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The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950
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The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  164 ratings  ·  17 reviews
In a masterful evocation of Italian Harlem and the men and women who lived there, Robert Orsi examines how the annual festa of the Madonna of 115th Street both influenced and reflected the lives of the celebrants. His prize-winning book offers a new perspective on lived religion, the place of religion in the everyday lives of men, women, and children, the experiences of im ...more
Paperback, Second Edition, 352 pages
Published March 11th 2002 by Yale University Press (first published 1985)
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Dan Gorman
Superb. Orsi uses ethnographic interviews and oral history to capture religious life in old Italian Harlem from 1880 to 1950. With lots of thick description of life there, particularly in regard to the Madonna festa held on 115th street every year, Orsi shows that virtually all aspects of daily life were reflected in religious practice. Daily concerns at home, in marriage, etc., all affected the way people worshipped; all were pervaded with aspects of Catholicism. The festa is a microcosm of the ...more
Roland Clark
American Catholics frequently complained the Italians of East Harlem. Their neighborhood was notorious for its mafia syndicates and was an immigrant quarter with overcrowded apartments and too many people who didn’t speak English. They only went to church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and rarely tithed and did not support Catholic schools as Polish or Irish Catholics did. But these people really were extremely religious, Orsi insists.

See my full review here:
This affectionate look at the history and culture of Italian East Harlem begins with one of the most startling rituals I've ever read. Until the twenties, when it was abolished, the community lifted a woman who was carried down the aisle of the church, with her hands on the floor. Unfortunately, Orsi never explains what that ritual meant or where it came from. He explains plenty else: the conflicts between home and the threatening world outside (including not only Protestants and Jews, but "othe ...more
Like the many penitents he renders, Robert Orsi sees all things in "The Madonna of 115th Street."

A scholar of things religious, and connoisseur of matters Italian-American, Orsi combines these two interests so that one defines and explains the other.

To the uninitiated, the Madonna of Mount Carmel is just a statue like countless others throughout Europe and the Americas that interprets the Virgin Mary in plaster relief.

But in Orsi's erudite hands La Madonna (and the faith she engenders) becomes
Orsi look into what he terms popular religion, Catholic practices which are folk oriented and not shared by or even condoned by the organized Catholic church. The subject in question is old Italian Harlem's Madonna of Mount Carmel, an object which continues to inspire the devotion of immigrants after its arrival from Italy in the late 1800s. By examining the familial and value structure of the first generations of Italian immigrants, Orsi examines the connections to this idol and draws conclusio ...more
Oct 16, 2012 Tara added it
Almost skipped the introductions, but my conscience got the better of me (it *was* a school book, after all). Ended up liking one of his intros almost as much as the book itself. He had some rather radical observations on historical methods, brought about in part through his realization that his discussions around the kitchen talking to old Italian women--and the spaghetti they serve him--are just as important to his project as the seemingly more academic pursuits, like reading records and diari ...more
More history ought to be written this way. Orsi does a fantastic job of painting the lives of ordinary people to tell his story, and in so doing his work is more profound than most. Definitely a Herodotus as opposed to a Thucydides.
Andrew Miller
Orsi does accomplishes an impressive task in this text by exploring the relationship between culture and religion. Using an Italian immigrant community in Harlem as his case study, he shows the ways in which the community blurs the lines between religion and culture. Putting the book down I had to reconcile the fact that my own religious beliefs are saturated with culture, well beyond anything I can even distinguish. I give Orsi an excellent rating because the book is fun, clear, academic, and p ...more
Claire Wolff
Aug 02, 2007 Claire Wolff rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: dianne
This social history of Italian East Harlem reads like a novel: a beautiful blend of religious history, immigrant history, and cult feminism. A little bit Ellis Island, a little bit Goodfellas, this book will make you crave Southern Italian cooking and wish you were Catholic.
Bryan Cottle
There is a reason this book is heavily acclaimed in the religious studies field. It goes to show the power of oral histories in religious history and the value of both quantitative and qualitative research.
Such a good book to understand modern Italians in Italy since little has changed. It is an interesting history about Italian Americans adjusting to America and a Catholic Church run by the Irish.
This is great book for pastors who want o think about the popular piety of the parish. It is very interesting how the Italian women would express their spirituality in Italian Harlem, New York.
Great stuff! Very well-written. Excellent use of documents and interviews. Really wish I could have seen one of these celebrations! Candles shaped like body parts - crazy!
Nicole G.
The advent of the Italian festivals in American culture during the heyday of Italians living in Harlem.
Helen Cooper
A bit dry but a thorough look at Italian-American culture in Harlem in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Richard Houchin
A wonderful work of modern anthropology!
Quite interesting.
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“Reference to the deadness of the past is a way of staking a claim on it. But historians must be open, as ethnographers try to be, to the shock of the unpredictability and difference of the past, which means open to the possibility of the past living in its insistence on telling its own story and so confounding us. Only in this way can the past teach us something new about ourselves, about the limits of our imaginings and ways of knowing, and even of our particular and distinctive ways of being human.” 0 likes
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