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

3.82  ·  Rating Details  ·  197 Ratings  ·  19 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
Mar 09, 2015 Dan Gorman rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 05, 2014 Roland Clark rated it it was amazing
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:
Aug 06, 2011 Nick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 09, 2009 Stephen rated it liked it
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
Oct 24, 2011 Hotavio rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Gabriella Bugge
This was a great and easily accessible scholarly read arguing that the true form of religion is not necessarily bound inside the walls of a church. Coming from an Italian-Catholic background, Orsi's observations were spot-on and I found myself relating to its contents in more ways than one. His argument is incredibly well thought out and written.
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
Apr 22, 2014 Christopher rated it really liked it
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
Mar 06, 2013 Andrew Miller rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 17, 2016 Kelly added it
Shelves: 2016-reads
read for school
Claire Wolff
Aug 02, 2007 Claire Wolff rated it really liked it
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
Dec 19, 2010 Bryan Cottle rated it it was amazing
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.
Apr 13, 2012 Diane rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 17, 2012 Amy rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 02, 2009 Katie rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 07, 2008 Nicole G. rated it liked it
Shelves: 2007
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
Apr 23, 2008 Richard Houchin rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy, history
A wonderful work of modern anthropology!
Nov 21, 2011 Dane rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, culture
Quite interesting.
Feb 25, 2012 Ruben rated it it was amazing
My hero.
Sean marked it as to-read
Jun 23, 2016
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Paul Putz rated it really liked it
Jun 14, 2016
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Eric Hoenes rated it really liked it
Jun 10, 2016
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Sarah Jones rated it really liked it
May 23, 2016
Grace Catherine
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Castillo family
Castillo family rated it it was amazing
May 15, 2016
Geoffrey Staysniak
Geoffrey Staysniak marked it as to-read
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Elliot Hanowski
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May 22, 2016
Katlin added it
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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
“The claim "oh, that's ancient history" is almost always a wish, am anxious attempt to put a boundary of time around some event that really is not over at all; it is a bid to silence the past.” 0 likes
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