The great Hartford poet Wallace Stevens once said, "There are no foreigners in Connecticut. Once you are here you are or you are on your way to become a Yankee." That may been true for Stevens, a Pennsylvania-born lawyer who became a vice president at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., but things may not be so simple for the immigrant from Lithuania or Laos.
Recently I had reason to visit the First Congregational Church of Waterbury. On my way into the church just off the Green, I saw that the basement had been rented or lent to a Spanish language evangelical Baptist church. I stopped into this church for a moment and saw that it ministered to the urban poor. It put me in mind of those churches that served Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, the subject of my current scholarly research.
When I tell people about my current work on Italian-American Protestants in the early part of the last century, they invariably look at me quizzically, thinking all Italian Americans are Catholic. They aren't. In Italy during the late 19th century, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries proselytized from end to end of the peninsula. Their converts and those few who themselves became Protestant clergy constantly went back and forth across the ocean, carrying a Protestant message with them.
Mission churches — then and now — are often as much social work settlement houses as centers of spirituality. Stepping inside the basement church in Waterbury, the arduous work that these threadbare institutions do came alive for me. I saw what drew me to the research. I admired their aims and effort.
Here in Hartford, one such mission lasted more than 40 years. Until it faded away right before the development of Constitution Plaza, Saint Paul's Italian Episcopal Mission aided immigrants in the negotiation of two cultures. The Rev. Paolo Vasquez, born in Sicily, led these efforts from the mid-1910s on. In addition to religious services (in English and Italian) and a vibrant Sunday school, the mission church supported a girls club, a Boy Scout troop, a communicants league, a sewing club, a choir, a music study group and a mens club.
In 1920, the summer Sunday school celebrated its completion at the Elizabeth Park playground and every child received the treat of an ice cream cone. Perhaps, the poet Wallace Stevens — that emperor of ice cream — passed them on one of his poem-composing strolls?
The church and its members, however, looked back to Italy as often as it gained in Americanization. The same year as the ice cream celebration for children, the adults organized an event honoring the unification of Italy and made a collection for Italian earthquake relief.
In 1925, the Rev. Vasquez wrote the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral to explain why the Italians could not attend a planned service in honor of George Washington: "It is an old custom for the Italians to have dances the week before Lent. On this account most of our Italian people have already pledged their attendance to one social or another." The Rev. Vasquez suggested that the Washington service be held at a later date.
Sanctuary improvements in the Grove Street building pleased the Rev. Vasquez because he knew that a storefront church would not long appeal to Italian immigrants: These congregants would not ever forget the architectural glory of their homeland. As one missionary wrote in 1907, "It is hard to win a people, who have taught the world art and architecture, to a religion that worships in small and uninviting halls on back streets."
As I walked out of the Waterbury basement church into the damp drizzle and chill of that cold March day I recalled that in the chapel at the college I attended, large, bold letters proclaim: "The Palace is Not for Man but for the Lord Our God." The immigrants' homelands may change from Italy to Myanmar (Burma) and from Poland to Columbia, but whether situated in a basement, a storefront or a cathedral, the valiant and hopeful work of helping immigrants negotiate the demands of two worlds remains.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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