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Quote: Hillary Coniglio

Hillary Coniglio at 12th annual festa of the Madonna del Tinadari, September 8, 2015
Hillary Coniglio raises her castanets in an ancient Italian worship dance at the Twelfth Annual Festa of the Madonna del Tinadari in New York. Photo © Cheryl Nemazie.

“I think [Mary] is inspirational to Italian families. She is like the matriarch archetype of the Italian mother. She watches out for everyone, and protects and guides them.”    

—Hillary Coniglio

Spirit of the Black Madonna del Tindari rises again in New York

There was no sign of the Black Madonna of Tindari statue that used to stand in this room, but the ancient spirit of Sicily rose again like the phoenix painted on the wall of this East Village bar anyway. Devotees and revelers of all ages gathered on her feast day September 8 in a revival of the celebration that anchored this immigrant community for more than 75 years.

In a small side room that used to serve as chapel for a statue,  wrought-iron chandeliers still hang from the ceiling. Sicilians young and old are huddled on wooden benches with pints of beer while a group of fresh-faced twentysomethings play traditional instruments that haven’t been heard in hundreds of years. Dancers stomp and twirl in ancient dances in honor of the Black Madonna while the same songs that have been sung in her honor for eons wake up the memories in the room.

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Sicilian immigrants brought their religious beliefs and practices with them from the Old World to this Manhattan 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 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. Dozens of Sicilians turned out for the revival.

Charlie Castrovinci (like Fidel and Leonardo, he says) used to come to this very spot to visit the Black Madonna when he was a child. He remembers when this neighborhood was home to 50,000 Sicilians.

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“My block had its own festival, except this block had two feasts of the black Madonna,” he said.

He remembers her being paraded through the streets, people pinning ribbons with money to her as donations and offerings, vendors selling sausage and Italian doughnuts filled with ricotta called zepplie (“My mom wouldn’t let me have those because she could make them at home.”), and a bandstand with music. He begins to sing strains of a song he remembers—Mama…—and Victorianne Capiello chimes in.

She came to the festival’s revival after doing research on her family history and discovering her ancestors came from areas of Sicily near the original shrine of the Madonna del Tindari.

“Every year my grandmother would climb the mountain on her knees and do her novenas and prayers,” she said.

She met Charles at a Sicilian meet up—their families it turns out are from the area of Sicily—and now they are friends.

“I am happy to be back and willing to share with these newcomers the greatness of the Black Madonna,” said Castrovinci.

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Leda Grasso, who was born in Catania, Sicily, is holding a Black Madonna del Tindari commemorative t-shirt from a number of years ago. It depicts one of the original flyers for the event from the early 20th century. Her mother also made the pilgrimage to Tindari.

“My mother went back to Sicily when I was 20. She said ‘My daughter is 20. Please get her a husband.’ I met him while she was there,” she said. “We have been together 40 years. We had three kids. Two are doctors and one is a psychologist.”

Cups of traditional Sicilian chocolate rice pudding are passed around. Beers are downed. The lights are low.

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Dancer Rita Fierro spins to the rhythm, dipping and turning around the other dancers as if they are ready for a rumble. They hop back and forth to the drums, hair flying, hands in the air snapping castanets, as the beat thrums faster and faster.

With her wavy brown hair and dark almond eyes, long flowing skirt and bare feet, swirling with castanets made of olive wood in her hands, Fierro looks like she could be dancing in the ancient streets of Pompeii. In fact, she later tells me, there is a mosaic in Pompeii that shows people doing this very same dance. The tamurriata is meant to generate a trance to reconnect with the spirit, to transcend the physical experience, like spinning Sufis.

It’s working. The rest of the women join in the dance. There is joy on their faces. And one wonders if the Black Madonna may appear after all.

The Black Madonna del Tindari: A Italian-American tradition lives on with a twist

For 78 years it happened on September 8.

festival photo from Facebook page

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?

Twelfth Annual Festa in Honor of the Black Madonna del Tinadari

festival photo from Facebook page

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.

