Tuesday, December 14, 2010

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part I

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks on Wednesday, Dec. 15 at 6:30 pm. Here is the first in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

View from Baldizzi Family Kitchen

There are three things in the Baldizzi apartment associated with the family’s Catholicism—a crucifix, a rosary, and a devotional image of the Blessed Mother as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. These are the most common religious objects to be found in Italian American homes, and each of them has something to tell us about the religious practices of the people who lived in the apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

But I want to begin thinking about the Baldizzi family’s Catholicism by first carefully following what Josephine Baldizzi Esposito had to say about her childhood faith in the interview she did at the Tenement Museum on August 2, 1989—to begin, in other words, not with a clear expectation of what Catholicism is or entails, e.g., crucifixes, rosaries, and images of the Mother of God, or what these objects mean to Catholics generally, but with Josephine’s experience and memories.

In response to the interviewer’s query, “Was your family religious, or . . . ” (the alternative is not specified), Josephine replies, “Yes[!] My mother, every Wednesday we went to novenas, every Wednesday. Very religious. Always praying, you know, going to Mass, and all that.” Josephine means emphatically to reject here whatever was implied by the interviewer’s trailing and interrupted “or.”
Josephine Baldizzi Esposito and family at the LESTM Family Reunion
Josephine, right, with family, in 1992.
Collection of the LESTM.

Earlier in the conversation, talking about food and her mother’s cooking, Josephine recalled, “And when we used to go to church[,] once in a while [my mother] would stop, and there was a bakery” where they bought a small square of sheet cake.

Then, towards the end of the interview, Josephine addresses the question of what noises she recalled from her childhood on Orchard Street. The subject came up in an exchange about sexuality in the tenement and whether or not children heard ‘things.’ Josephine describes the sounds of the street coming in through the apartment windows. “Peddlers yelling . . .and of course, the organ grinder with the monkey we used to hear.” And it is here that she introduces the one other explicitly religious subject in the discussion, her family’s attendance at the local neighborhood’s saint’s street festa.
And they would take us to the feast once in a while. You know, the feast that they have? The—the saints? Saint Gen[n]aro and all that. They would take us to the feast . . . And I remember my brother had to carry a flag and I carried a candle, and I hated it, because you’re little and everybody’s crushing you, you know. The only thing I liked about it was my father would buy me that fancy doll. This was later on, when he was working. That was the only thing I got out of the feast, was a doll. And I remember that we had to march, and I hated it. I didn’t like it. Too messy, too many people, you know?”
Former 97 Orchard Street residents Johnny Baldizzi and Josephine Baldizzi
Josephine and her brother Johnny, circa 1935.
Collection of the LESTM.
She concludes by saying that the feast, talking about the festival in Little Italy in the 1970s, has gotten more crowded and messier over time, and she likes it even less now. Then Josephine moves on to talk about her godmother.

These are the only references to Catholic practice in the conversation: the stark and perhaps defensive assertion that her family was “very religious”; the brief mention of Sunday Mass, which brings to Josephine’s mind her mother’s company and the smells and tastes of a neighborhood bakery; and memories of being taken to the festa, which are associated with the discomfort of crowds as experienced by a little child, resentment at being compelled to march (“I hated it”), and with her father’s kindness to her. Josephine’s last words about Catholicism in the conversation come when she is complaining about the present-day San Gennaro feast: as a child, she says, “I didn’t mind the church part and the saints.”

There is not very much for us to go on here for thinking about the rosary, the crucifix, and the devotional image of the Madonna in the Baldizzi home. The sparseness of Josephine’s memories of her childhood faith deepens the silence of time that surrounds the religious objects in the apartment today. What did they mean to the family? How did they use them? What made these objects holy or special? Josephine does not seem to give us any help in answering these questions.

[Part II will be posted later this afternoon]

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