For 78 years it happened on September 8.
The streets of this Italian East Village neighborhood in New York City were strung with banners and lights and a replica of the black Madonna del Tindari was paraded through the neighborhood and brought to the window of a small chapel that couldn’t hold more than a dozen people at a time.
Sicilian immigrants brought their religious beliefs and practices with them from the Old World to this neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, especially their devotion to the Blessed Mother, particularly the Madonna del Tindari, the black Madonna of Sicily.
An Italian-American tradition that had begun in 1909 ended in 1987 after members of the Sicilian community on and around Manhattan’s East Thirteenth Street died or moved away. The chapel closed and the statue moved to a private home in New Jersey, where it still resides.
However, 12 years ago, Italian-American scholar Joseph Sciorra, Director of Academic and Cultural Programs at the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College—and curator of the exhibition “Evviva La Madonaa Nera!: Italian American Devotion to the Black Madonna”—had an idea to resurrect the feast day gathering, with a modern twist.
The site of the chapel at 447 East 13th Street is now a bar called the Phoenix Bar.
“The bar is the former site of this chapel. Having discovered that information, I called people there in the name of the Black Madonna,” he said.
He did so in a rather playful way, calling it the Committee for the Resurrection for the Feast of the Black Madonna. And people came. Nothing was scheduled to happen. Nothing in the bar indicates that it was once a religious chapel. But people gathered. Practicing Catholics and atheists. Poets and artists.
“Italian-American culture is not something that is fixed. It’s something that be reimagined. That’s what this event tries to capture,” said Sciorra. “Whatever happens, happens.”
One year a group made chalk drawings. Some read poetry or sang or danced. One year an altar was spontaneously created outside of the bar.
“Someone created a banner of the Madonna that she brings every year,” Sciorra said. There is also a group of folk revival musicians who join every year. One of them is a bagpipe player.
This Tuesday, September 8, is the 12 anniversary of the gathering. Sciorra will be there at the bar, waiting to see what happens this year.
“It’s a reclamation of space. New York City is constantly changing. What was in one place yesterday is no longer there for a number of communities, especially immigrants,” said Sciorra. “A lot of that history doesn’t get written. Just being able to acknowledge it and landmark it through performance was very exciting.”
See you there?
September 8, 6-8 pm.
The Phoenix Bar
447 East 13th Street, off of Avenue A
New York City
Photo: Feast for the Madonna del Tindari, East 13th Street, between Avenues A and First, New York City, September 7, 1915. Courtesy the Library of Congress.