Madonna in the Mountains

On a recent trip to Colorado, in an railroad town in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains–right in the heart of the Rockies–I was lured off the main street and up the steps into a 100-year-old, brick building to find Paulette Brodeur painting in the hallway. She was putting the finishing touches on an expressionist painting of a jazz combo. She introduced herself as she waved her paintbrush full of bright blue paint around in the air.

Her galleries were filled with whimsical paintings of everything from wild horses and mountain landscapes to a poodle with the Eiffel Tower in styles echoing great names like Raoul Dufy and Pablo Picasso, all in bright, exuberant colors that echoed Paulette’s personality.

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I rounded the corner into one brightly lit room to find this painting on the wall. It not only struck me for its beauty, but it felt a little like home. It reminded me of paintings by Grace Hartigan, who once painted in the city in which I now park my boots. And it was inspired by a statue of Mary in the great Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, in the shadow of which I studied French during college. To be so far away from home and to find her smack dab in the middle Colorado was a treat. And Paulette was generous enough to let me share her with you.

This painting is part of a series inspired by Notre-Dame Cathedral, completed after Paulette visited the city in 2013.

You can see more of Paulette Brodeur’s artwork on her website, http://www.brodeurart.com. Her gallery space is in the process of moving, so you won’t find her at the top of the stairs anymore, but you can find her online.

Madonna in the carpool lane

Madonna Driving

The Mary Project is all about exploring what Mary means to people of all ages, nationalities, and religious leanings (or not) across the country. I am fascinated every day by who opens up when I mention Mary because it’s always a surprise what comes out of their mouths.

I recently came across this drawing and stopped in my tracks. I love how it brings the Madonna right into our lives today. What would the Madonna and Jesus look like if they lived right along side us —just down the street—instead of thousands of years ago in a land far, far away. Mary was a mom, after all, doing the best for her son. These musing on the Madonna doing mom things capture my imagination.

Here’s what the artist Rosie Ferne has to say about her work:

The Marys (there are two more in progress, one riding the subway and one on a bike with Jesus in one of those bike seats that attach to the back rack) are an idea grew out of a few things:

My feminist beliefs are important to me, and I think a lot about the issues facing women who want to have children during the same years that they are rising in whatever their career is, and how this is often seen as kind of a liability by employers, which is unfair because fatherhood doesn’t affect men the same way, and because SOMEONE has to continue the human species, and because motherhood is obviously tons of work but it’s not valued the same way as ‘work work.’

So I guess by drawing madonnas doing normal modern stuff, it’s kind of about the continuity of the mother-child relationship from ancient times to now, and about how there’s a kind of sacredness there, even though our surroundings and lifestyles have changed.

You can see all four of Rosie’s Madonna artworks here – http://www.rosie-ferne.squarespace.com/ and they will soon be available on her Etsy shop – https://www.etsy.com/shop/Rosieferne.

May is for Mary: A Crowning Fit for a Queen

O Mary! We crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the Mary…

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Eight-year-old Dominic McKenney waves at the two men riding a crane to the top of the golden Virgin Mary statue at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Equipped in hard hats and smiling to the crowd, they lift a giant crown of silk flowers of red yellow and purple 100 feet in the air and set it on the head of the 25-foot-tall statue that looks over this Catholic mountain shrine devoted to the Mother of God.

“She is the mother of Jesus. She is the mother of everyone,” Dominic says.

Nem_150503_025353Today is a special day here and in Catholic centers around the world. It is the first Sunday in May, a month dedicated to Mary, and statues of all sizes are being crowned in similar ways–but most probably without the need of a crane. The crowd holds up cameras and phones to snap pictures of the men laying the crown on her head, squinting against the sun. They cheer and applaud when the flowers have been placed, silk streamers flowing down her back. A perfect fit.

Thousands gathered the crowning here at this replica of the Lourdes shrine in France, tucked amongst winding paths lined with azaleas bursting with purple blooms, and statues of the Blessed mother.

