crowns on the heads of the Madonna del Monte Carmelo and the Christ Child. As he did, it is said, the clouds parted and the sun shone. If that were not enough, fireworks erupted and the church bells pealed. Then the crowned statue was carried back to the church and enthroned. All this was followed by a Te Deum.
On July 22, Fr. Tofini wrote to his superior-general in Rome, Fr. William Withmee, a report fully describing the event. Space prevents quotation from it here, except for one passage. We shall come to it soon.
Before we do, a few lines are in order concerning the literally countless miracles that are believed to have resulted from prayers offered up to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel by Catholics kneeling before her statue on East 115th Street. “Literally countless” is the right language because there simply is no way of learning how many they might be, not for the first several decades of the existence of the parish, in any event.
Incredibly, when the faithful reported a miraculous event to the priests during the early decades, or an event that seemed miraculous, no record of any kind was kept. It is not even known today which miracles were reported to Pope Leo XIII as evidence that graces were bestowed on those who venerated Our Lady of Mt. Carmel at the foot of her statue in New York. It was only in the 1920s that a very rudimentary record was begun. That was when the news of apparent miracles started to appear in the parish bulletin.
On the other hand, perhaps it is not so incredible that no record was kept. If you are sufficiently deep in your faith to believe that, of course, the Mother of God will intercede for you and prayer will move her to do so — if you simply expect miracles — why keep a record? Would not the time spent in record-keeping be better used in urging still more prayer? It is skepticism that demands a record or other “proof” of a miracle. And how record an invisible infusion of grace, the transformation of a soul, the turning away from sin, which could be a far greater miracle than the disappearance of cancer?
That said, here is the merest sampling of the kind of miracles reported in the parish bulletin, starting in the 1920s:
June, 1929: “Maria Carelli, a child of nine years, daughter of Donato and Anna Bonito, residing in Union City, N.J., had cerebral meningitis and was declared incurable by the doctors. The mother, greatly disturbed, made a vow to the Lady of Mt. Carmel asking for the recovery of her child. The night between May 5th and 6th she looked like a corpse and the mother was convinced that death was near at hand. Early in the morning, however, Maria from her bed called her mother and said: ‘Mother, I saw the Blessed Lady and She has given me medicine to cure me.’ Maria Carelli now is fully recovered and, to fulfill their vow, she and her mother obligated themselves to visit the Madonna once a year for the rest of their lives.”
“The first of July, 1923, Pasquale Marella was hit by a car and brought to the hospital with cerebral disturbances. The end was in sight. His mother made a vow to the Lady of Mt. Carmel and, miraculously, after a few days every complication disappeared and Pasquale came to our sanctuary to render thanks to the Heavenly Mother.”
“Angela Mucci of 239 Nelson St., Brooklyn, badly burned her legs which necessitated painful methods for relief and immediate healing. In desperation, she finally decided to entreat the Madonna and after 29 days of torture the complications suddenly ceased and where there was a serious burn there remained not even a scar.” (August, 1929)
It would be possible to continue in this vein. That is, we could go on quoting the parish bulletin’s reports of miracles, but to what end?
It is far more fruitful to quote, and ponder, a single sentence that Fr. Tofini wrote to his superior in Rome in the report he made on the 1904 coronation.
“The Blessed Virgin has solemnly taken possession of the United States,” he said of the event, “and we have every hope to believe that the Blessed Virgin will soon bring the American people to the true Faith.”
Soon? Ninety-five years later, it has not happened. The nation is not Catholic. Was Fr. Tofini’s hope misplaced?
Two things want to be reported by way of conclusion.
The first: On June 23, 1923, the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was finally brought from the shrine in the lower Church and enthroned in the upper one.
The Second: This past July 16, 1999, East 115th Street was once more thronged by thousands come to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Once more, as a hundred years ago, there was festivity, and that was good. Once more, too, there were numerous Holy Masses. But things have changed. Now the Masses are not simply for the Italian and English-speaking. Now they must be celebrated by priests who know Spanish and (for Haitian immigrants) French, but especially Spanish.
It took Our Lady’s Italian sons and daughters nearly 40 years before they could move her statue upstairs in a church they helped build! Further, ethnic Italians who have done so much to enrich the life of the Faith in this country still remain a minority. Hispanics, however, will probably be the majority in the U.S. Church by the end of the next decade, even as they will become the largest minority in the general population.
