- Priest, Parish, and People: Saving the Faith in Philadelphia's "Little Italy"
The beginning of Richard Juliani's latest work overlaps the end of his earlier Building Little Italy: Philadelphia's Italians before Mass Migration [End Page 404] (1998), and brings the story forward into the twentieth century. But it is so much more.
As we have come to expect from Juliani, a sociologist, his work is exhaustively researched in the best historical and sociological traditions. In addition to the conventional Census, Immigration and Naturalization Services, and newspaper sources, the author brings to our attention some very unique, and heretofore untapped, materials.These include the more than 20,000 pages of handwritten sermons,letters,poems,plays, and other notes of the pastor of the first Italian-nationality parish in the United States.
Juliani tells us convincingly that, to fully understand the phenomen,on which is, above all else, the central experience of America—immigration/assimilation—we cannot, and should not, separate biographical, institutional, and sociocultural realities. These realities he illustrates for us in the Little Italy section of Philadelphia by interweaving the histories of a priest, a parish, and a people.
At the center of this intersection is Father Antonio Isoleri, pastor of Saint Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi Church in Philadelphia's Little Italy from 1870 until 1926. Rarely do we get the opportunity to delve into the life of an ordinary individual such as this. The voluminous writings of this priest, unearthed by Juliani in the 1980s, provide us with a unique window on a subject often viewed through the lens of official quantitative records.
The "Grand Old Man of Little Italy," as he was known in his waning years, is portrayed through these manuscripts as "combative . . . proud, intellectual, creative, and deeply spiritual." Juliani reveals that he could be "arbitrary, inconsistent, and imperious," to the extent that he stirred the anger of anticlerical Italian Socialists and Anarchists, who may have even plotted his assassination, but also drove nuns and fellow priests to contemplate doing him grievous harm. And here was no Italian "Bird of Passage." Isoleri said good-bye to his home and family at the age of twenty-four and never saw them again. Passionately devoted to his Italian homeland then being torn between creating a nation and loyalty to the papacy, he courageously put aside his personal feelings to shepherd his people, in his American parish, as they suffered similar anguish both personal and national.
Despite his publicly expressed preference for Italian national, rather than Italian regional goals, Isoleri showed himself in many actions to be thoroughly Northern Italian in his thinking. Even though, in chapter 7, Juliani notes that Isoleri "was not dismayed by an influx of more Italians, even from Southern Italy," subsequent chapters chronicle his struggles to accommodate people, albeit Italian, he considered strange. Isoleri tried his best to be a mediator for his people at three levels. He saw himself as a bridge between traditional popular devotions brought from the Old World and newer forms favored by church authorities. He fought to better the physical conditions of the Italian immigrants by attacking the exploitation of their children by padrone master. [End Page 405] And he worked constantly to convince his people that there was no essential irreconcilability between being a good Italian Catholic and being a good Italian nationalist.
The intersection of the biographical, institutional, and sociocultural is perhaps seen most concretely in what Juliani calls the "Pastor's Dilemma," which paralleled and intersected with the "Italian Problem." Faced with a flood of new Italians into the region, Isoleri realized that if he didn't report a significant increase in communicants, it would reflect unfavorably on him as pastor. He would also not be able to support his persistent requests for an assistant. But if he reported too large an increase in parishioners, then his parish would be divided for the establishment of a new one.
By the time of the founding of a second Italian parish...