Last we spoke on the topic of front yard religious statuary, I posited the question to Carroll Gardens, Where Will All Your Marys Go? I won’t lie. I had a great time writing that piece. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with both Monsignor Massie and St. Stephen’s Pastoral Associate, John Heyer II. Msgr. Massie helped me to think of the statues in a cultural context while empathizing with my own concerns about how the statues convey identity. John Heyer II framed the decision with his statement, “If it has no meaning to you and no greater meaning to the community, you don’t need to keep it.” I finished Part 1 just in time for Christmas and I hadn’t decided whether or not to remove the statue. In that piece, I never fully delved into how my front yard statue, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, reflects my identity. I never decided whether it had meaning to me or the greater community. My statue is covered in snow at the moment and the front yard won’t get much attention for several months. So I figured I had time, but Heyer’s statement lingered in my mind and framed a debate between myself and my Roman neighbor, whom I had been expecting to adopt my statue. She embarked on her own journey over Christmas during which she discovered where the Marys actually go! This led her to a decision about the status of my statue, causing a minor argument at a time when I was reading lengthy critical responses to the first piece from a few persistent, local, internet commenters. It seemed there was unfinished business. I decided the matter needed to be resolved once and for all.
Do I still find my statue tacky and what did I mean by that? The word tacky surely offended some readers, but I never explained why I used it. I don’t think they are tacky in other folks’ yards. I wouldn’t have set out to photograph them if I thought that. However for me, a non-Catholic, the statue in my yard seems tacky. As long as it’s in a non-believer’s yard, isn’t it all show and no substance? I think that might fall within the colloquial definition of tacky. Further, it bothers me that every time someone swings open my gate, before they even hear the gate slam behind them, they are confronted with a religion and everything that goes with that religion. They see this cemented symbol before they even meet me the individual. I’m inadvertently shoving this religion in their face that I don’t even ascribe to. And yet there is some minor pressure around me (not from Heyer or Msgr. Massie) to maintain the superficial. This pressure to keep the statue, however, doesn’t seem to come from a theological perspective.
My second reason for using the word tacky is more personal, more identity driven. Since I am a 3rd generation Italian-American, I do not have the feeling of ethnic “otherness,” that John Heyer described as contributing to the initial popularity of front yard religious statuary. He described Italian newcomers struggling to enmesh themselves within the existing Irish Catholic churches. That struggle for cultural acceptance may have led some Italians to loudly proclaim their faith from their front yards. Given that the Irish don’t express faith with statuary as much, the installation of such implied ethnic identity as well. Some critics disagreed with this assessment. They felt the statues had nothing to do with an Irish backlash. For those with statues today, I am 100% certain it has nothing to do with any animosity toward the Irish. But I don’t think we can discount “otherness” and the Irish factor when we uncover how the practice started.
There is a town Massachusetts called Somerville, which has the highest concentration of Catholic front yard shrines in the country. There are 350 in 4 square miles and 40 of them are in actual bathtubs. Like Brooklyn, Somerville is a dense early industrial suburb of Boston. We know how powerful Irish culture still is in Boston. We also know the dominant religious culture of New England as a whole was Protestant when Italian and Portuguese immigrants came to replace the Irish in factories and mills. Italian Catholics met scorn from both. (By the way, the first Madonna was placed in a bathtub by Azorean Portuguese in New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts, not by Italians.)
I think Heyer hit the nail on the head when he suggested the front yard statues were expressions of identity from a marginalized group. But Italian Catholics, are not marginalized anymore, so this aspect of front yard Marys has been forgotten. When newcomers become seamlessly woven into the fabric of an existing culture, it happens because the pre-existing culture makes room for them and the appearance of the fabric as a whole alters as a result. When newcomers lose the feeling of “otherness,” the need to label themselves out loud to the public diminishes. Consequently, the use of front yard statuary as expressions of Italian identity logically diminished over time.
