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   Volume IV, Issue 2
November 2007   

Philadelphia's "Little Italy" topic of Scholarship lecture

Italian Catholics have long lived in Philadelphia. The study of their mass emigration from Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides an important chapter in their history.

Dr. Richard Juliani of the sociology and criminal justice department examined aspects of this period from his new book, Priest, Parish, and People: Saving the Faith in Philadelphia's "Little Italy," at the Oct 4 Scholarship @ Villanova lecture.

He wrote the book partly because of the success of his previous prize-winning work, Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians before Mass Migration, but also because of the simplistic views still found in mass media portrayals of Italian Americans, views that Dr. Juliani strives to rectify.

The central figure in the book is Rev. Antonio Isoleri (1845 – 1932), a native of Villanova d’Albenga in Liguria, Italy, who served as pastor from 1870 to 1926 at St. Mary Magdalen DePazzi, the first church in the United States established for Italian Catholics. In the early 1980s, Dr. Juliani received from Rev. Alfred M. Natali, O.S.A., a crate full of Isoleri’s personal papers, almost 30,00 pages, written in both Italian and English, which became a basic source for Dr. Juliani's subsequent research.

Father Isoleri, while being trained as a missionary in Genoa, had expected to go to the Far East but instead found himself assigned to the “Italian Mission” in Philadelphia, which had been placed briefly under interdict by Bishop James Wood. Father Isoleri assumed his new post just a few years before the beginning of the large Italian migration that would settle in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Rev. Antonio Isoleri. Courtesy of Rev. Alfred M. Natali, O.S.A.
For his first fifteen years, Father Isoleri served as the only resident priest at his parish, where he facilitated the immigrants’ efforts in acclimating themselves to American life while preserving their Italian identity and customs. But Father Isoleri was troubled by the large number of southern Italians being absorbed by the parish as they began arriving in the late nineteenth century. To keep the parish solvent, he sought and maintained good relationships with established local Irish families who were among its members. Father Isoleri also encountered early difficulties with the diocesan hierarchy as well as the sisters who staffed his parish school and orphanage.

In 1898, Our Lady of Good Counsel, a new Augustinian parish, was founded near St. Mary Magdalen DePazzi, to serve the rapidly increasing Italian population in Philadelphia. Both parishes incorporated aspects of traditional Italian Catholicism, such as the folk processions that started at a church and wound through the local neighborhoods. The archdiocese eventually established 23 Italian national parishes within its present-day boundaries.

The church hierarchy, however, faced what it called the “Italian problem.” In addition to the poverty of Italian immigrants, which limited their capacity to fund their parishes, they were widely believed to be losing their faith and defecting from Catholicism. But the diocese was also threatened by the Augustinian presence among the Italians in South Philadelphia. Tensions came to a head in 1933 when the diocese suppressed Our Lady of Good Counsel, provoking angry demonstrations by the community.

The people of these nationality parishes had cohesive community lives, but faced secular threats to their faith. The hierarchy sought to use Catholicism to strengthen the Americanism of the foreign-born and, in turn, to use that growing Americanism to strengthen their Catholicism, albeit in a distinctly Irish direction. Those goals were only partially achieved, however, through Father Isoleri’s leadership and his congregation’s determination not to lose their traditional culture. The Italian Catholic community in Philadelphia retained much of its distinctive character.

According to Dr. Juliani, one well known book, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History, although representing the standard history of the city, barely touches on its racial and ethnic aspects. He contends that one cannot tell the history of America or any of its large cities without also telling the history of its parts. Dr. Juliani’s latest book, along with his previous work, helps to fill a major gap in the history of Philadelphia.

Contributed by David Burke; photograph by Natalie Tomasco