Italian Heritage in New Jersey: St. Lucy’s Church

If someone asked me what is the most important location associated with Italian heritage in New Jersey, I would say without hesitation St. Lucy’s Church.

Since its cornerstone was placed in 1891, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark has been a source of pride and devotion for the millions of Italian immigrants and the generations that followed. In 1998, St. Lucy’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish namesake, Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia), martyred in Sicily in third-century is the patroness of those afflicted with diseases of the eyes.

St. Lucy’s Church is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. Every October, tens of thousands of the faithful flock to pay homage to St. Gerard. St. Gerard Maiella of Avellino was born on April 6, 1726. He was the only son of Benedetta and Comenico Maiella. Because of his frail health he was not immediately accepted into the Order but, due to his insistence and persistence he was finally accepted in May of 1749 and became a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. St. Gerard passed away on October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine. While it was never made official, he is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of Mothers.

The third pastor, Msgr. Joseph Granato, served the parish with dedication and faith in God’s providence for 54 years, until June 2009. For those of us who have met Msgr. Granato, he borders on rock star status. His dedication to St. Lucy’s and the community has earned him a spot on many prayer lists of families of the parish.

At its height, over 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around the church, known as the First Ward. For over 80 years, that neighborhood thrived and supported their beloved church. Sadly, the neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood came in 1953 thanks to developers and the city government. They forced people give up their homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took over eight decades to build. City officials often referred to the First Ward as a “slum.” The Newark Housing Authority claimed its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good (including my family) the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist. Those homes were replaced with large buildings providing low-income housing. As the years continued, they were a great source of crime and an example of all that was wrong with Newark. Unfortunately, the damage was done at the point. The First Ward was destroyed and one of the most vibrant Italian communities in the country was history. All in the name of progress.

People with a connection to the area, and St. Lucy’s specifically, still return regularly for church. I am the fourth generation of my family that returns to St. Lucy’s every October for the Feast of St. Gerard. It is one of only two churches in the entire state where I feel truly at peace and able to prayerfully reflect and enjoy the silence.

I tell everyone I know, if you have never visited St. Lucy’s, take the time to visit this amazing church full of beautiful art and history, as well as a strong connection to the Italian community of New Jersey.

October is Italian Heritage Month

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am a proud New Jerseyan. I am also very proud of my Italian heritage. October in Italian Heritage Month and as I do each year, I plan on writing about New Jerseyans of Italian heritage that have made a significant impact on our state or our country.

Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have a unique history all our own. More than 1.45 million residents of New Jersey reported having Italian heritage according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town of Fairfield is home to the most residents with Italian heritage in the United States. Seven of the top 20 towns in the United States with the most residents of Italian ancestry are right here in the Garden State.

The great migration from Italy took place between 1880 and 1914; a total of 13 million Italians came to America and made it home.

At its height, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the United States with a population of over 30,000 within one square mile. The center of that neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, built by Italian immigrants in 1891. St. Lucy’s holds the National Shrine to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers.

That’s where the story of my family begins. The First Ward of Newark.

Like the countless other Italians that came to America, they came to build a better life for their family and future generations. They worked hard, many changed their names to sound American, they learned English, and became citizens. My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian Americans during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials. They were considered Enemy Aliens.

These Italian immigrants came to America looking for a new home and were ready to prove themselves as good Americans and work. Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find it. “Italians need not apply” was a common theme. We were looked down upon, no matter where we went in the country.

The lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 was the largest and most outrageous mass lynching in United States history. The lynchings took place on March 14, 1891. New Orleans Police Superintendent, David Hennessy was gunned down in October 1890. As he gasped his last breath, he supposedly uttered, “The dagos did it.” Officials quickly arrested numerous area Italian immigrants and attributed the slaying to “Mafia activity.” After a public meeting where people called the Italians “not quite white,” a mob gathered shouting “Hang the dagos!!” To avenge the murder of a popular police superintendent, unrestrained mobs went into the city jail and beat, clubbed, and fatally shot eleven Italian prisoners.

Dago. WOP. Guinea. Ginzo. Goombah. Just a handful of the names Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have been called over the years. Each of which gets a giant eyeroll from me. They are meant to hurt. They only hurt if you let them. I remember hearing a story from my Aunt who said when they moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor approached her mother (my Grandmother) and asked if they would be going to “our church,” to remind them they were outsiders. Without missing a beat, my Grandfather said “I though it was God’s church.”

From name calling, to lynchings, to being considered enemies of the state, to the stereotype that all Americans of Italian descent are “connected,” I say… whatever.

Let me tell you what it means to me.

Being an American of Italian descent is never forgetting where you came from and honoring it every day. It is about faith and family. It is recognizing our ethnicity is that last one it is “allowed” to be made fun of and not letting it bother us. Ours is a history of food, culture, art, and music that should be celebrated.

I am a New Jerseyan. I am an American. I am of Italian heritage. I hope you go on this historical journey on me for the next month.