“For me it’s one of those holy moments that I want to witness,” says Celine Okoh of Gaithersburg. “One of the ways to adore Jesus and the Blessed Mary is to be here as they place the crown.”

Nem_150503_145540The month of May has been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary since Medieval times, honoring her as an example and devotion has been especially emphasized by recent popes who raise her up as an example of how to love and grow ever closer to God.

“To imitate Mary is to be open to God’s surprises,” says Sister Louis-Marie, with a smile and a wink. “Do you know you said that? Pope John Paul II.”

The Mary Project Begins

Finally, The Mary Project begins. An idea that has been whispered in my ear for months, if not years. A multimedia project that explores what Mary, the Mother of God, means to ordinary people like you and me. We will be talking to folks, reading books, visiting grottos and gardens, taking pictures and videos, and bringing them all together in one place to find out the many ways Our Lady impacts the lives of those across America, and the world, today.

It begins in the month of May, Mary’s month, with the crowning of Our Lady’s statue at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There, for the first time, a 12-foot-long flower crown will be raised high into the air, on the top of this meditative mountain, and onto the head of a 25-foot-high golden statue of Mary.

Here is where our journey officially begins, as we not only tell your stories, but begin to discover our own.

Join us by signing up to receive updates on The Mary Project and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Barn

This morning before I set off on my journey, a dragonfly appeared hovering above my windshield. I was in a parking lot in a shopping mall, nowhere near a field or marsh. And it hung there as began to drive, flying just a few inches ahead of me, like it was leading somewhere. It stayed with me for a good ten seconds, and disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared.

* * * * *

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“There’s a barn up here with a beautiful painting of Our Guadalupe on it. I want to stop and take a picture of it,” I said. Cheryl and I were careening down a four-lane highway in rural Calvert County, better known for conservative Republican farmers than a Mexican barn-painting Catholic.

“We should travel across the country and write a book called ‘Mary in America,” Cheryl said, going on to explain the coffee table book we could work on together. She’d take the pictures of the people, places and things – and I’d write the stories.

I spotted the barn and hung a U-turn, rolling to a stop on the shoulder with cars whizzing by. Cheryl leaned out the window with her camera.

“Back up a little,” she said.

I backed up and the 4-foot-high panel under the eaves of the red barn came into better view between a powerline and pole. There was Our Lady of Guadalupe in all her glory. Green robe covered with stars, bursts of light behind her, angels at her feet. The plywood was weathering. The artwork was beautiful.

Next the red barn was a line a pick up trucks, and I couldn’t see the house for the trees.

“Back up a little more,” she said.

As I inched backwards on the highway, I saw a pickup truck approaching along the shoulder in my rear view mirror. The truck was twice the size of my little hatchback, jacked up on enormous wheels with rack of spotlights affixed to the top like Mickey Mouse.

“Oh my gosh, it’s the person who lives here!” I say.

He pulls into the driveway and rolls down his window. Halfway.

“We’re admiring your Mary. Is it okay if we take a picture,” Cheryl says, as she hops out of the car and approaches the truck.

By the time I get there, she’s run closer to the barn, and I’m looking up at the man behind the wheel. The cab is lined in blue flame upholstery. He’s about 250 pounds with a day’s growth of a beard and short, curly blond hair. He’s not Mexican. He’s 100 percent Calvert County. White, male, and country.

“I’ve passed this Mary before on your barn and I had to stop this time,” I said. “She’s beautiful.”

“Well, thank you,” he said, with a slight smile. His teeth were small compared to the rest of his body. “I asked a lady at my church to paint it for me. I saw what a wonderful job she had done before, so I asked her to paint Mary for my barn.”

He was warming up.

“I’d like to build a little structure to keep off the rain.,” he said proudly, “I used to have a light for it, but the kids kept running over it with the lawnmower.”

I laugh, and we introduce ourselves.

“I’m glad you like her,” he says.