The house my husband and I were lucky enough to buy in Carroll Gardens came with an Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; a large statue of Mary holding baby Jesus enclosed in a heavenly blue dome. It had been cemented to the ground because the first statue had been stolen during Carroll Gardens’ more crime ridden days (God help you if you’re going around stealing Madonnas). I hated everything about it. I am not religious. I was not raised Catholic. I am a feminist. I am a new Italian-American. Even my grandmother Peppina from East New York, who briefly aspired to become a nun, didn’t keep saints in her yard. Why on earth would I have one? To me, it looked like it belonged in a cemetery rather than a front yard. I associated front yard Madonnas with plastic-covered couches. While I had fond memories of spending many hours on such couches, I proclaimed even before the closing that the statue, along with the white wrought iron fencing around it, would be the first things to go. However, as the middle-aged Brooklyn hazing ritual known as a gut renovation began to gut our finances, removing the Madonna became a lower priority.
The wrought iron was quickly painted black, but intentions to jack-hammer out the statue morphed into mere talk. Strangely, the more I lived with the statue, the less urgent I was to get rid of it. I decided to pull out the stretch of grass in front of the statue and plant a flower garden to somewhat obscure it. While gardening, I’d continue to fret about it’s tackiness, but slowly the fretting would evolve. “A tree would be better, but at least it wasn’t a man on cross,” I’d think to myself. I even admitted that the baby was kind of cute. As the plants filled the space, the statue became a strange fertility symbol: an Ishtar, Ester, Eostre… etc.
I didn’t just garden to mask the statue, though. I did it to watch a mini Big Bang unfold; to foster what some call God in a small urban patch of worms and weeds. The other reason I enjoyed gardening was the people who would stop to talk to me. Conversations in the piazza-like garden ran the gamut, but often came around to the Madonna. People have stopped to pray to the Madonna. Others were surprised that I had kept it. A neighbor told my husband that he too bought a house with a Madonna several years prior. Being Jewish, he had a rider put in his sale contract mandating that the Madonna be removed prior to sale. He didn’t want to be the Jewish newcomer who removes the Catholic statue on a historically Italian block. I too didn’t want to be the secular newcomer who removes a statue people still pray to as they go about their day.
I assumed most of my contemporaries felt these statues were tacky, so I was shocked when a neighbor offered to take it. She was Catholic, Italian-American, and an interior designer. What could she possibly see in this mass-produced relic? It wasn’t hand carved. It was probably poured cement. I turns out she wanted to have it for a pet cemetery in her backyard. I suspect she had a kitsch attraction to the time period it evoked as an Italian-American.
The second neighbor who approached me to adopt the Madonna, really blew my mind. She was what I consider a REAL Italian, from Italy, as opposed to an Italian-American. She is originally from Rome. She was renovating a house across the street and came to compliment my statue. She said it was the most beautiful Madonna in the neighborhood and she was looking for one for her front yard. She too was young, Catholic, and worked in the fashion industry. Why would she want a tacky “Mary on the Half Shell”?
She said, “I feel it is part of the culture of Carroll Gardens, a culture that is disappearing. I love seeing all the statues in neighborhood: the beautiful St. Joseph in the Dunkin’ Donuts, the Maria S.S. Addolorata at the Citizens of Mola di Bari, the Saint Lucy on Court St. I’m really worried that as the neighborhood changes, the statues will all go. If you decide to get rid of it, let me know.”
I was stunned and now really conflicted. Up to that point, removal was not an if, but a when. Sure. It had evolved into a very lazy when, but nevertheless a when. I felt a pang of cultural guilt, much like when I gave up pasta to go low-carb. The revelation that two people wanted my statue also added a new dimension to my stance on removal. My statue was now in demand! “I’m not giving it up! Her stock just doubled!”
My conversation with the Roman neighbor prompted me to really consider the possible significance of these statues. Was there any real significance or was this just cultural nostalgia imposed by creative thinkers with an Italian bias? Carroll Gardens is full of these statues, and they are not just Marys. A part of me would be sad to see that aesthetic die, even if it is not my own. I wondered why Italians felt the need for their own personal front yard Jesus. Why do Italian neighborhoods in particular seem to have these statues? Why not Irish-Catholic neighborhoods? I wondered where they bought them? Why did the trend end and is there a protocol for removing them? How do Italian Catholics feel about them today? Where will all the Marys go when they are retired? I now felt that I had to fully understand these statues before I made a decision about my own.