I am thankfully enmeshed in our modern American cultural fabric, but when I see my Mary statue it seems to pull me backwards. It labels me and yet, I learned how to be Italian as much from Billy Joel as from my own family. I remember when I was 8, I found out he wasn’t Italian. I nearly had a heart attack ack ack ack. I am so enmeshed in our cultural fabric, if I was to chose my own patron saint, it might be Princess Leia. So when I came to own the Madonna out front, I resented it for imposing an identity on me. It’s an identity that I don’t feel parity with yet resemble closely. In fact, the resemblance became too close for comfort. Suddenly the statue’s presence made me feel as if I had to actively fight a stereotype. Understand that I have always had a very ethnic name. I was born on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I married my high school boyfriend when I was 23. And now I have a statue of a Madonna in my front yard, too! Really???!!!!
I am a stay-at-home mom in a hotbed of type A achievers. New York is a place where small talk ends if the term “stay-at-home mom” is the answer to what is always the second question; “What do you do?” My intense aversion stemmed from the fear that no one would take me seriously with this job title and a large shelled Madonna statue. My name is Antonia Ferraro Martinelli. I am a stay-at-home mom. Now prepare to meet my front yard Mary.
Beyond the Obvious
Just as the statue touched a personal nerve with me, I knew it might touch a nerve with readers. And it did! Some critics felt the statues should only be explained in a theological context as simple devotions to a particular saint for protection or divine intervention, end of story. True, this is the most basic explanation for front yard saints. If you have one, that is probably the reason. But it’s not what makes them curious in Carroll Gardens or Somerville, MA. It’s their placement in the front yard, their size, permanence and number in the community. It’s that previous owners leave them behind and don’t bring them to their new front yards. Florida’s retirement communities should be strewn with these statues and yet they’re not. When older residents pass away, their children or grandchildren don’t seem to relocate these statues to their own front yards. The statues stay here and leave new owners from different backgrounds baffled over what to do with them. This signals another meaning—a moving on—not necessarily from faith, but from that particular expression of it. This is exactly the point John Heyer II made when he explained that today’s Italian-American Catholics practice their faith in a more Americanized way. This moving on coupled with the following quote demonstrate to me that the statues may be more cultural than theological. One reader asked,
“To many of our children, the statues of Carroll Gardens are a symbol of their ancestry and identity. It is no mystery and it certainly has nothing to do with ‘paganism.’ How far fetched is that?”
This leads me to the shock readers had that Monsignor Massie would reference the word pagan. I told you he was a rebel! A reader wrote,
“If I were you I would want to keep the feeling of the neighborhood since it was a good one and a nice one. The statues are a symbol of goodness not evil or paganism at all.”
I assure you the Monsignor was not implying that owners of devotional statuary are in any way revering pagan symbols. He was simply recognizing that non-Catholics who don’t understand intercession might be confused by the concept and variety of patron saints. The Monsignor understands them in both the light of theology and as an interweaving of pre-existing cultural traditions throughout the Mediterranean and the world.
Going a step further, I personally think it is not far fetched to state that Catholicism incorporated cultural traditions that Christians viewed as pagan at the time. It was a highly successful way to weave converts into Christianity. In December, you may have seen people in white sweat pants running throughout Brooklyn with torches. They were on a pilgrimage to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. Our Lady of Guadalupe combines Aztec symbols and Catholic symbols. When the image was introduced almost 500 yrs. ago conversion rates of indigenous people soared.
This is how the cloth of culture is woven. Because we are so removed by time and location, we imagine that Rome’s pagan gods and goddesses were erased, smashed in the temples. But do you really think Romans easily gave up their feast days? Let’s consider the Feast of San Gennaro (St. Januarius). If there is one thing I know about my people, it’s that food is the top priority. I have no doubt that food factored into major theological and cultural decisions as evidenced by the number of feast days. Naples has 50 patron saints, San Gennaro principal among them. I know if I was a Roman on my way to the forum when the pagan statue smashing started, I would say, “Fine. Jesus is the son of God, but when the harvest begins I will be eating fried dough and sausages in Naples…for someone, possibly Janus…I mean St. Janus…er Januarius?”
