Remarkable Italian Folk Art on Staten Island…

Remarkable Italian Folk Art on Staten Island…

A remarkable example of Italian religious folk art and culture has been lovingly developed in Rosebank. Located on a quaint, dead-end lane “The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” is a peaceful grotto that all should visit. Catholic or not, the setting evokes a sense of amazement and emotion when one sees the devotional setting that now exists at this location.

Main section of “The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine,” 2017.

“The Shrine of our Lady of Mount Carmel” is located on Amity Street, just off of Saint Mary’s Avenue. In the past, the Catholic poor of southern Italy were not entirely comfortable with the Catholic Church. They were suspicious of the church’s hierarchy and sometimes avoided worshipping in organized settings. Instead, secluded sanctuaries were created for religious devotions. Oftentimes, they were established in caves or in constructed cave-like memorials. Hence, the word grotto is sometimes used to describe these manmade holy places, since grotto refers to a natural hollow.

Various materials, manufactured and from nature, were used by the men who built “The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.” These included shells, stones, pebbles, marbles, bicycle reflectors, and a number of unidentifiable glass and plastic objects. Some of the men who built the shrine were involved in masonry, others were simply amateur artists who used their religious piety as a how-to-guide for creating a hallow religious retreat.

Statue of Saint Barbara, 2017.

Vito Louis Russo began construction on the shrine in 1937. Some believe the undertaking resulted from the death of his five-year-old son. Mr. Russo was assisted by Thomas Tedesco who was an employee of the nearby DeJonge factory where he made wall paper and gift wrap.

Many of the stones and pebbles were first collected on South Beach and then hand-polished. The shrine grew and by the mid-1990’s there were more than seventy statues incorporated into the design. Additional arches were also added.

According to a 1995 Staten Island Advance article: “experts in urban culture term the 30-foot structure ‘the City’s largest indigenous Roman Catholic shrine and the finest example of that art form.”[i]

Various statuary in the main section, 2017.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of several titles given to the Virgin Mary. Others include “Our Lady of Fatima,” “Our Lady of Lourdes,” “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” “Madonna,” and the “Blessed Mother.” Additional names and designations also exist.

Today, worshippers leave funeral prayer cards, Rosary Beads, figurines, and lit candles that sparkle to the memory of their loved ones at the grotto. The main shrine now includes a number of side niches, smaller surrounding devotional areas, and a fountain that instills tranquility. Those familiar with the Catholic faith will recognize many of the sacred statues including Saint Jude, Saint Barbara, Saint Anthony, Saint Martin, and the Madonna in various honorific styles.

On November 2, 2000, a great distinction was bestowed on the site when it was added to the National and New York Registers of Historic Places.

The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society of Rosebank, on whose property the shrine is located, hold an annual commemoration that began in 1903. As part of the celebration a procession glides through Rosebank on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which always takes place on July 16. The festivities feature games, food, rides, dancing and music. It is a true celebration of Italian cultural heritage. Many families have been attending for decades.

Mini-grotto adjacent to the main shrine, 2017.

The stated mission of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society is to assist and aid the “members of the society in sickness and distress; to promote a spirit of good fellowship and fraternity; to promote social and religious intercourse among them, and to educate and instruct such members in matters pertaining to religion and politics.”

For further information about the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine and Society please visit: https://www.ourladyofmountcarmelshrineofrosebank.com/the-history-of-the-our-lady-of-mount-carmel/

Special thanks to Gina Sacco, Barbara Scalici, Tina Kaasmann, Edwin Calderon, “Irish Ryan,” and Robert Bennett.

Mark your calendars… What better time to visit the Shrine then during the festival?

Works Cited:

Chase, Sheila. “A Spiritual People.” Staten Island Advance. October 22, 1984.

Monahan, Geoffrey. “The Old Neighborhoods Remembered.” Staten Island Advance. October 15, 1984.

Sollett, Peter. “Mount Carmel Festival Opens in Rosebank.” Staten Island Advance. July 8, 1995.

“WEEKLY LIST OF ACTIONS TAKEN ON PROPERTIES: 10/30/00 THROUGH 11/03/00” NEW YORK, RICHMOND COUNTY, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto, 36 Amity St., Staten Island.” Accessed at http://www.nps.gov/nr/listings/20001109.htm on April 16, 2010.

Notes:

[i] Sollett, Peter, “Mount Carmel Festival Opens in Rosebank,” Staten Island Advance, July 8, 1995.

[ii] Ibid.

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