A friend recommended I visit Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church. It is a church of statuary. There are even statues in the back parking lot. I met with Pastoral Associate and local historian, John Heyer II, also of Scotto’s Funeral Home. As I approached the Rectory, I grew concerned that the answers to my questions might be as simple as “Italians like statues. They had a yard. Basta così.” I can’t emphasize how wrong I was to be concerned! John answered all my questions through a riveting history of Carroll Gardens, its Italians, and the cultural significance of its statues. Also at the church, I was welcomed by the parish’s beloved and out-spoken Monsignor, Guy Massie, who shockingly revealed his own conflict with these statues, both from a theological perspective and as an American in a modern inclusive society.
Provincial Identity and the Patron Saints
We began our discussion in the church, whose walls are lined with dozens of statues from entrance to alter on both sides of the pews. Here lives St. Bartholomew, St. Joseph, numerous Our Ladys and of course, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, or Mother Cabrini, a local resident famously known for her work around the world. It was the most impressive display of idolatry I’d seen apart from the Vatican, but I am a secular outsider. I was shocked when Monsignor Massie echoed my impressions. “I struggle with the statues myself. To the outsider, it might smack of paganism.” Monsignor Massie is not the Catholic priest you’d expect. A former public school teacher, he had theological concerns about the statues and multiplicity of religious expression. However, he understood the statues were an interweaving of theology, anthropology and culture that can be difficult to parse. The feminist in him felt strongly that the various images of Our Lady were necessary in an intensely male faith. I had whiplash just listening to him.
These prolific statues are patron saints, intercessors who can speak to God on your behalf because they are already in heaven. John Heyer II is a young man who seems uniquely knighted with the care of Carroll Gardens’ traditions, these statues being one of them. He explained intercessors as, “A local call to God. Not long distance. There’s better reception.” To understand how all the statues got to Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s, John took me back to when Red Hook was primarily a waterfront community inhabited by longshoreman and their families, most of whom were Italian immigrants. In 1900, Columbia St. had the largest concentration of Italian Immigrants in the U.S. These immigrants closely identified with the patron saints of their villages and organized social clubs around citizens of those towns. When groups would gain enough members they would have a replica of their town’s patron saint made in Italy and brought here. John pointed to St. Michael, who was brought over from Procida, an island in the Bay of Naples. The Scotto family are descendants of Procida and members of the St. Michael Society, which is in its 108th year. Our Lady of Sorrows is a striking figure in black, enclosed in glass, and hails from Mola di Bari. You may have run into their yearly procession down Carroll St.
Red Hook’s Italian patron saints were housed in its Italian Catholic churches and social clubs, in particular Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the first Italian parish on Long Island. The church was demolished only 35 years after it was built by neighborhood immigrants. The many social clubs and businesses around Columbia St. were destroyed over several decades. How? The short version is Robert Moses demolished the church and surrounding buildings to connect the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway with the Gowanus Expressway. The long version, as told by Heyer, is that Robert Moses condemned Red Hook, not only with the Expressways, but through Redlining and the construction of a container port intended to destroy the Italian ghetto and the power of the Gallo Brothers. I asked if it worked. He paused and said, “What worked was they shot Gallo in Umberto’s.” Then we both paused and considered that education and better options destroyed the Italian ghetto. Perhaps it was the work of Mother Cabrini.
Before Sacred Hearts was leveled in 1941, congregants held a famous final mass and procession of all the patron saints from all the regions of Red Hook’s Italians to their new home at St. Stephen’s Church. The city spent the next 4 decades digging along Columbia St. intentionally razing houses or accidentally collapsing them—in some cases with residents inside. The statues, however, remained cloistered in the newly merged Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen R. C. Church. They are survivors of that turbulent era; relics of an identity under assault.
