Pennsylvania’s Italians Celebrate A Long, Strong History

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CARPENTERS' Guy Pigiacelli and Councilman Mark Squilla extend invitation to all Philadelphians to join them at Columbus Day Parade & Festival this Sunday. Both were honored as "Men of Year" by 1492 Society, which sponsors parade and festival, kicking off at Broad & Moore and ending at Marconi Plaza. Congratulating them is Councilman Jim Kenney.

CARPENTERS’ Guy Pigiacelli and Councilman Mark Squilla extend invitation to all Philadelphians to join them at Columbus Day Parade & Festival this Sunday. Both were honored as “Men of Year” by 1492 Society, which sponsors parade and festival, kicking off at Broad & Moore and ending at Marconi Plaza. Congratulating them is Councilman Jim Kenney.

Between 1880 and the First World War, many of the inhabitants of such provinces as Abruzzi, Campania, and Calabria did come to Philadelphia to work. Italian immigration to Pennsylvania largely reflected the patterns of Italian immigration to the United States as a whole. Thousands came, primarily from Sicily and the southern parts of the peninsula.American laws establishing immigration quotas, enacted after the First World War, sharply curtailed this flow. In the 1930s, some Italians who were opposed to Premier Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime came to the United States, a number settling in Pennsylvania and again in Philadelphia, to be followed after World War II by a small number of Italians displaced by the war.
Pennsylvanians who are descendants of those who made the earlier migration have become one of the Commonwealth’s most influential ethnic groups.

Although many of the Italians who took up residence in Philadelphia were musicians and artists whose stay was temporary, some came to the city permanently to further their economic status or to enjoy greater political freedom. These immigrants came to Philadelphia with their families. An indication of their intention to stay in the city is the support they gave to Pennsylvania’s first Italian national congregation, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, established in 1853 and located on Montrose Street.

Between 1870 and 1914, jobs were plentiful in growing American cities, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Some Italian workers who migrated to Pennsylvania worked at a number of different jobs — a luxury practically unheard of in Italy—before settling into one.

The dramatic growth of Italian migration is demonstrated by the fact that while the United States Census shows that in 1870 there were only 784 Italian-born residing in Pennsylvania, ten years later there were 2,794, and in 1890, 24,662. After 1890, the number of native Italians living in Pennsylvania increased further: in 1900, the Census Bureau reported 66,655 Italian-born in the State. The greatest increase occurred between 1900 and 1910, to 196,122 native-born Italians living in Pennsylvania. The First World War imposed some decline in the rate; but even so, by 1920 an additional 26,642 Italian-born immigrants had settled in the State.

The Italian laborers who came to Pennsylvania in the 1870s usually arrived in New York City and traveled to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh by rail. Many were hired to lay track by the Pennsylvania and the Reading Railroads. Other Italian workers found employment in coal mines and the slate quarries. Although the rate of re-entry is not known, a significant percentage of these workers traveled back and forth between Pennsylvania and their native Italian villages numerous times. As a result, immigration figures are not exact. What is known is that some remained in Pennsylvania permanently, setting the stage for the second phase of new Italian immigration to Pennsylvania.

With steamship passenger service to Philadelphia beginning in 1908, a number of Italian families traveled directly to Pennsylvania.

Even in the late 19th century, the favored destination of most Pennsylvania-bound Italians had been Philadelphia, though the availability of jobs made Pittsburgh a close second. In Philadelphia, Italian laborers found work as makers of wearing apparel, women’s shoes and Stetson hats, and later as carpenters in the cabinet shop of Victor/RCA. Thousands of others worked on municipal public-works projects. These jobs enabled some Italian laborers to jump to more skilled trades, becoming masons, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians. Employment such as this provided the immigrant families with a degree of economic security that was unknown in their native village sections.

The Italian immigrants of Philadelphia formed hundreds of clubs, organizations and associations, both to help their countrymen adjust to life in the United States and to preserve their language and cultural heritage. In May 1904, a number of prominent Italian Philadelphians organized the Italian Federation of Societies to coordinate the Italian community’s mutual aid efforts. In 1930, the Federation had thirty-one member societies. Another social organization that was important was the Order of Brotherly Love, founded in 1925. The Order established camps in various sections of the city and aided impoverished children and widows.

