At the end of the 19th Century, changing social and political conditions in Italy led to a dramatic increase in immigration to the United States. This in turn produced a marked change in the demographics of what was now the parish of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral. As the Irish of Five Points integrated into American society and became more economically successful, they moved to the suburbs of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, establishing ethnic neighborhoods there and leaving a substantial amount of empty, affordable housing behind them in Lower Manhattan. By 1900 over 225,000 Italians lived in New York City, over half of them living in the neighborhood surrounding St Patrick’s. The area was overcrowded and underfunded, prompting Jacob Riis to describe the area just south of the Cathedral as “a vast human pig-sty.” Like the Irish before them, this new wave of Catholic immigrants turned to the Church for help.
The established Irish hierarchy within the American Catholic Church tended to resent the new Italian influence, and it appears that although the Irish maintained control of the parish, though they also recognized and attempted to meet the religious needs of their new neighbors. An example was set by Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who served as coadjutor to Archbishop McCloskey beginning in 1880, and succeeded him in 1885. The son of wealthy Irish Americans himself, Archbishop Corrigan was a strong supporter of national parishes and was active in seeking out foreign-language priests and welcoming the new arrivals.
But what of St. Patrick’s, in the process of transitioning from one kind of national parish into another? The grand new St. Patrick’s Cathedral, at 50th St and 5th Avenue, Archbishop Hughes’ magnum opus, was completed in 1879, work having resumed after the end of the Civil War. With the predominantly Irish leadership removed uptown, the Old Cathedral turned its attention to the newcomers. Although the 1909 Centennial Booklet lists only one Italian name among the 13 members of the Society of St. Patrick, it also reports that the parish provided two Italian priests to serve the new influx of immigrants as early as 1882. The newly arrived Italians brought with them their own unique style of Catholicism, influencing the parish in which they lived. The devotional nature of Italian Catholicism quickly became part of parish life, as evidenced by festivals, parades, and devotional lay societies.
These two medals were worn by members of parish devotional societies, or sodalities. Such organizations became increasingly common at the end of the 19th century. Members performed devotions and rituals together, encouraging community feeling and the formation of “virtuous habits.” They were one of the primary religious activities of Italian parishes like St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, who tended towards a more devotional Catholicism than their Irish forebears.
A combination of World War I, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924 stemmed the tide of immigration, especially of southern European immigrants. But those who were already there remained, consolidating their communities and creating an imitation of the life they left behind in what is now known as “Little Italy.”
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