THE MADONNA OF 115TH STREET: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 by Robert A. Orsi

THE MADONNA OF 115TH STREET: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

This scholarly work is more of a study of the makings of popular religion than an attempt to unravel the common and unwanted stereotypes of an ethnic group. Orsi offers an in-depth historical study of the Italian-American community and its religion, without sentimentalizing values and perceptions. By focusing on the unusual religious rituals and devotions of Italian Catholics in Harlem, he draws a correlation between their religious behavior and their assimilation into American culture. The Madonna of 115th Street and the annual street feste surrounding her serve as a metaphor for the workings of the Italian-American community as a whole. From the beginning of their migration, ""official Catholic observers criticized Italian religiosity for being exotic and pagan."" Observers found the way Italians practiced Catholicism (in comparison to Polish and Irish Catholics) ""to be a peculiar kind of spiritual condition which fed on the luxuries of religion,"" such as pilgrimages, shrines, holy pictures, but totally lacking the ""great truths which make such religious aids possible.""Orsi makes a strong case for the Italian-American family unit as a religion unto itself with its own set of devotional priorities. Moreover, he shows how the familial hierarchy influenced the people's regard for traditional religion. ""The world of the sacred was not entered only, or even mainly, in churches; it was encountered and celebrated through family life, hospitality, and friendship. . . That is why Italians of Harlem went faithfully to church for baptisms and weddings, but not to Sunday mass.""While this book offers some original insights and makes some fascinating integral connections between religion and society, drawing the reader into the subject area, at times it bogs down in repetition and extraneous detail. But, some of the detail does illuminate the real world in which people ""made a distinction between themselves and the sacred. . .but never set the two worlds completely apart.

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 1985
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press