Post World War II – The Front Yards
None of this explains how the Mary on the Half Shell came to epitomize Carroll Gardens though. If Italians had churches filled to the brim with religious symbols, why did they need personal shrines? John again explained front yard statues in the context of both cultural and religious identity. Henry St. used to be a sort of dividing line over which Italians didn’t pass. Over that line lived the Irish and their Irish churches that wouldn’t co-worship with Italians or permit Italian priests. These were the front yards of an Irish Carroll Gardens behind gated entrances. 1st Place used to be entered through two chained pillars, a gated community. Keep out. After World War II, the Irish moved out to the suburbs of Bay Ridge making vacancies for Italian renters on Columbia St. Many of the business we are familiar with on Court St.: Esposito’s Pork Store, Mastelleone’s, and others, started out on Columbia St. and moved up to Court St., away from the digging. Newly-minted homeowners, these Italians expressed their identity with religious statues in their sought after front yards. John also explained, as Italian-Americans, “One symbol of who we are is the external expression of the internal faith,” as opposed the more private expression of Irish Americans. These front yard Marys said, “We’ve Arrived! And we’re not Irish!”
After World War II, these statues could be mass-produced. You no longer had to commission one in Italy. Italian-Americans typically bought their affordable Madonna’s in florist shops. Some built grottos around them and enclosed them in pergolas to evoke the piazzas they left behind in the old country. John explained, “Religion for the Italian was a communal expression.” Longing for that communal expression, the front yard shrine is the personal pizza of piazzas. It’s similar to the larger 8-slice pie you share with the community, but in a place where not everyone identifies with your topping, the smaller 4 slice pie makes sense. Shrines were even created out of cast-off items. As people were replacing their claw foot tubs, they created the “Mary on the Half Shell”, also known as the “Bathtub Mary”. You would bury one end of the tub so that half stuck out of the ground and insert the saint of your choosing, usually Mary.
The Future of Carroll Gardens’ Marys
I asked John why today’s Catholic Italian-Americans don’t maintain the practice of the personal shrine. He explained that 2 or 3 generations from immigration, Italian-Americans have adopted a more American style of worship that is more private, closer to Protestantism. I then asked, “Do you have any advice for me and my statue?” John said, “If it has no meaning to you and no greater meaning to the community (as some of the larger statues do in the neighborhood), you don’t need to keep it.” As older Italians die, and scattered families clean out their parents’ brownstones, the church receives a treasure trove of old documents, photos, and sometimes statuary. Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s is not looking to adopt any Bathtub Marys mind you. But they advise that if you are going to remove one, a good option would be to offer it to someone for whom the statue might have meaning.
The older, more rebellious Monsignor Massie echoed many of John’s thoughts about the statues. Where John was sentimental, the Monsignor was pragmatic. The Monsignor used to see the statues primarily in a theological sense until a friend convinced him they were about identity and had value anthropologically. He reiterated her argument, “When people came here from Italy and brought these statues, they didn’t see theology. They saw the Bay of Naples.” The Monsignor now sees the value of the statues in the context of history and identity, but battles the pitfalls that come with it. He used to conduct mass in Spanish in another church, so he has trouble with the “We” and “Us” environment that the statues can create in the parish. I suspect Massie knows that parishes need to grow and attract new congregants; new congregants that might not identify with an Italian expression of religiosity. Monsignor Massie doesn’t even consider himself Italian-American. He suggests a third category, American Italian, putting American first.
What will I do with my statue?
The Our Lady of Mt. Carmel statue that brought me on this journey through Catholic Italian identity is still sitting in my yard. It was fascinating to see the contrasting views of John Heyer II and Monsignor Guy Massie as they told the story of the statues. Where youthful John Heyer II seemed to revel in the study of Carroll Gardens, its culture, and its storied past; the old Monsignor, having lived it, could cast it off, looking to the future. They both agreed that the front yard statues were figures of an identity I didn’t share. It seems fitting then that I would give my statue to my Roman neighbor who requested it for her front yard. She spoke of spending her entire childhood at the church with all her friends. Soccer balls were kicked around by priests, songs were sung, games played. For her it was exactly as Heyer described, “a communal expression of religiosity.” She yearns for that active communal experience that these statues represent. Whatever I decide, even if the new face of Carroll Gardens removes every Madonna from every yard tomorrow, I can feel confident that the patron saints of the original Italian immigrants on Columbia St. will remain at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen Church under the thoughtful care of John and the Monsignor.
The story continues in Part 2, where I make a decision about my statue.