René Manenti (Director Centro Studi Emigrazione Roma)

Religione ed emigrazione: Scalabrini, in aiuto degli emigrati italiani in tutto il mondo, e non solo

Jul 29, 2014 4272 ITA ENG

Emigration and religion are two words that are often, and properly, juxtaposed one to another, and the history of Italian emigration to the United States is no exception to this rule. Religion was for our emigrants a fundamental part in the beginning of their life in the new world, and remained so even in the continuation of their lives and for those who arrived later.

In 2013 turned 50 years old CSER Centro Studi Emigrazione Roma, which is a real point of reference for the studies of the dynamics of migration, once related to those who went away from our country, now much more about those who come here in Italy. Since a couple of years the director of CSER is Father René Manenti, who knows very well the Italian immigration to the U.S., because he spent nine years in New York. We thank him for this interview, and for his friendship.

Father René, please tell us something about the history and the activities of CSER

The center was born thanks to the intuition of some of our Scalabrini brethren.

Since our birth we have helped immigrants, not only from a religious point of view, but also from a practical and social one. Some of our brethren understood that alongside the action was also required reflection on migration, and gave birth to CSER. Later other centers opened in New York City, in the Philippines, in Basel, Paris, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

In the course of these 50 years, with the Rome center have collaborated eminent scholars of the highest quality: one for all, Gianfausto Rosoli, perhaps the greatest scholar of immigration in our country. This, plus the fact that we have been among the first research centers on migration, both in Italy and worldwide, gave our institution reliability, visibility and credibility.

Our centers study the migration to the places where they are located, with a focus on Italian emigration but actually working on and with every possible ethnic group. We were born here in Rome at a time when there was little emigration to Italy, and we devoted our work almost exclusively to the Italians who emigrated abroad; but today there is much more emigration to Italy, and this has become a fundamental aspect of our job.

The many research studies published in these 50 years are, along with much other material, part of our library, which includes about 50,000 publications: the vast majority of them are in Italian, there is a small part in French or Portuguese or Spanish, and then a few years ago we absorbed the 15,000 volumes of the library of the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) of Staten Island, who moved to Manhattan and is now headed by a lawyer, Donald M. Kerwin Jr.

Another important activity of ours is our quarterly magazine, "Studi Emigrazione", which will reach the 200th number at the end of 2015. As the center, at first the magazine was about the Italian emigration abroad, and it slowly moved towards themes related to foreign emigration to Italy.

Then we have the Roma intercultura website that collects and promotes news and events related to intermingling of cultures, throughout Italy and particularly in Rome.

The fourth activity of our center is about events, panel discussions, projects, actions we carry on, organized both here or anywhere else. More or less, all of our centers around the world have this structure: as I said in New York they no longer have the library (but they keep a very interesting historical archive), but on the other hand their magazine IMR - International Migration Review is one of the most important in the world, on the subject of emigration.

Before directing CSER you have spent 9 years in New York. What's left in you from this experience?

I left a piece of my heart in New York. Those 9 years have been a very nice experience, during which I studied sociology, either for a master's degree and then for a Ph.D., at Fordham University in the Bronx, while working with the Italians especially in Whitestone and Astoria, in Queens.

I will be back for a month now, in August, and for me it is a kind of coming home, like when I go to Brescia, where I was born and raised; and not only for the city, which I like a lot, but especially for the people I knew, with which I have established a very strong relationship, certainly facilitated by my role as a priest. I realized that staying there taught me to see things with the American perspective, so different from the Italian one. I feel that now I am better at understanding both the American (or better, the New York, only partly coincident with the American) reality, but also the Italian one: because you need to understand the approach, but at the same time also trying to observe what happens with a very different look.

I will go to Saint Luke's church in Whitestone, Queens, where I've already been during my 9 years in New York: I know that the community, thanks to the parish priest Monsignor John Tosi, who is very good, has collected over the course of a couple of years more than $ 2 million to renovate the church, the rectory and another adjoining structure. The church was restored, and was inaugurated by Bishop Nicholas Di Marzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn/Queens, who clearly has Italian origins (from Campania) and is also a leading expert on emigration. This is to say that the Catholic community in that area, where many Italian Americans live, is very attached to the church. The area is well-off, and shows how Italians have been successful, moving there after the first Italians had long lived in low-income neighborhoods.

