St. Lucy's Church

This latest Newarkology feature is about Newark's most storied parishes - St. Lucy's in the Old First Ward. Once the center of North Newark Italian life in the early 20th century, today St. Lucy's is still a gathering place for the Newark Italian diaspora.

St. Lucy's Church - at 118 7th Avenue - is both highly historic and one of the most ornate churches in Newark. Come inside for this tour of the mezzogiorno, the old First Ward, and a little bit of baroque stuck in the midst of the gritty streets of North Newark.

Please note, the history in this feature does not relate well to the images shown. Please hold your mouse over a photo to get a description of what you are looking at.

Please visit St. Lucy's Official Site.
The History of St. Lucy's

Italians first began to gather in Newark in the 1880s. Like the Irish before them, Italians came to Newark to work. In 1889 the Newark Sunday Call wrote: "Irish laborers no Longer Available; Italians have taken their place because the Irishmen have found something better to do."

Newark's Italians were to be found in factories, but they dominated the construction trades in Newark and elsewhere. From digging sewars to carving marble, Italians excelled at the art of building. In 1889 Bernard Shanley, who owned a company that maintained railroad tracks said:

formerly our force of laborers consisted entirely of Irish and Germans, it now contains about fifty per cent of those nationalities and the other fifty per cent is made up of Italians. [Italians are] slow but intelligent, better than the Hungarians, Poles and Swedes. (Cunningham, 2nd Ed, pp. 201-202)

The immediate supervisors of Italians at the workplace were dubbed, padrones. Padrones were sub-contractors who made the laborers actually work. Unlike a normal employee-employer relationship, a laborer would have to pay the padrone for the privilege of work. A laborer would be assessed a fee of $3 for the first month of work and then a $1 a month fee thereafter.

The padrone system was exploitative and Italian immigrants were more likely than members of any other ethnic group to return to Italy after a season or two in the United States.

Slowly but surely enough Italians stayed in the US to form a discernable nucleus of Italians in Newark. The old First Ward around 7th Avenue would become the most famous Newark Italian neighborhood, but Italians also lived at Silver Lake near Belleville, along South Orange Avenue, and in the Ironbound by the railroad tracks. The first Italian parish was Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Ironbound. St. Lucy's was the second, founded in 1891. The cornerstone for the original, wood-framed church was laid on December 13th, the feast day of St. Lucy of Syracuse.

Italians immigrants in the US stood out in several ways from other European immigrant groups. One distinction, already mentioned was that Italians were highly likely to return to Italy. Another distinction was that "Italians" tended not to see other people who happened to originate from the Kingdom of Italy as their countrymen. Italian immigrants were highly parochial and tended only to see people from the same village as paysans. This campanilismo contributed to Italians having fewer and poorer mutual assistance societies than other ethnic groups.

The Italians who arrived in Northeastern cities in the late 19th century found a Church dominated by Irish-Americans. The Irish nominally had the same religion as the Italians, but their style of Catholicism might as well have been a different faith. Italians revered the Virgin Mary, Irish revered the Trinity. The Italians had their saints, the Irish theirs. The Irish fully respected priests, many Italians held priests in low esteem because of their celibacy.

Many in the first generation of Italian immigrants were alienated from the Catholic Church. Compared to Irish children, very few Italian children attended parochial schools around the turn of the Twentieth century and church attendance among Italians was relatively low. The Southern Italian attitude towards religion was: "Fatalism is our religion; the church just supplies the pageantry of life." (Gans, 201)

The reasons for this alienation are several. Many Italians were simply secular workers who believed in the heavens of socialism and anarchism; others were nationalists who turned against Catholicism because of the Popes' opposition to the unification of Italy. Other First Generation Italians may have remembered how priests in Italy usually sided with the exploitative landowners.

Gradually the Italians rose in number and began to have their own parishes and their own leaders. Traditions of southern Italians, like carrying the Madonna or a saint through the streets and giving her fruits, which were considered pagan remnants in Italy, were imported to America where they simply became Italian. Always there was an Americanization. Instead of ornamenting the Madonna or a saint with fresh fruits, American Italians ornamented her or him with dollar bills.

Most of the Italian immigrants who came to Nevarca were from southern Italy. One province that sent many to Newark was Avellino. St. Lucy's parish has a special relationship with Avellino's favorite son, St. Gerard Majella. Over the years, the October procession for St. Gerard became so popular and so widely-known for producing miracle babies for hitherto childless women that in 1977 the National Conference of U.S. Bishops made St. Lucy's the national shrine of St. Gerard.

The brick and stone church structure that we today admire was built 1925-1926. Like the original wood-frame church, the new church was dedicated on St. Lucy's Day. The architect was Neil Convery. The impressive murals were done by Gonippo Raggi, who also worked on the Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
St. Lucy's was named after St. Lucy of Syracuse, the patron saint of blindness. Legends vary, but Lucy's mother wanted her to marry a pagan, but Lucy wanted to either remain chaste or save herself for a Christian. In one version of the story, the Emperor Diocletian had Lucy's eyes put out.

