An Italian Enclave, A Little Italy, A Vanished Ward, A Church That Was Its Heart And Soul And A Gentle Saint Who Touched Their Lives; A Beautiful Love Story

We would like to thank Father Thomas Nicastro for writing this beautiful blog post regarding Newark’s First Ward, and the national shrine of Saint Gerard Maiella at Saint Lucy’s Church in Newark, New Jersey. The feast will be held this weekend. The procession of the statue of Saint Gerard will be at 1:00PM. Please enjoy this beautiful guest blog post:

Each October countless scattered Italian Americans from all over the United States pilgrimage in what is a joyful return to the “old neighborhood” for the annual feast of Saint Gerard at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, New Jersey. They come because they wish to express their outward devotion to a gentle saint who has touched their lives and their ancestors’ lives in numerous ways.

Even though the old neighborhood is not thriving as it once did, the Feast of Saint Gerard and St Lucy’s Church provided devotees with a real sense of belonging and a sacred place to reenact traditions, sights and sounds of yesteryear. For over one hundred years, the celebration of this venerable feast has been the spiritual catalyst to bring back to life the “Old First Ward,” the “Italian Brigadoon.”

As many know, the migration of Southern Italians to the United States in its early stage saw a large number of immigrants settling in New York City. However, as early as 1873, Newark, New Jersey, experienced immigrants settling approximately some eight miles to the west of Manhattan outside of New York. Newark became one of the first American cities to settle a very large amount of Italian immigrants. At the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century, Newark became the fifth largest little Italy in the United States. As these immigrants arrived from southern Italy from the Campagnia region, their concentration in an area approximately 250 acres certainly added to it..”a boisterous, colorful atmosphere…” In the center stage of this Italian enclave, one would easily agree that St. Lucy’s church on old Sheffield street was definitely the “First Ward’s spiritual axis.” Today, it still remains the most enduring institution of faith and Catholic life in a vanished ward which once was a thriving Little Italy.

The significant role that St. Lucy’s has played in the early history of the First Ward reflects the centrality of the Catholic church in Southern Italy where village-based solidarity (Campanile) of the Church…(Michael Immerso, Newark’s Little Italy, the vanished First Ward, Rutgers Press, 1997, pg 65). These Southern Italians from various paese (villages, towns in Italy) expressed their faith and devotion in a very demonstrative manner by carrying on their shoulders the patron saint of their town throughout the surrounding locale. When they arrived in America in Newark, they brought this devotion to their patron Saint to St. Lucy’s Church where they housed the statue of their heavenly patron. Gradually, the church transformed these immigrants from various paese into Italian Americans.

The celebration of these Patron Saints helped the newly arrived immigrants feel like they were back home in Italy even while beginning a whole new way of life in the New World, the new country. “…The church became a source of community and strength” (Back cover, Reverend Thomas D. Nicastro, The Feast of St. Gerard Maiella, C.S.s.R., The History Press 2012). Many feasts were celebrated at St. Lucy’s beginning in the month of June with the feast of Saint Anthony right through September with the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel and the Flight of the Angels ending in October with the feast of Saint Gerard ending in a blaze of Glory.

On October 16, 1899, St. Lucy’s greatest tradition was born, the Feast of St. Gerard. Interestingly, the Feast began in 1899, five years before Br. Gerard was canonized a Saint, on December 11, 1904 St. Lucy’s Church and the feast of Saint Gerard would be forever linked. One cannot say enough about the role of Saint Gerard and his impact on the Italians of Newark and St. Lucy’s Church in the Old First Ward. Many would agree that it is a beautiful love story between heaven and earth, between an Italian Saint and the devoted faithful of Newark’s “Old First Ward.”

Anyone who has ever visited St. Lucy’s or attended the Feast of St. Gerard knows why I decided to write down for posterity, the customs, the traditions, heritage and related activities that take place at the National Shrine of Saint Gerard at St. Lucy’s church. Anyone whoever grew up or descended from Italian immigrants from Newark’s “Old First Ward” will understand that this venerable feast was our grandparents’ treasure, in particular, our grandmother’s treasure, which was passed down to us. It has become our heritage and their legacy.

My book, on the first one hundred years of the feast of St. Gerard Maiella, traces the immigrant story back to Italy. It will take you to the Campania Region in the Province of Avellino to the town of Caposele and Materdomini where the sacred remains of Br. Gerard Maiella, a Redemptorist, are housed in the world famous shrine.

The story brings you back across the ocean to a small hamlet where St. Gerard was born in Muro Lucano and then later worked at the Redemptorist house at Materdomini where he died on October 16th, 1755. Devotion quickly spread through this region and beyond Italy. The immigrants from the town of Caposele brought with them the customs and traditions practiced in Italy along with a statue they sent for of the Saint. The book chronicles the early years of the feast, the history of St. Lucy’s Italian enclave, the priests, the Feast and the procession. This humble brother was quickly becoming the heavenly patron of mothers, their unborn babies and their children.

Fast forward, the book shows how St. Lucy’s became the official National Shrine of St. Gerard in America. There is also a chapter on a holy woman, Mary Grace Belotti, who followed St. Gerard in a procession in the early years and may very well one day become a Saint herself because of her profound holiness and devotion to St. Gerard. It is written in such a way that I hope portrays “a verbal pilgrimage” with anecdotal accounts of my maternal grandmother which bring to life her immigrant story of faith and devotion to St. Gerard. Truly, it is a story of faith and devotion that journeys back in time and helps the reader relive the enchanting story of the “Old First Warders.”

The book illumines the faith and devotion of so many who look to our dear “Santino” as the gentle Saint who will bring hope to women praying to conceive and pregnant women who seek heavenly aid that influences so many lives and “transcends time and space.” Hopefully it will bring back many warm, happy memories of our ancestors and not only give encouragement and hope but a colorful exposition of our Catholic faith and Italian American culture in the U.S. Dare to step back in time for a moment, relive again, the Old First Ward, the Feast of St. Gerard and our grandmothers’ treasure. Go now walk outside the church doors, “imagine the old neighborhood still thriving and alive outside the Church doors, the boisterous sounds, the exuberant feasts, the rag-tag bands,the smell of bakeries, the peddlers, and the pushcarts…the voices of countless friends and the smile of a beloved grandparent…The Old First Ward, the way it once was.” (Michael Immerso, pg 158) This year, join those whose “devotion never wavered…and follow in the footsteps of grandparents and loved ones…” and walk with them as they follow the Saint through the “once teeming streets of Newark’s vanished Little Italy” (Michael Immerso). Be a part of our grandparents’ treasure which is our heritage and their legacy, the living tradition of the feast of Saint Gerard Maiella.

God Bless you,

Reverend Thomas D. Nicastro

Father Nicastro’s amazingly informative book can be found on sale at our online boutique: http://www.ItalianEnclave.com

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