Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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

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 tonight at 6:30 pm. Here is the fourth part in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

So what do the rosary, the crucifix and the devotional image of the Madonna tell us about the faith of the Baldizzi family? What did the religious objects in the apartment mean within Baldizzi family life?

The Baldizzis' rosary.
Photo by mister paul larosa, on Flickr.
The rosary is a way of praying that goes back to medieval Europe. The beads on the rosary are organized in five groups of ten (called decades) separated by spaces in which there is a single bead; the beads are attached in a circle to a crucifix which is immediately followed by a single bead, three beads, another single bead, and a small image of Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints. Moving the rosary through their fingers, Catholics begin with the Sign of the Cross at the crucifix; say an Our Father at the first single bead; a Hail Mary at each of the next three beads; another Our Father at the second single bead; the special prayer called the doxology at the image; and then moving counterclockwise, a Hail Mary at each bead in the decades, then the doxology again, and the Our Father at the single bead in between. Josephine’s family would have said the rosary in Latin or Italian.

They also would have known (more than most contemporary Catholics perhaps) that there were three different story lines for the rosary, depending on the church season or on the desires and needs of the person or persons praying the rosary.

Tenament 15
Photo by Daniel Molina
Each narrative was divided into five stories, called “mysteries,” taken from the gospels that sequentially unfurled like a newsreel the story of salvation as the rosary was said. There were the joyful mysteries, which recall the five happiest moments in the Blessed Mother’s life with Jesus (the first is the angel’s announcement to Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus); the sorrowful mysteries, which speak about the suffering of Jesus and of Mary’s grief; and the glorious mysteries, which commemorate the holiest and most transparently divine episodes in the lives of Jesus and Mary (these begin with the resurrection of Jesus and end with Mary’s coronation as Queen of Heaven).

Catholics were encouraged actively to see themselves as being present in these moments, making the rosary a powerful imaginative exercise and a medium for men and women to express and reflect on their own joys and sorrows and those of their families.

Rosaries were most often given as gifts: just as in some cultures, people do not fill their own wine glasses at dinner, so it was not so common for Catholics simply to acquire rosaries for themselves. The rosary in the Baldizzi apartment might have come from one of the children’s godparents—the godmother who lived across the street from Vincent’s?—from one their First Communion sponsors, from grandparents or other relatives. It may have made the journey from Italy to the Lower East Side in Signor Baldizzi’s pockets, serving in this case as a visible link to the old country.

Rosaries were said privately or in groups. The Baldizzis would have brought the rosary with them to Mass on Sundays, to funerals—it was common for a rosary to be said on the last night of a wake in front of the open coffin by all the people present together—and to the novenas that Josephine remembers going to with her mother. The rosary in the Baldizzi apartment in this way embodied the family’s stories and memories and the bonds of kin and neighbors so important to them, a material, blessed, and tactile counterpart to Josephine’s memories and stories.

[Part V will be posted tomorrow.]

1 comment:

  1. Hello to everyone at the Tenement Museum. My name is John. I read a lot of blogs on religion and prayer and I've i feel like I've ended up here once before. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this prayer exchange website I thought it was an interesting idea and would be curious to hear what you (or other Christians) think about it

    I'll check back here in the next day or two, thanks & God bless
    John W.


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