They are already having a tremendous impact on the popular culture. (Many of the leading stars in music, television, film and sports are Hispanic.) So wby
Gary Potter  April 01st, 2009

[url=http://catholicism.org/index.php?adclick=1][Image: ironman.jpg]

The Church in the United States has always been predominately Irish as an institution. Even today, with Hispanics obviously bound to become the Catholic majority in the near future, she remains essentially Irish-American in character and spirit. Yet, non-Irish Catholics have figured importantly in the life of the U.S. Church from the earliest days. Very notable among these non-Irish have been ethnic Italians.
In 1812, the Italian Jesuit, Rev. John Grassi, became the president of Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning, 23 years after it was founded. He revolutionized its administration.
An Italian Vincentian, Rev. Joseph Rosati, in 1826, became the first bishop of St. Louis, “Gateway of the West.”
The first Italians arriving in the U.S. from the old country tended to settle in New York City. When St. Peter’s, the first Catholic church built there, was dedicated in 1786, the parishioners included Italians, as well as Irish immigrants, Frenchmen, and Germans. When the city’s second Catholic church, the original Cathedral of St. Patrick, opened its doors in 1815, a leading member of the parish was the wealthy Italian-immigrant merchant, Anthony Trapani. He was also the very first foreign-born to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Another Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen, Mother Cabrini, became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized. (That was in 1946, a mere 29 years after her death.)
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The miraculous statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The second was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (in 1975). Catholics know she was not an immigrant. Many do not realize that except for the influence of Italy and Italians, she might have remained the Protestant she had been raised as in New York City. It was in Italy that her husband, William Seton, died. She and their children had gone with him to that country in the hope he would regain his health in the sunny Mediterranean climate. Alone and without much money, she and the children were taken in and cared for by the families of the Filicchi brothers, Italian agents of the failed family business William had headed. One of the brothers, Antonio, accompanied her and the children on their return to New York, remained a close friend, and even paid the expenses of the boys when they left home for schooling. St. Elizabeth Seton had first seen the beauty of the Faith represented by the churches she visited in Italy. It was largely the prayers, persuasions, and example of Antonio Filicchi that finally led to her conversion in 1805.
Despite important contributions to the life of the Church in the U.S. made by sons and daughters of Italy, their citizenship in the Church in this country remained second-class for a long time. There were several reasons why it was so.
For one thing, they were very much a small minority in the U.S. Church until late in the 19th century. This made them and their needs easy to ignore. For another thing, they did not arrive English-speaking, as did the Irish. This meant it took them longer to be “Americanized”; and until they were it was easy to treat them as foreigners — as second-class. In addition, the style of their Catholicism was different from that of the Irish majority. The colonial masters of Ireland, the English, might view the country as a piece of Italy that had broken off and floated into the North Atlantic, but to the Irish in America, Italian Catholicism looked strange and even suspect.
To say it reflected the Italians’ Mediterranean culture would be a diplomatic way to evade the main point about it in comparison to Irish-American Catholicism: Italian Catholicism was free of any taint of Jansenism.
Finally, though the Italians were a minority in U.S. Catholicism, the Irish were themselves a minority in the Protestant United States. During the years when shopkeepers could and did post signs on their doors, “No Dogs or Irish Allowed,” the Irish had trouble enough finding jobs and feeding their families without “dago” competition. The situation was made worse because the Irish tended to come to America in family groups. Italian men often arrived alone, then sent for their families, or even returned to Italy, after making some money. This meant they were often willing to work for less than anyone else.
The upshot was that even when Italians began to arrive in greater numbers, first around 1850, and then by the millions between 1880 and 1920, they were nearly always denied the use of existing Catholic churches. More precisely, they were denied the use of the church proper. They had to worship in the basement — if they could find a priest.
When a priest finally was sent to East Harlem specifically to minister to the Italian-immigrant community at the beginning of the 1880s, he could not provide the sacraments in a church. He had to hear confessions and celebrate Mass in a first-floor apartment in one of the city’s “Little Italies.”
That particular “Little Italy” (one of three at that time) was in lower East Harlem. It is now mainly a Puerto Rican neighborhood. That fact itself testifies to the eventual success of the Italian immigrants. First, they transformed themselves from immigrants into Italian-Americans. Today, their descendants have long since moved to an affluent suburb in Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey or elsewhere. However, they left behind a monument in the now-vanished “Little Italy”: one of the first churches built by Italian immigrants in this country. It is a beautiful church, and it remains, changed as is the neighborhood, a veritable National Shrine of Italians in America.
