Joseph Sciorra, Built with Faith. Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City

Knoxville (TN), The University of Tennessee Press, 2015, pp. 262, $ 65.

What is Italian American religious vernacular expression, and how did Italians develop a unique creative expression in New York City? Joseph Sciorra has attempted to answer these questions ethnographically for nearly four decades. Built with Faith is the fruit of that labor. In New York, Italian Americans have marked their place on the landscape through architecture, shrines, and other everyday arts. By examining these creative expressions, Sciorra addresses how and why New York’s Italian Americans have infused the urban landscape with Italian ethnicity, Italian religiosity, and an Italian aesthetic.

While Italian Americans have received scholarly attention, the same cannot be said of vernacular religion and its place in tying Italian American private life to the larger community. Folklorists have enthusiastically pursued the construction of ethnic landscapes over the second half of the Twentieth century; however, few scholars have given thoughtful consideration to Italian American sites of vernacular religious creativity, preferring to write them off as kitsch or deplore them as remnants of an immigrant working class. Built with Faith takes seriously the shrines and lights, the nativities and festivals of Italian Americans. Since the Nineteenth century, Italians and Italian Americans in New York have brought their religion to the streets and sidewalks, carving out sacred space in their homes and their neighborhoods. The domestic altars, presepi, yard art, grottoes, and processions, Sciorra argues, provide a visceral connection to the local community and an opportunity «to reconfirm their involvement in, commitment to, and identification with their immediate area» (p. xix).

This research study comes out of the field of folklore, but it will also be of interest to vernacular architecture studies, ethnic studies, religious studies, urban studies, Italian American studies, and New York studies. Sciorra fully embraces the scholarly concept of «lived religion.» Little will be found here of official Catholic doctrine. Rather, as Sciorra explains, «this books shifts its focus away from the problematic categories and instead applies an ethnographic, context-specific approach» that allows «a means for revealing the interpretive and creative agency of New York City’s contemporary Italian American Catholics» (p. xxvi). Sciorra’s ultimate goal is to «remain alert to the different ways contemporary religious art forms and sacred space are created, used, discussed, remembered, and imagined in a historically situated contemporary New York City» (p. xxxvi).

The book consists of five essays covering five pieces of Italian American folklore in New York City. Earlier versions of four of the five chapters have appeared elsewhere over the last two decades. Chapter One, «Private Devotions in Public Places: The Sacred Spaces of Yard Shrines and Sidewalk Altars,» examines the many vernacular shrines and altars that Italians have constructed in New York City. Often constructed as a promise to a saint for the fulfillment of a prayer request, these shrines are interpreted in their relationship to ethnicity, class, gender, and neighborhood. The presepio or miniature diorama is the focus of Chapter Two, «Imagined Places and Fragile Landscapes: Nostalgia and Utopia in Nativity Presepi.» This nativity scene conflates Bethlehem, the Italian villa, and modernity to create a theatrical, elaborately-constructed fantasyland, infused with messages about history, community, and religion. Chapter Three, «Festive Intensification and Place Consciousness in Christmas House Displays,» showcases the Christmas house display, which Sciorra interprets as an Italian American tradition. While Sciorra traces the creative forms analyzed in his other chapters back to an Italian origin, he attributes this specific Italian American practice to a combination of the American department store windows, European lighting traditions, and the presepio displays featured in the previous chapter. Chapter Four, «Multivocality and Sacred Space: The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island,» focuses on the Catholic grotto tradition. Sciorra studies one grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island maintained by Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Although a site of fervent Catholic religious devotion and expression, its vernacular, unofficial status puts it at odds with the institutional Catholic structures of the neighborhood. The final chapter, «‘We Go Where the Italians Live’: Processions as Glocal Mapping in Williamsburg, Brooklyn,» examines Italian religious processions in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While the previous four chapters are material culture studies, Sciorra conceptualizes this chapter as a moving «performance architecture» in which movement imbues urban space with meaning (pp. 155-56). As New York Italian neighborhoods are not and never were homogenous nor neatly bounded, the implicit claiming of territory that takes place during these neighborhood processions comments on ethnic boundaries and ethnic ownership of neighborhood space.

The entire book is expertly researched, ethnographically and textually, synchronically and diachronically, and is an exemplar of ethnographic folklore field research. This is a magnum opus worthy of three and half decades of study of a single ethnic folk group in a single location. The book includes eighty-one splendid photographs, nearly one for every other page. My only complaint is that some of these photographs beg to be in color; for example, the intricate presepi or the lushly decorated Christmas houses. Additionally, the book jacket promises an accessible style that will appeal to general reader and the scholar alike. This is an expert work of advanced, erudite folkloristic scholarship. The book will be appreciated by specialists but will prove too challenging for general readers or undergraduate students. Finally, the book forces the reader to note the pace of change in New York’s neighborhoods. Sciorra notes as much in his introduction when he mentions, «In the New York City context, change has occurred as economic and political forces have altered the city itself and affected its residents» (p. xx). Those inspired to turn this scholarly study into a local guidebook will be disappointed. Many of these sites are long gone, washed away under the tide of gentrification, urban renewal, and demographic change.

Built with Faith demonstrates how local ethnic vernacular expression connects people to place and place to community. Ethnic and local traditions transform to meet the needs of the community, connecting private life to the larger community. These traditions are not kitsch to be dismissed, but creative ways to maintain an Italian American identity in a vibrant, multicultural, rapidly changing city. Sciorra has offered a valuable contribution from decades of intense ethnographic study. Built with Faith is un lavoro ben fatto.


David J. Puglia (Bronx Community College of the CUNY)

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