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.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Joseph Rotunda

Many of us have passed by Rotunda Pool in Newark on our way to St. Lucy’s Church or coming out of Branch Brook Park and have not given it a second thought. It is, however, an important location in the community and New Jersey Italian heritage.

The Rotunda Pool plaque
Source: Newark Historical Society

Rotunda Pool is named after Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. The dedication of this pool stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland. The official renaming from Clifton Pool to Rotunda Pool took place in 1966.

By the early twentieth-century, approximately 21,000 Italian immigrants made Newark the fifth largest Italian-American community in the country.

Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas for three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, dated June 9, 1943, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

On June 16, 1943, the Newark Evening News reported on an announcement from the War Department which listed the death of Private Joseph R. Rotunda, Jr. as one of four soldiers from New Jersey to lose their lives in combat. In total 229 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in action in North Africa and 630 more wounded, 11 of whom were from New Jersey.

In February 1944, after seeking permission from Joseph Rotunda, Sr., officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) designated the Pvt. Joseph R. Rotunda Jr. Post (No. 848) in honor of the “first soldier from the First Ward to be killed in action in this war.” This post became the ninth V.F.W. unit in Newark.

So next time you ride past Rotunda pool, maybe take a moment and bow your head or tip your cap to the memory of Private Rotunda.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

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.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Rose Fieramosca

You’ve probably never heard of today’s New Jerseyan of Italian heritage. She wasn’t famous, or rich, or any of the other things most would people consider noteworthy. She was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, an aunt, a great cook, and a devout Catholic. She was my Grandmother – Rosina Fucetola Fieramosca.

Like many of my friends growing up, I grew up in a multi-generational household. I had no idea if this was unusual or special; it’s just the way it was. My immediate family was downstairs. Upstairs was my “extended family,” although I never knew such a word existed growing up. It was just “family.” Upstairs were my Grandparents and my Uncle Sonny. Sadly, my Grandpa passed away when I was very young, so it was always my Grandma and my Uncle – her eldest son. There were there for every day of my life, until the moment each of them passed away at home.

Rose Fucetola was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 21, 1905, the daughter of Lucia and Gabriel. She married her one and only love, Pasquale Fieramosca, on November 8, 1922. Over her lifetime, she had five children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Me with my Grandma (left) and my Aunt Anna (right) at my wedding in 1994.

I don’t know if I really ever thought about it at the time, but it was an incredibly special way to live. Sunday dinners with the family upstairs. Dinner downstairs during the week, including Grandma and Uncle Sonny. If you were sick, she would make you pastina. If you were hungry, she would heat up leftover meatballs from Sunday. After spilling wine on a white top once, she was the only one who could make it look like it was brand new. Dying house plant? Bring it to Grandma. It would magically come back to life. When I made my Confirmation, I took the name “Rose” for her and my Sponsor – my cousin Rosanne.

In the late 90s, the book Newark’s Little Italy: The Vanished First Ward by Michael Immerso was published. If you ever wondered what it was to grow up in an Italian household in New Jersey, this book provides the perfect description. I took her to the Barnes and Noble on Rt. 46 in Little Falls for a lecture by the author. We arrived early so she could sit up front and make sure she heard everything. After his talk, people had the opportunity to ask questions. Whenever he didn’t know something, she would whisper the answer to him. He finally laughed and said “I’m being coached.” She had a memory that didn’t quit. At the end of the evening the line for attendees to speak with my Grandma was longer than the line to meet the author. It was a wonderful evening.

She was not just a woman proud of her heritage; she was a proud American. In my entire lifetime, I can only think of a handful of times I heard her speak Italian, even though she was completely fluent. When I was a child I would bring Italian books home from the library and beg her to read them to me and teach me. Her answer was always the same, “you are an American and you speak English.” She believed in the great American experiment. I remember her telling me of stories of singing patriotic songs during WWII and flying American flags.

Finally, she was a woman of faith and made sure we were all instilled with that same faith. When she wasn’t able to go to mass any longer, I became a Eucharistic Minister so I could bring her communion.

Today is her 115th birthday. And while it is ridiculous to believe so, I wish she was still here with her family that loves her. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.