It sits on East 115th Street near the East River and is consecrated to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Inside the shrine is a statue of her. The statue is crowned, as is the image of the Holy Child the Madonna cradles in her arms. Dozens, if not scores or even hundreds of miracles are believed to have taken place in the lives of Catholics who have asked for the help of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel while kneeling before this statue.
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A veiw of the altar. The arch above the sanctuary reads, " Regina Decor Carmeli, Ora Pro Nobis" ( O Queen, who art the beauty of Carmel, pray for us)
We want to spend the balance of this article considering: the historical attachment Italians feel to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; the history of the parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and the statue of her; the coronation of an image of Our Lady and how it is done; and some of the miracles attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after prayers to her before her statue on East 115th Street. Our overarching point of view will be this: Whatever the number and kind of miracles obtained by Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for her Manhattan devotees, given the difficulties that had to be surmounted a century ago and the sorry state of the U.S. Church and society today, the construction of the shrine and its continued existence as a vital worship center is the greatest one of all.
We have said that Italian Catholicism is untainted by Jansenism. Apart from its verve and earthiness, reflected by the inclination of Italians to reprove first and most strongly sins besides common ones of the flesh, nothing shows this more clearly than the Italian attachment to the Mother of God, to the Madonna. This can be seen even in art. Think of the great representations of her, from Raphael’s Madonna and Child to Michelangelo’s Pieta, and most were painted or sculpted by Italians.
True, when Jansenism was most threatening to the Faith in the 17th century, it was not an Italian, but a Frenchman, St. Louis de Montfort, who countered it by teaching True Devotion to Mary. This is as much as to say, however, that the heresy hardly needed to be countered in Italy. It had scarcely any appeal there. It was Catholics living in more northern lands of the Faith’s heartland, Europe, who were most apt to be led astray by the severities arising from Jansenism, if not Jansenism itself.
To be sure, the Irish (like other Northern European Catholics) have their devotion to Our Lady, but the ones at all tending toward a dour form of the religion had the misfortune, if they came to the U.S. — and the Irish were the first Catholics to arrive in the young republic in sizable numbers — of encountering the still-strong Puritanism brought to these shores by the “Pilgrim Fathers.” It simply re-enforced their tendency.
The difference between the Irish and Italians is exemplified by the first churches built by each group in New York. The Italian Anthony Trapani was a founding parishioner of the original cathedral, yes, but it was mainly Irish who built it, and it was consecrated to their national patron, St. Patrick, as was the grander cathedral built later in the century on Fifth Avenue. The Italians consecrated their church in East Harlem to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and in following years they built and consecrated to her churches in the Bronx, White Plains, Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, Staten Island and elsewhere in the Archdiocese of New York.
This Italian devotion to the Mother of God as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel — the Madonna del Monte Carmelo — is especially striking, as is the fact that historically Italian parishes seem to be about the only ones still to keep the old practice of investing children with the brown scapular at the time of their First Holy Communion. Who, after all, more embodies the mercy of a mother, a mercy that any child is entitled to expect, than the Mother of God as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel? That is insofar as tradition holds that on the Saturday after their death she will rescue from Purgatory all who die wearing her livery.
Of course, Mary is not simply a mother, not simply Mother of the Church and therefore, spiritually, of each and every individual Catholic. She is also a Queen, as we are reminded whenever we come to the Fifth Glorious Mystery of her Rosary. Queens wear crowns.
To relate at this juncture how the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Manhattan’s East 115th Street came to be crowned and what is entailed in such a coronation would be to anticipate ourselves. Some history of the parish ought first to be traced. It will suffice to observe at this point that the statue on 115th Street is one of but four images of Our Lady in all North America that has been solemnly crowned with papal approbation by high Churchmen designated by the Supreme Pontiff.
The others are the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary in Cap de la Madeleine, Quebec, Canada; and the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Secour at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. (Of this latter image of Our Lady — the first in the U.S. — it must be reported that the Ursulines prayed before it when Andrew Jackson fought the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. After his victory, Jackson, who was not a Catholic, formally called on the sisters and thanked them for their prayers.)
[Image: chruch.gif]The first priest sent specifically to minister to East Harlem’s Italian community arrived in the early 1880s (in May, 1884, to be precise). He was Rev. Emiliano Kirner, and it was no accident that he was a Pallottine Father.
His order’s founder, St. Vincent Pallotti, like Mother Cabrini later in the 19th century, was always deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of Italian immigrants in foreign lands, especially Protestant ones. These immigrants were without priests who spoke their language, usually lived in the crowded and often slum-like districts of big cities, and worked for little money as laborers when they managed to find work at all. St. Vincent understood that in such conditions the expatriates were too easy prey for Protestant Bible societies that promised some food and a bit of warm clothing to anyone who abjured the Faith.
