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.

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: 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.

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.

Ramblin’ Around: Jersey Events this Weekend

In the fall there are plenty of weekend festivals. It seems like the third weekend of October are always full of great events. There are three specific festivals I would like to share with you.

StLucysThe Feast of St. Gerard: Saint Lucy’s Church on Seventh Avenue in Newark is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. He was born in Muro, a small town in the South of Italy on April 6, 1726 and is the patron saint of expectant mothers. In the second half of 1890s, the predominant immigrant groups in the First Ward were coming from the Province of Avellino. They came with a sense religious life deeply expressed in a love for St. Gerard, who lived in the Province of Avellino during eighteenth-century. In 1899, immigrants from Caposele, Italy introduced the annual feast in honor of St. Gerard, who died October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine.

Members of my family, like thousands of other families who trace their heritage through Italy, pay homage to St. Gerard each October during the Church’s multi-day feast. I remember fondly the first feast I attended with my cousin and Goddaughter. No matter where those families move, they all come back the weekend of October 16th to pray and pay respect.

If you have never been to St. Lucy’s or the Feast of St. Gerard, I highly recommend a visit. Sit quietly in the church. Take in the beautiful statues. Light a candle for your loved ones. And grab a sausage and pepper sandwich before you head home.

welcomepiratessign-smSeton Hall University Weekend: From the moment I walked onto the campus of Seton Hall University my senior year, I felt like I was home. And every time I’m on the campus since then, the feeling is still the same. I’ve written about Seton Hall Weekend before. It is a great event. I love sitting on the green, meeting the current students, and shopping in the bookstore. The last time I went to Seton Hall Weekend, I met current sorority sisters from Alpha Gamma Delta. I had a great time chatting with them in the library. There are a variety of events that take place during the multi-day event, including an art exhibit at Walsh Library, music performances, and carnival games.

Chester Harvest Celebration: The two-day Chester Harvest Celebration is currently in its 36th year. Originally know as Black River, Chester pre-dates the birth of our nation. Many of the original buildings are still on the main street and are now home to wonderful shops and restaurants. The Chester Harvest Celebration includes demonstrations of the way things used to be, including a blacksmith demonstration and apple pressing.

These are just three examples of all the great events that are taking place around the state. Check out many others on the New Jersey Monthly website.