This probably sounds like a typical life of someone who is far from noteworthy. However, I promise you, noteworthy is exactly what she was.. and still is.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Dr. Steve Adubato

A modern-day New Jersey native of Italian descent I feel is deserving of recognition is Steve Adubato, Ph.D. He is someone I have admired since I was a teenager. Born in Newark, he was the youngest state legislator in the New Jersey General Assembly at age 26. Dr. Adubato earned both his master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degree in mass communication from Rutgers.

Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Credit: steveadubato.org

I remember watching his program Caucus New Jersey on public access television when I was young. He asked probing and thoughtful questions and was always able to get a response, unlike what often happens in politics and reporting today.

Now he is an individual with a national presence. He has television shows, a podcast, and is often a guest speaker at institutions of higher learning across the country, including my alma mater, Seton Hall University, where he serves as a Buccino Leadership Institute Fellow and is teaching a master class in the spring 2020 semester.

With a focus on leadership and communication, his most recent book, Lessons in Leadership, Dr. Audobato focuses on self-awareness, empathy, and how to be a leader at home and work.

He currently anchors three television series produced by the Caucus Educational Corporation (CEC); State of Affairs, One-on-One, and Think Tank. They are available on multiple platforms, including PBS, NJTV online, and YouTube.

Dr. Adubato has taught many to think critically as well as ask important questions on behalf of his fellow New Jerseyans. He has certainly made his home state, and his home county of Essex, proud.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Msgr. Joseph Granato

If there is anyone who should be the first individual I highlight for Italian Heritage Month, it must be Msgr. Joseph Granato. Msgr. Granato borders on rock star status at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, home to the National Shrine of St. Gerard. He served St. Lucy’s for 54 years. It was the only parish he ever served. He was the third pastor of St. Lucy’s Church.

St. Lucy’s Church, Newark

Joseph Granato was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 9, 1929. His parents were Anthony Granato and Theresa DePiano Granato. The family moved to Newark during his infancy. His brother was Rev. Anthony F. Granato, Pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, East Newark.

On June 4, 1955, his day of ordination; he found his place of religious assignment was to be St. Lucy’s Parish.

Then Father Granato, was appointed Administrator in 1971 and shortly thereafter in 1977 was assigned by Archbishop Peter Gerety as Pastor of the Church he so dearly loved. On July 16, 1979, he was awarded the honor of being named Monsignor by His Holiness, John Paul II. He remained as Pastor of St. Lucy’s and served the community faithfully during his 54 years in the priesthood.

On October 29, 1999 Monsignor Granato was awarded the first Msgr. Joseph Granato Italian Culture Medal at Seton Hall University. The medal celebrates distinguished achievement in the promotion and preservation of Italian culture in the state of New Jersey.

St. Lucy’s Church is a place of wonderous art and offers a space for quiet prayerful meditation. Each October, St. Lucy’s celebrates the Feast of St. Gerard. The days of the Feast are filled with masses, celebrations, food, and a procession through the streets of Newark.

Sadly, this year almost all the events are cancelled, due to the inability to attain the proper permits from the city of Newark due to the pandemic.

This is an incredibly important time for the church, as most of their fundraising takes place during the few days of the Feast. If you are able, I urge you to donate what you can so St. Lucy’s can continue to do its good works in the community and carry forward its 100-plus-year history, which includes the tremendous contributions of Monsignor Granato.

Gardens in the Garden State

It is safe to say this has been a tough year for everyone. Cut off from our families, friends, and our normal routines, many have decided to take on new challenges during this time. Many are turning to what I refer to as “analog hobbies;” meaning things we can do that do not involve technology. Maybe it is because we now spend all day in solitude working from home, staring at out laptops. Maybe it is because we have so much time on our hands, we need something new.

I am a huge fan of analog hobbies. While I spend most of my time working in the digital space, I have found over the years analog hobbies provide both enjoyment and challenges. I crochet, spin yarn, tie flies, fly fishing, do yoga, and over the last few years, garden.