Lucy is the patron saint of the blind. Her prayer is:

Saint Lucy, you did not hide your light under a basket, but let it shine for the whole world, for all the centuries to see. We may not suffer torture in our lives the way you did, but we are still called to let the light of our Christianity illumine our daily lives. Please help us to have the courage to bring our Christianity into our work, our recreation, our relationships, our conversation -- every corner of our day. Amen
St. Lucy's grew in the 1930s. Many first generation Italians had been alienated from the church, but their children and grandchildren became dutiful Catholics. The First Ward in general was absolutely bustling with stores, restaurants, Italian clubs, and street life. Newark was the fifth largest Italian city in the United States. Scenes like Reverend Alfonso Fusco assisting the children of parish became more common.

Most First Warders lived with their extended families in turn of the century homes whose interiors had been upgraded over time. Of the area's 30,000 inhabitants, 11,000 were children. That density, which gave the neighborhood its vitality, was also its undoing.

Tragically, post-War city planners did not understand what a neighborhood was. Newark's city leadership saw the density of the First Ward and labelled the area a slum. There were indeed worse neighborhoods in Newark at the time, but the federal government would not grant money for neighborhoods like the black Third Ward, which were considered hopeless.

Sadly, the destruction of the old First Ward was supported by leaders in the Italian community. The mayor of Newark was Ralph Villani, an Italian. Father Ruggiero of St. Lucy's even favored the urban renewal. He admitted that he was dazzled by the newness of the towers, the look of the playgrounds, and the promise of green space.

Elite opinion sided with the urban renewal planners. The New York Times considered the area a slum, writing in their June 14, 1952 issue: "Big Newark Slum to be Housing Site." The Times noted that 477 structures would be demolished, but approvingly stated that at least the historic buildings in the area, like the House of Prayer, the Plume House, and St. Lucy's, would be saved. The Times called the Plume house a "veritable treasure of historic association," but did not note what a treasure the First Ward itself was. At the time it was the fifth largest Italian community in the US, but the inhabited tenements were worth razing as long as the Plume House was saved!

Failed by intellectual elites, failed by their own leadership, some Italians in the First Ward did challenge the Newark Housing Authority's right to declare their neighborhood blighted. From October 1952 to March 1953 a few First Ward citizens fought a lawsuit to save their neighborhood. The lawsuit delayed the NHA's acquisition of land in the urban renewal zone, but when a judge decided that the NHA could declare the area blighted the lawsuit and the neighborhood died. NHA director Louis Danzig noted at the conclusion of the lawsuit that the NHA's next task to confront was the relocation of the 1,500 families that would have to move.

Thus, the wreckers went to work demolishing a 47 acre neighborhood. Fifteen small-scale intimate blocks were turned into three gigantic superblocks. The heart of the neighborhood was ripped out, never to receover.
St. Lucy's was saved though, to serve a dwindling Italian population and a growing Puerto Rican one.

Italians and other Catholics did not neglect St. Lucy's though. If anything, St. Lucy's has become more important as the National Shrine of St. Gerard than it was as the First Ward's parish church. Every October, from all over the United States and Canada, Catholics descend on St. Lucy's for the Feast of St. Gerard.

Gerard is the patron saint of childbearing. Stories abound of women coming one year without child, being pregnant the next year, and pushing a stroller the year after.

The donations that are pinned to the statue of Gerard go the church. It is the hundreds of thousands of dollar bills collected that enabled St. Lucy's to build the fine plaza in front of the church.

MARY ANN CASTRONOVO FUSCO (1999, October 10). How a Church Brings Life to Newark's Little Italy :CITY LIFE. New York Times (1857-Current file),p. NJ6. Retrieved November 28, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 117197203).

Gans, Herbert. "The Urban Villagers: Group and class in the lives of Italian-Americans." MacMillian 1962.

Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. (1953, March 7). HOUSING POWERS UPHELD :Court Rules on Newark Right to Select 'Blighted' Sites . New York Times (1857-Current File),32. Retrieved December 4, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 84394829).

By CHARLES ZERNERSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES. (1952, June 14). BIG NEWARK SLUM TO BE HOUSING SITE :$40,000,000 Project for 3,000 Families in Downtown Area to Spare Noted Buildings CITY BOARD ACTS JUNE 25 477 Structures on a 47-Acre Tract Will Be Razed for the Public-Private Program. New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 17. Retrieved December 4, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 84324512).

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Text and HTML by Jeffrey Bennett.  Photos by Jeffrey Bennett, Jules Spohn, and Eric Koppel.
November/December 2007.