Book Review: The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950

By October 7, 2009

Robert Orsi. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002 (original edition 1985). xlix + 287 pp.

I recently finished reading Robert Orsi’s 1985 classic, The Madonna of 115th Street, for a readings course on religion, immigration, and transnationalism. Throughout it, I considered some of the possibilities such an approach to Mormonism might yield. What follows is a review of the book (for those who haven’t read it), and then some of my meandering thoughts on how a similar approach might be useful in studying various aspects of the Mormon experience. I apologize for the length of this post, and encourage any so inclined to simply skim (or skip, if you’re already familiar with Orsi’s book) the post and skip to the final few paragraphs dealing with Mormonism.

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As indicated by the book’s title, The Madonna of 115th Street is a study of the religious lives of Italian immigrants in Harlem from 1880-1950. The author’s narrative takes place around the annual festa of the Madonna del Carmine that took place over the course of several days each year in Italian Harlem. The book explores what scholars now collectively call “lived religion”—what Orsi described as “religion of the streets”—by which he attempts to both describe the mechanics of the rituals and actions of the immigrants and to discern the values, morals, and sensibilities such actions reveal. While the author is less concerned with articulating a succinct and argumentative thesis than he is with uncovering the religiosity of Italian immigrants, he nevertheless argues for the centrality of religion (however broadly defined) in shaping and giving voice to the complex and sometime contradictory lives of those immigrants. In their devotion to la Madonna, they acted out multiple facets of their day-to-day experiences and their larger cultural values that shaped Italian-American Catholic identity.

Drawing upon extant church records, the oral interviews conducted by Leonard Covello in the 1920s and 1930s, and his own fieldwork among current and former residents of Italian Harlem, Orsi argues that what he terms the domus—that is, the culture of family transported from southern Italy to New York City was central to the community’s identity. Encompassing a wide range of gender roles and generational expectations defined for the immigrants what it meant to be Italian. It also defined for them what it meant to be Catholic. Orsi’s subjects are less concerned with Jesus, the Bible, and the Rosary than they are with maintaining conventional morals, values, and familial structures, prompting Orsi to argue that “in some way the Italian home and family, what I have been calling the domus, is the religion of Italian Americans” (p. 77). Efforts to maintain the purity of familial loyalty and structure were central to inter-generational identity among the immigrants as well. Even disagreements between first and second generation Italian-Americans “took place within the well-maintained confines of the domus” (p. 112), and as often as not, concerns over the disintegration of the domus were exaggerated, though sincere.

The devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street, especially in the yearly worship and celebration of the festa, highlighted the centrality of the domus. In the process of ritual, the Madonna “emerges in a complex manner as the summation and universalization of the community’s inherited tradition and moral wisdom” (p. 188). In the processional through the streets and into the church building, participants reenacted their (or their family’s) journey to America, they laid claim to a place in the nation’s history, and affirmed the importance of the domus in reaction to the Americanization they so feared. All of this ultimately gave voice to what Orsi labels “the theology of the streets”—that is, a uniquely Italian-American expression of Catholicism that was almost anti-clerical yet was still “strongly shaped by a Catholic sensibility” (p. 220). The theology of the streets found no expression in written texts, but rather in the lives of its collective authors, whose actions spoke to the suffering and sacrifice they had endured, and to their hopes and prayers that the Holy Mother would intervene on their behalf.

Orsi is especially sensitive to the gendered nature of their worship. Women, men, girls, and boys each had specific roles within the domus, and their annual devotions to the Madonna reaffirmed those roles. Women were “the hidden center of the domus-centered society” (p .131); they were, Orsi argues, the ultimate authority and power within the domus yet had to appear powerless in order to maintain the myth of patriarchal rule demanded by the domus.

Orsi’s account goes beyond a mere religious ethnography, though, and speaks to larger issues. It reveals the tensions between different enclaves of ethnic Catholics. The Irish Catholics looked down on the Italian’s odd and infrequent expressions of religiosity and resented the papal approval that lent credence to devotion to the Virgin of Italian Harlem. That intervention also hints at transnational connections—the papal approval denotes a favored relationship between Rome and the Italian immigrants in New York City. But even before that, the Madonna, the author explains, arrived with the immigrants in their new home. Furthermore, in seeking to recreate the domus they imagined existed uncontested in Italy, the immigrants shaped future generation’s notion of what it meant to be Italian.