Thus, the first two Pallottine priests sent on mission anywhere were sent to London. That was in 1844. Though they made St. Peter’s at Hatton Garden “the Italian church” in London, Fathers Raphael Melia and Faa di Bruno did not neglect their order’s apostolate to propagate the Faith among non-Catholics, as well as preserve it among immigrants. Many converts from Anglicanism were received at St. Peter’s.
The Pallottine Fathers’ work in London was flourishing when John Cardinal McCloskey, then approaching the end of his 21-year tenure (1864-85) as Archbishop of New York, was made aware that many Italian-immigrant laborers living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were being led out of the Church by former friars from Naples. Funded by the Episcopalians, the apostates operated a house they called Grace Mission on East 114th Street. They dispensed food and clothing, and provided a place for the immigrants, isolated in a foreign and often hostile city, to gather socially.
At about this time, a political “boss” was emerging in East Harlem, Antonio Petrucci. Further, natives of Polla, a city in the Province of Salerno in Italy, had begun to gather to celebrate their hometown patroness, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, whose feast is July 16. The first celebrations were very humble affairs, nothing like the big festivals back home. There was not even an image of Our Lady to venerate, except for a picture of her printed on paper. However, out of the gatherings, which became larger each year, a sense of community grew, and Petrucci went to work to keep it going. He organized a kind of society or club, the Congregazione del Monte Carmelo, and became its director.
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Street procession in 1959, celebrating the sventy-fifth anniversary of the shine.
It was Petrucci who rented the apartment on East 111th Street, just west of First Avenue, to serve as a chapel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. He also bought a statue of her, imported from Italy. It was a replica of the one venerated in Pola. The statue very much reflected the religious taste of the era. It was dressed in heavily brocaded robes, similar to those of the Infant of Prague, and only the face and hands were carved of wood. The body consisted of thin slats — a frame on which to hang the robes. (This meant that not only could the statue be installed in the little chapel; it could also easily be carried in processions.)
Mass was said in the chapel for the first time on Easter Sunday, 1884. The celebrant was furnished by the archdiocese and would not figure in the history of the parish that grew from the apartment on 111th Street. That is because New York’s Coadjutor Archbishop, Michael A. Corrigan, Cardinal McCloskey’s successor a year later, had by then contacted the Pallottines at St. Peter’s in London with an appeal that they look after the Italians in East Harlem. Fr. Kirner was sent, arriving, as already mentioned, in May, 1884. London’s Cardinal Manning, who greatly admired Kirner’s work among the poor, told Bishop Corrigan, “I am sending you my right-hand man.” He was the first Pallottine to come to the Western Hemisphere.
German-born, Fr. Kirner had trained in Rome to be a Pallottine. After that, he worked pastorally for a number of years among the Italians at St. Peter’s in London. He loved the people and spoke their language.
In New York, he energized the Italians of East Harlem. He fired them with enthusiasm, and was not above appealing to their pride. They ought, he told them, to provide their beloved Madonna with a decent home — a church.
Soon, land for one was bought on East 115th Street. Then Fr. Kirner personally joined men of his already growing flock to dig the foundations. They were laid by September, and by the beginning of December the lower church was finished, roofed and ready for worship. The statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was moved from the apartment-chapel to the new church. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
When Fr. Kirner saw his parishioners’ devotion to the Mother of God, he became convinced that the church they were building would one day be a true Marian Shrine.
The upper church was finished in 1887, but the unforeseen took place that same year. It was a tragic event.
A few years before, seeing that the largely immigrant Catholic population of the nation needed education if its members were ever to amount to more than poor laborers and factory hands, the bishops of the United States had mandated that parishes provide schools wherever possible. Fr. Kirner and his faithful were on the crest of the first wave of parochial school-building. They began construction of one even as their church was still being built. In October, 1887, Fr. Kirner was inspecting his new school when the walls of it collapsed upon him, killing several workers. Kirner himself died of his injuries the next day.
When the building was finally done and the school opened, Sisters of Charity were put in charge. There was wonderful historical symmetry in this. After all, the sisters would be educating Italian-immigrant children in a parish school built by Italians, and it was owed largely to the influence of Italy and Italians that their foundress, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, became a Catholic.
