Thursday, December 16, 2010

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

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. Here is the final part in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

Tenement Museum Looking into Kitchen, 3rd Floor by Shawn Hoke
Crucifix in center frame, between bottle and books.
Photo by Shawn Hoke Photography.
The crucifix too would have had its place in the rounds of stories and relationships. Such crucifixes came to a young couple as a wedding present, often from one of their godparents. This seems an odd gift for such a happy occasion. But it was given so that the newlyweds (who were not thinking about such things on their wedding day) would have it in their new home for the when the time came—much later in their married lives, hopefully—that a family member, perhaps one of them, was close to death and the parish priest had to be called to the apartment for the Last Rites. Then this crucifix, flanked by candles on either side, was propped up in the sickroom to make a temporary altar for the only church sacrament performed in the home.

So the crucifix in the Baldizzi apartment spoke not only of Christ’s death and suffering but of human destiny itself, of the inevitability of pain, and of mortality, reminding the family that even the most joyful moments were not free of such realities (just as the joyful and glorious mysteries alternated with the sorrowful).

Sometimes the crucifix was buried with a family member or it was placed temporarily beside the coffin at home and then put back on the wall, now a reminder of the one who was gone. But because the crucifix, like the rosary, held stories and relationships, and its message was also that suffering and death both were set within these memories and ties.

Madonna can be seen on the wall, to the right of the Linit starch box.
Photo by Kathleen Kent.
Finally, the Madonna was central to southern Italian and to Italian American piety and everyday life, increasingly so as the 19th and 20th centuries proceeded and the Virgin Mary, whose cult was promoted by the church precisely for this reason, replaced local village saints as the focus of Italian American devotions. The Madonna’s preeminence in Italian piety resonated with the prominence of mothers in Italian American experience and memory (e.g, "my mother’s apartment," as Josephine refers to the home at 97 Orchard Street where she grew up with her mother, father, and brother). The Madonna exists under many names; one of the most popular among Italians was Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

The Blessed Mother was understood to be present in her images (a metaphysical assumption that American Protestants found alternately compelling and contemptible), so that as they went about their days, the Baldizzis touched the image, often first kissing their fingers before they brought them to the Madonna, or spoke to it, telling Our Lady of Perpetual Help their needs and fears. The Blessed Mother was called on to witness everyday events (think of the common Italian exclamation, “Madonna mia!!”) and to take sides in family disputes. Italian Americans imagined their lives in relation to the Madonna’s, so that their stories and histories and hers became entwined. The regular practice of the rosary deepened this imaginative everyday engagement with the Madonna, which in turn gave life to the rosary.

The devotional image of Our Lady of Perpetual in the Baldizzi apartment may have come from one of the feste about which Josephine was so ambivalent. Sharing her mother’s devotion to Mary (Josephine remembers going along with her mother to novenas on Wednesday nights) was one way for Josephine to honor her family and to be seen as a good southern Italian girl while taking her own steps into the world, in the company of the Blessed Mother.

One last word: Josephine did not practice her faith in the same way that her parents did. Catholicism is not a single, static entity, always the same over time and everywhere, but a fluid and available repertoire of possibilities and limitations that changes over time and space, is porous to other cultural influences, and is practiced differently amid varying life experiences and circumstances. Josephine was clearly well on the way as a young woman to becoming an American Catholic. She went to church regularly (not only on family occasions); she certainly wanted the interviewer to understand in 1989 that she had grown up a good Catholic; and in her memories there is not a trace of the alienation from the institutional church or ecclesiastical rebelliousness that southern Italians often carried with them to the new country. As she said in her oral history, “I didn’t mind the church part and the saints,” she said (my emphasis).

This is a reminder to us that the religious objects in the Baldizzi apartment live in time, even though they appear to be frozen now in one particular moment of the past. Their meanings and uses were both the same and different across the generations, as the immigrants first and then their children and grandchildren made their way from Italy to the Lower East Side to Brooklyn and perhaps later at some point out of New York City altogether. The life and the meanings of the rosary, the crucifix, and the image of the Blessed Mother as Our Lady of Perpetual Help are not in the objects themselves, which is why I cannot say, “this is what the rosary or the crucifix or the image mean.”

Josephine herself, in any case, makes any attempt at such definitions impossible by how she remembers her past on the Lower East Side. Life is not in the things but in the relationships in which the things are taken up, within the apartment, down on Orchard Street, in the neighborhoods and around the city. It was within relationships among people and between heaven and earth (she liked the saints, Josephine emphasizes, who were a regular part of her everyday life, like her neighbors and relatives), that the rosary, the crucifix, and the image of the Blessed Mother came alive and did their work for the Italians on the Lower East Side.

Many, many thanks to Robert Orsi for this wonderful essay and for last night's Tenement Talk.

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