So what does Orsi’s fine work suggest about potential avenues of research on Mormonism? Very broadly speaking, increased attention to lived religion among Mormons, at various times and in various places, might be fruitful. Matt and I discussed this a bit in our “revisiting” review of Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition, noting that a better understanding of the everyday religious lives of Mormons might alter our understanding of Mormonism in that era. Jared’s research on Mormons in South Texas (which employ the same oral interview approach that shaped Orsi’s research) also speaks to this issue, I think.

Additionally, such research might yield interesting insights into Mormon theology as well. One of the real strengths of Orsi’s book is that it finds theology in the lived religion of the Italian immigrants, and thus expands beyond written texts and oral traditions in determining religious belief. It’s often noted that Mormonism has no theology, and in it’s place has a history. While such a notion is a gross oversimplification (Mormonism, it seems to me, has multiple histories and multiple theologies), there is no doubt that narratives of history have significantly shaped Mormonism’s identity and its belief system. What Orsi proposes is that a theology (or theologies) can be derived from the everyday lives and religious rituals of a people. Such seems to be the case in Jared’s research (or is at least hinted at), where he notes that Latter-day Saints in San Benito, Texas have long been without a chapel of their own, which has led them to identify with Moses as wanderers in a wilderness. Teasing out how such experiences (and beliefs) affect their understanding of and relationship with deity seems like a logical next step that holds potentially intriguing insights.

Finally, the domus that gave shape to Italian immigrants’ lives and understandings of God highlights an obvious parallel to Mormonism. While the culture of family embraced by immigrants in Harlem is certainly not the same as that championed by Mormons of Salt Lake City or Provo, the very notion that the culture surrounding family, complete with assigned and understood gender roles and generational norms, is central to the groups’ religion is, I think, as true of Mormonism as it is of these Italian immigrants. Mormons value the family as “the fundamental unit of society” and protect it against potential threats, both real and imagined. They bear testimony to the importance of that family culture, and use it to shape their understanding of God, the coming eternities, and their everyday lives.

I’m interested in any other thoughts people have on the subject.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Chris; very thought provoking. I think most would agree that lived religion is the most over-looked (non-existent?) topic for Mormon history. I especially enjoy what you bring out as the role lived religion plays in understanding theology and even self-identification.

    I don’t have anything really to add, but just to thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    Comment by Ben — October 7, 2009 @ 9:19 am

  2. Nice post, Chris. I’ve been meaning to read this. I think your comments regarding Mormons are important, and though I haven’t read it, I think your suggestions for Mormon scholarship are spot on.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 7, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  3. Chris, this is great! Thank you for your review and your thoughts.

    I like that you point out the multiplicity of histories and theologies within Mormonism. Although you do not make the connection explicit, do you refer to the various cultural expressions of Mormonism as the cause for this? If so, what does that mean about Mormonism in the 21st century? What sorts of transnational interpretations of Mormonism are out there, in your opinion? Perhaps this is work that needs to be done, but I appreciate you continuing the dialogue here.

    Comment by Elizabeth — October 7, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  4. Thanks, Ben.

    J., definitely read it. You can get a cheap used copy (under $10) on Amazon, and it’s a pretty quick read.

    Thanks for your response, Liz. Yes, I think the various cultural expressions of Mormonism are, in part, responsible for the multiple theologies and history within Mormonism. Re: transnational interpretations of Mormonism. Steve Fleming’s research on the transatlantic genealogy of early Mormon thought is one approach I find useful, but there’s a number of avenues that could be explored in transnational approaches to Mormonism. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

    Comment by Christopher — October 7, 2009 @ 10:48 am

  5. Thanks, Chris. I think you’re right that Orsi’s approach can be usefully applied to Mormonism, especially the centrality of the family in Mormon culture. Is there much research on how contemporary Mormon ideologies of the family fits into wider discourses in American traditionalist conservatism?

    Comment by David G. — October 7, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  6. I’m not aware of any such research, David. If anyone is, I’d very much appreciate you pointing me to it.

    Comment by Christopher — October 7, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  7. Hmm, Chris, I don’t have any specific ideas in mind. I know Deidre G. is interested in transnational feminism, and I think that would certainly find relevant application in a Mormon context.

    Comment by Elizabeth — October 8, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  8. […] off of Christopher’s recent review of Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street, I though I would post a recent review […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Book Review: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln — December 15, 2009 @ 9:20 am


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