The details of the creation of the school, parish and shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel are beyond the scope of an article of this length. It deserves mention that the Italians were not the only Catholics in East Harlem, there were plenty of English-speaking Catholics (Irish) on hand. Mt. Carmel was a bilingual parish from the very beginning. And the Irish were not just in the background of the building of the Church and school. In fact, because they had more money than the Italians, and were generous in donating it, they provided many of the funds for the erection of the buildings.
That, however does not justify the later turn of events.
Italians remained an overall minority on Manhattan’s East Side, as nearly everywhere that Catholics lived in the U.S. This meant that for years to come — it is a nearly awful thing to relate — they and the statue of their beloved Madonna del Monte Carmelo continued to be relegated to the lower church. Mass in the upper church was for English-speakers. The injustice of this is further underlined quantitatively by parish baptism records. In 1885 there were 302 baptisms, of which 229 were Italian. The next year, there were 345 Italians baptized out of a total of 511 infants. By 1898 there were 1,660 baptisms, with Italians once again the majority.
Still, the lower church was made into a beautiful shrine, and there was one time of year when the Italians outnumbered everybody else: July 16. On that day and for the preceding vigil, the shrine and the street outside were crowded with Italians from the Upper East Side, Manhattan’s other “Little Italies,” from Brooklyn, and then — as Italians began settling in other boroughs — from throughout the city. In time, they would come to 115th Street from all the Northeast and even from across country. Not merely was the number of Italian immigrants increasing (three million arrived in the U.S. between 1880 and 1920); so was the number of cures and other miracles reported to take place after pilgrims prayed at the shrine. The news of them drew more and more to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and not merely on July 16.
Yet, that was the Big Day. There was dancing and laughing and food and wine, as well as processions, prayer and Holy Mass. Today, everyone is familiar with such street festivals, if only from film and television, but for a long time there was nothing Catholic in New York or anywhere in the U.S. to equal July 16 on 115th Street. It became the Italian event of the year.
Meanwhile, Protestant efforts to proselytize the immigrants did not cease, as they haven’t even today. (Only the target has changed; now it’s mainly Hispanics.)
Other Pallottine Fathers from London followed Fr. Kirner. One was Rev. Scipione Tofini. He arrived in 1892 and observed with alarm the inroads of the sectarians. They may not have been as deep as in the years before the Pallottines were on the scene, but it was intolerable to Fr. Tofini that there should be any.
He remembered the ceremonies of solemn coronation of certain images of Our Lady that he was fortunate enough to witness in Italy. He thought then of the number of cures and other miracles obtained by Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for those who sought them in prayer before her statue in the shrine. He ended by believing that if papal homage was paid to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the form of the Supreme Pontiff granting permission for the solemn coronation of her shrine statue, the local faithful and Italian immigrants well beyond the parish boundaries would take such pride in their patroness being so honored, that it would help insulate them from Protestant blandishments.
However, their just pride would not be alone in insulating them. The papal approbation would amount to recognition of the reality of the cures and other graces resulting from the people’s prayers. Thus would it be seen by all that faith in Our Lady and her Son — the One who actually gives graces, but through her hands — is not misplaced.
That graces have resulted abundantly from appeals to Our Lady is a requirement for papal permission to be granted for the coronation of one of her images. There are two others. One is that the image must be popular — many faithful must venerate it. (This condition obviously could be easily met in the case of the shrine statue.)
As for the third requirement, Fr. Tofini was at first at a loss. That requirement: The privilege of a coronation depends on the antiquity of the cult. That is, not simply must veneration of the image be popular, the image must be venerated for a very long time, preferably for centuries. No one had prayed before the shrine statue until 1884.
If Fr. Tofini was initially at a loss, he was not daunted. Before he became a Pallottine he had worked in the Vatican as a monsignor. He knew the workings of the place, and he still had friends in Rome.
Though he was familiar with the procedures for petitioning the pope for the privilege of crowning an image of Our Lady, or fast made himself familiar, it is not known whether Fr. Tofini knew the history of such coronations.
When the first image was crowned cannot be said, but a Capuchin who died in Parma in 1620, Girolamo Paolucci da Forli, is credited with popularizing the custom.
A nobleman of the day, Count Alessandro Sforza Pallavicini, then endowed the Vatican with funds for the purpose of having crowns made for images of Our Lady “in Rome and elsewhere.”
A procedure was established at that time. Briefly: The three conditions, the ones described above, were settled on. Then it was decided that a petition for the privilege will go directly to the pope, who has it examined by competent Vatican authorities. If the privilege is granted after their recommendation, a decree is sent to the dignitary who will represent the pope at the coronation. The coronation itself takes place with solemnity, according to a set ceremony. If the image of Our Lady depicts her holding the Holy Child, both must be crowned. Finally, the crown must be gold and adorned by precious stones.