Despite instances of discrimination and exploitation, the Italians did not surrender their values and culture. Instead, they developed religious, political, economic and social institutions to support them in adjusting to life in Pennsylvania and to preserve their heritage. Catholic Italians who came to Pennsylvania during the great wave of new American immigration struggled to establish their own parishes and schools. They wanted Italian, not Irish priests to preside at daily mass, feast-day celebrations, christenings, weddings and funerals. Many of the Italian parishes founded in the state’s largest cities flourish today. There are three Italian parishes in Pittsburgh and eleven in Philadelphia. While the majority of Italian immigrants to Pennsylvania were Catholics, Protestant Italians also settled in the Commonwealth. By the first decade of the twentieth century, there were Italian Presbyterian and Baptist churches in Philadelphia. Like Catholic parishes, Protestant churches such as the Italian Methodist Church, founded in 1889 on Catharine Street, formed groups such as the Italian Immigrants Assistance Society to aid newcomers in finding housing, employment and medical aid.

Italian religious institutions have played a key role in helping Italian families preserve their culture. Many of the colorful, Catholic feast-day celebrations that draw Italian and non-Italian visitors to Pennsylvania’s neighborhoods center around the church. In addition, other institutions and organizations have helped to keep language, values and customs alive. Philadelphia is the location of the Order of the Sons of Italy’s Grand Pennsylvania Lodge, which publishes the Sons of Italy Times. The Italian Folk Art Federation of America is also located in Philadelphia. The cultural heritage of Italians is also important in some of the Commonwealth’s smaller communities, as evidenced by the Italian Heritage Society of Loretto.
Like members of other ethnic groups in Pennsylvania, the descendants of Italian immigrants have moved into all levels and activities of society, nationally as well as in the Commonwealth. They have become prominent in the arts, law, sciences, government, commerce, manufacturing and finance. Apart from the many who are prominent today, a number stand out for leading the way from newly arrived immigrant to distinguished citizen. Five who were noteworthy are Charles C.A. Baldi, Walter E. Alessandroni, Frank Vittor, Michael Angelo Musmanno and Mario Lanza.
Charles C.A. Baldi (1862–1930) was born in the province of Salerno and came to Philadelphia in 1876. After working in the mining industry in Pottsville, he and his brothers started a coal business. Later Baldi took up real estate and banking, and was a mortician. He was active in the publication of L’Opinione, a widely read Italian-language newspaper, and gave his support to numerous Italian-American clubs and associations. His political influence in Philadelphia was considerable. Until the time of his death, Baldi was involved in efforts to improve public education.

Walter E. Alessandroni (1912–1966) was born in Philadelphia, the son of Italian immigrants. He was a graduate of Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Law. Alessandroni enjoyed a distinguished career as an attorney, prompting Governor William W. Scranton to appoint him attorney general of Pennsylvania. At the time of his premature death, he was considered a prospective candidate for Lieutenant Governor.

Frank Vittor (1888–1968) was born in Mozzato, Italy, a member of a family of artists. In 1917, Vittor visited Pittsburgh, where he was encouraged to remain by Dr. John A. Brashear, the prominent astronomer, who admired his bronze sculptures. Vittor stayed in Pittsburgh, and taught art and sculpture at the Carnegie Institute, Carnegie Institute of Technology, and numerous social organizations. He was the founder of the Pittsburgh Society of Sculptors. Vittor is often referred to as the “sculptor of presidents”: he completed busts of Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Vittor’s best-known Pittsburgh sculpture is his statue of Christopher Columbus, located in Schenley Park. Vittor died in Pittsburgh in 1968.

Michael Angelo Musmanno (1897–1968) was born in Stowe Township, outside of Pittsburgh. This second-generation Italian was among the attorneys who served as defense counsel in the famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s. His 1939 book, After Twelve Years, discussed this highly publicized case. Following active duty in World War II, he was appointed by President Truman in 1947 to serve as a judge at the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. Musmanno was a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from 1952 to 1968. His noted book, The Glory and the Dream: Abraham Lincoln, Before and After Gettysburg, was published in 1967, one year before his death.

The famous tenor Mario Lanza (1921–1959) was christened Alfredo Arnold Corozza in South Philadelphia in 1921. His stage surname was his mother’s maiden name. Lanza’s October 1959 death was mourned by the thousands whose lives he had touched through music.

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