At this point some frustrated Christian—possibly resembling Michael Imperioli—could have screamed,
“Enough! I’m so sick and tired o’ hearin’ you people talk about food, food, food! That’s all anybody ever talks about is proscuitto, cheese, and f—in’ fava beans.” – Sopranos Season 2
Of course, I don’t have proof that Janus, god of beginnings and ends, controller of gates, transitioned into St. Januarius (Gennaro); the patron saint credited with the miracle of stopping Vesuvius’ flows at Naples gates. If the pagan god and the patron saint were woven together, as some suspect, it happened too long ago and was not documented, where as Our Lady of Guadalupe’s development was more recent and debated.
However, there are well documented examples of the interweaving of ancient pagan culture and theology still found in Rome today. Pagan temples became churches with names like Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. This church was originally dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was reinterpreted by Romans as Minerva. Santo Stefano del Cacco is another Roman church whose name references either a pagan diety Cacus or an Egyptian god Thoth. The church was built on the site and from the pillars of Thoth’s temple. Hence a new fabric was woven from both old and new threads.
My Roman neighbor knows a little about this. Romans see how polytheism got woven into monotheism on a daily basis. She feels the saintly statues definitely have pagan origins. She knows those idolatrous pagans didn’t just vanish. She may just be one of those pagans in a new form. This drives the strong feelings of my Roman friend to preserve a connection to the past, even if it means insisting I keep my Mary statue in its spot. This caused a minor clash between us.
Bed, Bathtub Mary, and Beyond
As I was enjoying my own feasting in December, I felt comfort in knowing that I had the option to give Our Lady to my Roman neighbor. Unfortunately, she had other plans. She spent Christmas in New Orleans where she visited a Madonna rescue. Yes, that’s right! It’s actually a salvage yard called Cypress Bayou Antiques that specializes in outdoor religious statuary amongst other relics. Here you can wade through a variety of rescued items: vintage signs, crocks, cast-iron pans, scales, and vinyl records. But the glory is out in the yard, where you will be greeted by a throng of saintly statues. She had searched for statues in religious shops in Brooklyn and online but didn’t want a new one. At Cypress Bayou she purchased a cement Mary with that weathered patina collectors tend to covet for $40. She drove it back to Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve just before midnight.
As we toasted the new year at our midnight gathering on the street, she dropped the ball on me.
She said, “I rescued a Mary in New Orleans.” I said, “Why? You could have had mine!” She said, “No. I feel your statue might be a landmark to the block. It should stay. It greets me when I come home. It symbolizes the people of this street.”
At that point I became frustrated, not because she wasn’t going to take it. I had other offers. I was annoyed because no one had suggested that this particular statue could have greater community significance. That seemed to overreach boundaries. So I challenged her. Does the statue really symbolize the block anymore? Does it equally welcome everyone? Does it greet my Jewish neighbors, my Hindu neighbors, my Mormon neighbors, my Atheist neighbors? Does it signal unconditional love and the serenity of being home to these people as well? Or does it point out their “otherness” as newcomers? If I am to consider keeping this statue for community significance, it has to be inclusive of the real composition of the block today.
I reminded her that New York is a constantly shifting ethnic and cultural flux. My father is from East New York. I recently shocked someone from East New York with that information. She looked at me like I had three heads. Then she paused and said, “Now that you mention it, when I was a little girl, there were Jews who lived there.” I laughed. There were Italians too. Eventually the Jews and Italians of East New York were replaced by Black Americans, Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants, and now a significant influx of Bangladeshi—more threads in the weave of New York’s tapestry.
To my history lesson, my neighbor countered,
“I feel strongly about preservation. We shouldn’t just throw away the past. We should build on top.”