Religion has historically played a vital role for the Italian emigrants in America: it was the first unifying factor for them, connecting with the country they had left, in celebration of their history and culture ...

Yes. In Whitestone, for example, a large percentage of Italian Americans comes from Campania or Sicily, and there are also several clubs to which they refer. Every Sunday at 9 there is a mass in Italian in St. Luke's church, and then there are various other activities such as festivals, processions, and the group of Padre Pio, along with another parish where an Italian mass is celebrated, that of St. Mel's. This year in August we expect a large turnout for the feast, because we will have a copy of the original painting of Our Lady of Sorrows in Romitello near Borgetto, a small Sicilian village from which many Italian Americans from Whitestone and Astoria come from. It is important to understand what it might mean for these Italians to have the "visit" of the image of the Madonna of the country from which they or their family members left to go to America: it awakens feelings, emotions, faith, affections, traditions and memories. It is a great, strong opportunity for participation and affirmation of their own culture and their own identity: it repeats itself every year, anyway, but this year with the visit of the Madonna it will be even more important.

At the beginning of their mass emigration period, Italians concentrated all in the same areas. So the parishes of those areas came to be heavily populated by Italians, sometimes almost exclusively. Italians brought with them a way to live their religion a bit different from that of the Irish, also Catholics, who arrived before the Italians. Sometimes there was friction: for example, I think that the fact that clubs and associations had such strong religious connotations was also due to the fact that sometimes the priests did not have an attitude of complete opening towards the Italians. For example, almost all associations came to accommodate a religious statue, maybe because the parish, for various reasons could not or would not host them; and then these statues were often brought in procession in contexts where the local religious institutions were not always present, and not because the Italians did not want to, so much so that sometimes they ended involving the priests of other neighboring parishes, more available to attend the religious procession.

When the Italians began to have success, and a small disposable income, they moved to other areas, easing the population pressure on the Little Italies and ending up scattered in various locations and different parishes, leaving just a few churches with a very high concentration of Italians.

It must be also said that the Italian emigration to the United States has involved a lot of Italians from medium and small towns – mostly from the south, sometimes even tiny villages, and less frequently from the big cities. Those environments were and are less secularized then the cities: religion was very important for those Italians, already in Italy. Besides, the migrant experience leads people to construct an identity reacting partly to memory (of what the migrant is leaving) and partly to contraposition (to what the migrant will find): this led Italians to hold tight to their own religious traditions, transplanting them in their new reality but remaining used to refer to their relationship with God, a true and strong constant in the transition between their old and their new world.

Among those who most helped the Catholic Italians emigrated in the Protestant America, the Scalabrini were among the most active ...

John Baptist Scalabrini was the Bishop of Piacenza, Emilia Romagna: a man with a deep pastoral mission but also a great attention to social issues. During his pastoral visits to the territory of his diocese, he realized that in many places the population had declined, because many had gone abroad. He then became interested in the phenomenon of migration, he deeply studied it, and in 1887 he founded the congregation for the service and the accompaniment of Italian emigrants abroad.

Scalabrini was a close friend of Bishop Bonomelli, Bishop of Cremona, who was also sensitive to this issue: they decided to "divide the tasks" and so Bonomelli dealt with the problems of the Italian emigrants to Europe, while Scalabrini devoted himself more to those who went farther. After World War II the order of Bonomelliani was suppressed, and the Scalabrini began to care about Italian emigrants in Europe too.

Over time, our service has been extended in a natural way to all migrants, not only to the Italians. Scalabrini was the first to propose to the Vatican to open an office specifically dedicated to the phenomenon of migration, since the very beginning in his view this was a universal phenomenon. Today we Scalabrini brothers are 700, not a large number, compared to larger congregations, but we are all around the world, and wherever we help immigrants of any background and religion, not only Catholics ... as I said before, the service that we give is not only pastoral but also social and logistic.

We were among the first to give assistance to Italian immigrants in America, and we are the only congregation with the specific aim of helping migrants, along with one which if I'm not mistaken is in Poland, but limited only to Polish emigration. We were among the first, but not the only ones: the Salesians also took care of a lot of emigrants, and of course so did the Cabrinian, the order founded by Frances Cabrini, the first American Saint, who was of Italian descent and who collaborated with John Baptist Scalabrini.

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