When we moved into our new community two years ago, I discovered the town had a community garden. For a small annual fee, you can rent a plot in a space set aside for garden enthusiasts. I hadn’t had a garden in over a decade and was eager to begin again. In the last two years, I have tried out planting items I never cultivated before, met some wonderful people from my new community, and learned new gardening skills. Since New Jersey is known as the “Garden State,” I think it is a perfect hobby.

Whether it was Victory Gardens during World War II or gardening now during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are looking to gardening to help alleviate stress, as well as cultivate and control their own food sources. Published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, “Therapeutic horticulture in clinical depression: a prospective study of active components” found gardening therapy to be effective in reducing the symptoms of depression. Individuals participated in a 12-week “therapeutic horticulture program” at four farms near Oslo, Norway. It is safe to say gardening has helped many cope with the stress, anxiety, and depression many have experienced due to the lack of social interaction.

Additionally, many community gardens provide fresh fruits and vegetables to local social service organizations for those who are at risk of food insecurity. As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on and many lose their sources of income, the fresh produce provided to these organizations by community gardens has become increasingly important. Last year the community garden I belong to donated several hundred pounds of fresh produce to our local food pantry. This effort is duplicated in community gardens throughout New Jersey.

Earlier this year, a Newark couple spearheaded a plan to turn a vacant lot on Grafton Avenue into a beautiful community garden. It took an eyesore of space that was regularly littered with trash and needles and turned it into a vibrant space for the community to grow their own vegetables and show off the pride of their area. This has been a huge undertaking and I look forward to visiting their garden when we are able to travel more freely. This is a project to truly be celebrated!

There are locations, however, where space for community gardens have come under attack. The town of Denville in Morris County is looking to cut space of their community garden for – you guessed it – a parking lot.

Every time I hear about a project like this, I am reminded of the lyrics of Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell…

“They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

While New Jersey is officially known as the Garden State, it is often referred to as the Mall State. What was once great farming lands have often been reduced to strip malls and parking lots. As more blacktop is put down, weather like rain and snow has nowhere to go. It won’t be absorbed into the once fertile soil. Instead it will create run-off that will lead to more flooding and pollution.

This parking lot is part of a $2.7 million dollar library expansion project in Denville.

I am a huge fan of public libraries and have often written about their continued importance for their communities. However, this is not about a library. This is about eliminating a sizable amount of green garden space for a parking lot.

Here is a video which shows how much of the garden space will be lost.

DenvilleGarden

It is shocking that the Mayor and town government would support such a plan.

As the video shares, the members of the community garden donate much of their bounty to a local orphanage, as well as local food pantries and churches to help their neighbors avoid food insecurity.

I implore Mayor Thomas Andes and the Town Council to rethink this decision. Now, more than ever, we need more open public space, not less And that open space should include community gardens.

Heritage

heritage noun
her·​i·​tage | \ ˈher-ə-tij  , ˈhe-rə- \
Definition of heritage
1: property that descends to an heir
2a: something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor : LEGACY, INHERITANCE proud of her Italian heritage
a rich heritage of folklore
The battlefields are part of our heritage and should be preserved.
b: TRADITION
the party’s heritage of secularism

There have been a lot of conversations about heritage as of late. Right now, what one person looks to as a proud heritage, another person looks to as oppression. This is resulting in the removal of statues and the review of what is often a tumultuous history of our nation.

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

We all learned that rhyme as children when we were taught Columbus “discovered” America.

Well… not quite.

The truth is, as children what we were taught was not always accurate. According to Columbus’ journal, he suggested the enslavement of the indigenous people he encountered in modern-day Haiti. While he did not find the riches he expected, he sent back 500 indigenous peoples in the form of slaves to Queen Isabella of Spain. The horrified Queen immediately returned the individuals, as she considered them Spanish subjects, thus they could not be enslaved.

Columbus made a total of four trips to the “New World” during his days of exploration. The man is now a point of controversy due to the true history of his exploration. Some consider him a great explorer, as the first in a long line of explorers to travel to the Americas. Others remind us of the flawed history we were taught and his inhumane treatment of the indigenous people he encountered.

So, why am I telling you all this? Stay with me.