But of course, she’s Roman! As we’ve seen, they don’t throw anything away over there! Then I received this comment from an irate reader,
“Those statues are the very essence of Carroll Gardens, just as any fig trees and gardens that may have been left behind. To destroy or remove them is showing a lack of understanding of the piece of history you just purchased. There is a reason why it’s part of a historical district.”
This however, this isn’t about preserving a magnificent achievement in art or architecture. My statue is not in a historic district. It was installed in the 1980s. This is Old World thinking that creates Old World problems, masquerading as preservation. The argument seemed to favor an entrenched local identity. But the reality is no one can stake a claim to the culture because in Carroll Gardens, it was the Irish before the Italians, preceded by Norwegians, and the Dutch and the Indigenous Canarsee. And there is no record of them other than possibly the name of the fetid Gowanus Canal! Our culture is always in a state of flux. We can absorb newcomers where the Old World just can’t. The Old World completed its tapestry long ago and won’t incorporate new threads for fear of altering the overall appearance.
To the Future and Beyond
You know what though? Even as I argued for modernity, the loss of community stood out. The loss of East New York’s Italians stood out. The loss of friends in my life stood out. Living in Brooklyn for 20 years, it seems as soon as you make a connection with someone, they often have to move on. One reader felt I should keep my statue because it represented past community. He described that community through the push carts on Union St. between Hicks and Columbia,
“some contained all fruit, others all kinds of potatoes, another all veggies of every kind…there was a grocery store that had all Italian cheeses, big, beautiful cheeses, and olives and all Italian pastas…right on Union St.…It was cold in winter. Poor people would stand out there freezing with huge barrels by their stands with wood burning in them to try to warm up the air surrounding their wagons. It was incredible! My mom knew all of their names since she shopped there and bought everything fresh which Italians are used to doing in Italy so it was passed on right here in that neighborhood. You truly don’t know the aura, the ambiance, the love of one another that neighborhood had for all of their products and houses and everything they attempted to do…”
This crystallized it for me. To long time residents, the attachment to front yard Marys, at its core today, really has nothing to do with the Irish, or cultural identity, or theology, or history. It’s love. The statues are all of those long gone people, where they came from and what they produced. It simply makes locals sad to see those memories go.
And so, I have finally made a decision about my statue! I will not be keeping the statue for greater community significance, but for myself. I will keep the statue to commemorate the entrepreneurial aspects of our community. Food trucks may have replaced push carts and diversity will inevitably replace homogeneity. But I see continuity in a vibrant neighborhood that has a love for community and pride in its local products. When I see Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea, I don’t just see hipsters. I see a deep appreciation for Brooklyn’s merchant past. It’s why people continue to move here to start up organic this, sustainable that, and single-origin whatever. The image of the immigrant pushcart still drives and inspires Brooklyn’s entrepreneurial future. For me, Our Lady of Mount Carmel will stand for that.
However, I am going to have a conversation with Our Lady to request that she accept her diverse neighbors. I will even put in a good word for all the newcomers who just aren’t partial to backyard fig trees. I’ll also ask if she can accept the secular humanist who maintains her garden currently. I will have her listen to my Rabbi Billy Joel, because the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems. I’m optimistic that through continued conversations it may be possible to weave the front yard Mary that Carroll Gardens left me into my life. After all, she made room for me. The truth is the statue has become such a tremendous writing muse, I’m now too superstitious to give her up. I fear I might get writer’s block. Perhaps I’ll rename her Our Lady of Thoughtful Prose; or more aptly Our Lady of Local Mishegas. After all she is Jewish and her first miracle was making a mountain out of a mole hill. The good news is she’ll have company now. Thanks to my Roman neighbor I’m not the only newcomer on the block with a Madonna statue—although she put hers in the backyard.
p style=”text-align: justify;”>A Treatise on Relics by Jean Calvin – An 1854 English translation that gives you an idea of the negative attitudes Italian Catholics would have encountered in the US, while simultaneously connecting polytheistic past to monotheistic present