Alexis N. Carra-Tracey (Founder of the Italian Mass Project of New York)

Un magnifico esempio di cosa significa essere italoamericani: l'Italian Mass Project of New York

Jul 22, 2023 4232 ITA ENG

One of the great things about doing We the Italians is the opportunity to meet wonderful people, especially in the Italian American community. The vitality, the commitment, the passion that many people I have been fortunate enough to know and call friends is contagious, an inspiration. It is one of the reasons why Italy needs more America: these people have in them both the brilliance of Italians and the enthusiasm of Americans. Hanging out with them is wonderful.

One of these friends is the protagonist of this interview. I had the pleasure of meeting Alexis N. Carra-Tracey in person earlier this year in Florida: her kindness, her smile, her love for Italy were amazing. Alexis is the founder of the Italian Mass Project of New York

Dear Alexis, thank you and welcome to We the Italians. Please tell me about yourself, your Italian origins, and your connection to the Catholic religion.

This interview is an honor, Umberto. Thank you for always engaging with the Italian American community.

I am a New Yorker by birth, but my Italian origins lie in the Campania region. My father’s family is mainly from the province of Avellino (Solofra) and my mother’s family is from the province of Benevento (Morcone). Over the years, I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time with my maternal great-grandmother and grandparents, who are all immigrants. This instilled in me a sense of Italian American pride from the beginning. As I got older, I then began to explore larger philosophical questions on heritage and my personal sense of self. I found that embracing my roots provided a sense of internal and existential clarity. I also found that the identity, community, and rootedness among Italian Americans served as an antidote to an assimilated America of atomized and disconnected individuals.

Similar to my Italian American origins, my Catholic faith is at the core of my being. I was born into a practicing Catholic family, but nearly all of my childhood friends were secular or non-religious. During my high school years, I found myself at a crossroads regarding my religion. Either the Catholic faith is true and I should embrace it, or the Catholic faith is false and I can ignore it. After further study and reflection, I reached the conclusion that Catholicism is in fact true, so I had to live my life accordingly. 

In many ways, the Italian Mass Project of New York, which I recently founded, is both a reflection and synthesis of Italian American identity and Catholic identity.

The Catholic religion is very important to Italian Americans. Not all of the 20 million are Catholics, but there is no doubt that many of them have faith in Catholicism. How do you explain this phenomenon?

Most (but of course not all) Italian American are baptized Catholics, regardless of whether they practice the faith. Even those who do not attend Mass have a difficult time disassociating or renouncing Catholicism. In my experience, those who do leave usually leave because they feel harmed by the Church in some way, view the faith as irrelevant to modern life, misunderstand Church teaching, or have been improperly catechized. Yet for the vast majority, there is a symbiotic relationship between being Italian or Italian American and being Catholic. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but I think it stems from the fact that even though Christianity started in the Holy Land, Italy is the place where Catholicism has been forged the most over the centuries.   

In the Bible, Christ says to St. Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:18), which ultimately refers to St. Peter becoming the first pope, the “rock” of the Church. Yet St. Peter does not stay in the Holy Land, but ends up in Rome, where he builds up this new church and is then martyred. Thus, Rome, and more specifically the Vatican, will always play a central role in Catholicism. Even into the modern era, there are more saints, popes, etc. who are Italian than any other group.

In any case, I think Italian Americans have a certain appreciation for Catholicism, regardless of faith background. We appreciate the art, the music, the beauty, and the intellectual tradition of Catholicism that is so interwoven with Italian culture. I also think that Italian Americans tend to take seriously the devotion to the saint of their village. This is the reason why Italian American have preserved, to varying degrees, religious feasts and processions for over a hundred years. For many Italian Americans, active participation in a religious procession is a deep experience. It connects us to a particular Catholic saint, to each other, and to our ancestral villages in Italy. Perhaps these Italian-Catholic traditions take on more of a significance here in America than they do in Italy.

How did you have this idea for the Italian Mass Project of New York?

For the past ten years, I have been quite active in the Church, but I had not taken any real initiative in the Italian American community. Yet I had always been fascinated with “ethnic Catholicism” and specifically Italian-Catholicism in America. I felt most comfortable practicing my faith in Italian parishes, like the parish of my baptism, where emphasis was placed on Italian devotions and community traditions. I also felt that I was probably not alone in my preference and that many other Italian Americans felt more at home in an ethnic parish, as opposed to a generic and Americanized parish.

Then, during the pandemic, when many of us had the chance to reevaluate our priorities, I decided to examine this Italian-Catholicism in greater depth. First, I noticed that some of my fellow younger Italians-Americans were somehow craving a better relationship with God and with one another. Second, I saw that many third and fourth generation Italian Americans were losing their religious and cultural identity, but were not exactly sure what to do about it. Third, I found that there was a correlation between the most robust Italian parishes and those that offered Mass in the Italian language.

In late 2021, I finally decided to take initiative and develop a kind of Italian American Catholic ministry, a bit different from being part of a society dedicated to a saint or specific region of Italy. I created the Italian Mass Project of New York (IMPNY) with the broader mission of helping to facilitate a religious and cultural renewal among Italian Americans.

Can you further describe your project? Among the things you do is a directory of Italian Masses in the New York area, right?

The Italian Mass Project is a 100% volunteer effort between myself, my husband, and various other friends and supporters. We all have other jobs professionally; I am an attorney, my husband is a consultant and in the military, but this has become a labor of love for us. IMPNY is not affiliated with a particular parish, but collaborates with different parishes and organizations in the New York area.

The project has three main functions. First, we host our own events where participants come together for Mass – the heart of the Catholic faith – in the Italian language, followed by food, discussion, and a cultural activity. Second, we share our official directory of about thirty Catholic churches in New York state that offer weekly or monthly Mass in the Italian language or are bilingual English/Italian. Third, we advertise events (religious feasts, processions, special Masses, pilgrimages, etc.) from Italian parishes and Italian-Catholic societies through our email list and social media platforms. This ministry is obviously about bringing people closer to God, but also about Italian-Catholic formation and community in a systematic and intentional way.

In terms of activities, we focus on hosting events where Italian Americans have the opportunity to form greater bonds. I am especially looking forward to our upcoming IMPNY “Tomato Sauce Day.” This is our adaption of “il rito della salsa di pomodoro” or the tradition where paesani come together to crush and preserve hundreds of bottles of homemade tomato sauce each summer. As a group, we will begin making tomato sauce from scratch early in the morning, followed by Sunday pranzo, and concluding with a private bilingual English/Italian Mass. Last summer, many of our participants either had grown up making tomato sauce, but no longer had any friends or family to assist in the process, or had heard about the tradition, but never had the opportunity to partake in it. Regardless, all participants found it to be a productive community-building activity that was both tangible and spiritual. This year, there will be at least forty of us, so if you take a trip to New York at the end of August, you are more than welcome to join!

How can We the Italians readers learn more? Is there a way to contact you? 

It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Umberto. I am very grateful for the opportunity to share my personal story and discuss my project. I am always looking to connect with others in the larger Italian and Italian American community who are passionate. I encourage those interested to follow the Italian Mass Project of New York on social media to like us on Facebook here and follow us on Instagram here. I also recommend joining our email list for information and local updates. Just send a message to [email protected] and I will respond personally. Comments, suggestions, and opportunities for collaboration with fellow fratelli e sorelle d’Italia are always appreciated!

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