New Jersey has been the home of countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent; like me.

I was born in Columbus Hospital in Newark. I grew up with macaroni on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. – sharp. When I passed my driver’s exam, one of my new jobs was heading to DiPaolo’s Bakery on Bloomfield Avenue before dinner on Sunday to pick up bread and dessert. I went to (and still go to) the annual Feast of St. Gerard at St. Lucy’s Church; the Church my Great Grandmother would help clean every day after morning mass. We were taught to be proud Americans – but to never forget where you came from.

Enter Christopher Columbus.

During October, Italian Heritage Month, Columbus Day is celebrated; often with parades and sometimes, a day off from work. Due to the recent civil unrest, there are calls to remove statues of Columbus and eliminate the holiday. Some have even suggesting replacing the day with “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

In the city of my birth, there are – or were – two Columbus statues. The larger of the two was in Washington Park. It stood as a gift from the Italian community of Newark in 1927. Funds were privately raised directly from the immigrants who helped turn Newark into a modern metropolis. The second one I saw often, as it was in front of St. Francis Xavier Church on Bloomfield Avenue. My Grandmother was part of the St. Francis Senior Citizens Club. Another “job” of mine once I was able to drive was to drop her off and pick her up from her meetings. This statue was a gift to Newark from the Italian Tribune newspaper.

Both are now gone.

Under the cover of darkness, Mayor Ras Baraka had the statue removed from Washington Park. In a press release from the Mayor, he said the removal of the statue is not a slight to the Italian-American community, but as a “statement against the barbarism, enslavement, and oppression that this explorer represents.”

Trust me when I tell you, a slight is exactly what that act was.

The second statue was removed by the Italian Tribune before the Mayor made the decision to remove it as well. Additionally, a Columbus statue was removed from West Orange by their Mayor. Another statue was recently removed in Trenton.

That statue the Mayor took down represents more than just a man. It represents the hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent that made important contributions to the history of Newark, New Jersey, and the United States. There is no doubt the history of Columbus we were taught as children is not accurate. He does not represent all that is great of the Italian heritage. However, if the statues of Columbus come down, will something to commemorate all Italian immigrants and their descendants have done go in its place? While I hope so, I doubt it.

StLucys

St. Lucy’s Church

Italian immigrants throughout the country assimilated quickly to their new homeland. Oftentimes, they gave up their language and in many instances, their ethnic names within one generation. Pasquale became Patrick and Lucia became Lucille – all in the effort to be more “American.” When I was a child, I used to bring home books in Italian from the library and beg my Grandmother to teach me. Her answer was always the same; “you are American and you speak English!” To this day I am still trying to learn.

Despite the often posted “Italians need not apply,” they worked hard. They were masons, butchers, and worked on the railroad. The men built the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. They enlisted in the military of their new homeland, and fought on the front lines of two World Wars.

I hope a new statue will be placed in Newark as a way to commemorate all the contributions of the Italian community. Here are four examples:

Mother Cabrini: Saint Francis Cabrini was an Italian immigrant who created a missionary to help other Italian immigrants when they came to America. She is the first American Saint to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Amerigo Vespucci: Our country’s literal namesake, Vespucci traveled to the “New World” multiple times during his time of exploration.

Giovanni da Verrazzano: da Verrazzano’s expedition to the “New World” traveled almost the entire East Coast of the United States and Canada.

Monsignor Joseph Perotti: As a young priest, Father Perotti immigrated to Newark in 1896 and became the first Pastor of St. Lucy’s Church, an important Italian place of worship, where he remained his entire pastoral career, until his death in 1933.

These are just four of the countless members of the Italian community in Newark that are deserving of recognition.

I am a proud American. I am also proud of my heritage.

Right now there’s a lot of yelling on both sides of the argument to remove the statues of Christopher Columbus. A lot of yelling, but not a lot of listening. I really wish both sides could come to an understanding that would make everyone happy, however, I doubt that will happen. I truly fear if the statues come down, Columbus day is removed from the calendar, all the good Italian immigrants and the generations after them will be lost to the ages.

We will truly forget where we came from.