In regard to that last requirement, about 300 images of Our Lady, including the four in North America, have been crowned worldwide. Since most of the coronations had taken place before the one in New York, the funds provided by Count Sforza in the 17th century were depleted. Accordingly, the gold for the crowns of the shrine’s Madonna and child would have to be provided by the faithful of the parish and pilgrims to the shrine. It was mostly from rings and other jewelry. (It testifies to the love they must have felt for Our Lady that poor women would part with items that, for many, were probably the only material things of value they owned.) The gold was then taken to Italy to be blessed personally by the pope before being fashioned into crowns.
The pope of the day was Leo XIII. It was he who was petitioned for the privilege of the New York coronation. According to the procedure, the petition had to be made by the local bishop. At the time, that was the Irish-born Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Farley. After Fr. Tofini had explained to him the benefits he envisioned as arising from a coronation, the prelate readily agreed to petition the pope. Fr. Tofini then traveled to Rome to press the petition.
There remained the problem of how to get around the requirement that for an image of Our Lady to be papally crowned it is supposed to have been venerated for centuries. Once in Rome, Fr. Tofini addressed the problem as directly as possible. He pointed out, quite simply, that nothing Catholic in the U.S. had existed for centuries. The Church herself, in the U.S., was less than 120-years-old. Ought the coronation of the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel wait until, say, 2300 A.D.?
Pope Leo saw the point of Fr. Tofini’s argument and waived the third requirement. He signed the documents authorizing the coronation. Alas, he died a few days later. Like all business of the Holy See, the coronation was held in abeyance for the reconfirmation of Leo’s successor.
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Pope St. Pius X, shown here as Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, blessed the crowns and donated an emerald for our Lady's.
That was Pope St. Pius X, who did not hesitate to reconfirm the coronation. He was also the pope who actually blessed the gold for the crowns, contributing an emerald from the papal treasury for Our Lady’s. He also personally blessed the crowns once they were crafted.
Back in New York, the feeling on 115th Street was euphoric. A day for the coronation was set and planning for it begun. The day: July 10, 1904.
There were clouds that morning, as if a summer storm might be possible. They dampened no one’s spirit. On that day and during the two that preceeded, the church counted 50,000 visitors. Finally, the moment for the great event was at hand. So were choirs, musicians, outstanding members of the community, civic leaders, Church dignitaries and, of course, the crowds. The coronation itself took place outside in nearby Jefferson Park. The statue of Our Lady was borne in procession from the church to the park while the choirs sang and musicians played. Bringing up the rear of the procession was Archbishop Farley. It was he, as the pope’s designated representative, who placed the crowns on the heads of the Madonna del Monte Carmelo and the Christ Child. As he did, it is said, the clouds parted and the sun shone. If that were not enough, fireworks erupted and the church bells pealed. Then the crowned statue was carried back to the church and enthroned. All this was followed by a Te Deum.
On July 22, Fr. Tofini wrote to his superior-general in Rome, Fr. William Withmee, a report fully describing the event. Space prevents quotation from it here, except for one passage. We shall come to it soon.
Before we do, a few lines are in order concerning the literally countless miracles that are believed to have resulted from prayers offered up to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel by Catholics kneeling before her statue on East 115th Street. “Literally countless” is the right language because there simply is no way of learning how many they might be, not for the first several decades of the existence of the parish, in any event.
Incredibly, when the faithful reported a miraculous event to the priests during the early decades, or an event that seemed miraculous, no record of any kind was kept. It is not even known today which miracles were reported to Pope Leo XIII as evidence that graces were bestowed on those who venerated Our Lady of Mt. Carmel at the foot of her statue in New York. It was only in the 1920s that a very rudimentary record was begun. That was when the news of apparent miracles started to appear in the parish bulletin.
On the other hand, perhaps it is not so incredible that no record was kept. If you are sufficiently deep in your faith to believe that, of course, the Mother of God will intercede for you and prayer will move her to do so — if you simply expect miracles — why keep a record? Would not the time spent in record-keeping be better used in urging still more prayer? It is skepticism that demands a record or other “proof” of a miracle. And how record an invisible infusion of grace, the transformation of a soul, the turning away from sin, which could be a far greater miracle than the disappearance of cancer?
That said, here is the merest sampling of the kind of miracles reported in the parish bulletin, starting in the 1920s: