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Origins

The following is taken directly from a publication of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church commemorating the church's 75th anniversary.   The church is located at 94 Pine Street in Montclair, New Jersey.


Italy, in the nineteenth century , was a nation in turmoil.  For a millennium and a half, the Italian peninsula had been the battleground of various European powers.  Finally, in 1870, the many small states of the peninsula were united as a nation for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. Such an achievement was not without cost.  Economic troubles plagued Italy during and after the achievement of national unity.  In particular, the southern part of the country, the former Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, suffered severe economic depression.
 
The people of these regions, mostly poor farmers, were forced to endure great privations.  The land, never very rich, could not support them any longer. With great reluctance, they realized that they could not remain in the land their ancestors had occupied for tens of centuries.

By ship, by horse, by donkey, on foot, word had reached even the most remote hill towns of Sicily, Calabria and the Campagna that there was employment and a future in a land beyond the Wide Sea, across the Great Ocean.  With little but the clothes on their backs, many ventured forth from Calitri and Cerami and hundreds of other villages. They were stuffed into foul-smelling ships and after a dangerous journey arrived at the "Golden Door" presided over by the newly -erected Statue of Liberty.

Not far from the port of New York was the growing Town of Montclair, one of the first suburbs" of Newark and New York. Incorporated in 1868 it is nestled On the hills of the "Oranges" with the Watchung Mountains behind it.

The desire for work had brought the Italian immigrants to America and there were jobs in Montclair.  Many men had left families behind, in tending to return to Italy when they had enough money. Others saved their funds until they could bring wives and children to their new home. The newly arrived Immigrants were often hired by padroni who organized work crews for the American construction companies. Most of the immigrants were unskilled. Some of the first Italians who came to Montclair were hired to dig water and sewer lines. It was some of the first Italian laborers who laid the first sewer pipe across the village square near the Presbyterian Church.

The workers were quartered in tents and barracks on an open lot on Midland Avenue.  Their numbers increased and many decided to settle in Montclair.  In August, 1887, these workers went on strike demanding at least $ 2.00 per day, but they were unsuccessful. To supplement their earnings, some shined shoes and took other part time employment as gardeners and handymen.
 
Other Italian immigrants were employed by the Erie Railroad and the Lackawanna Railroad, as well as by the Public Service Railroad. They excavated right-of-way and laid track for these companies.

Difficult as their lives were, the immigrants kept a good spirit about them as records of period attest: In the evening they built large bonfires and sang around them. Their voices could be heard blocks away and people would come hurrying out of their houses and walk slowly up and down the street to enjoy the music.
These men were roused early and with pick-axes over their shoulders were ready to start out to walk to the place of their day's work at about the time a crimson sun came over the horizon. Their leader was some unknown Caruso. In the hush of a newborn day rose his high tenor voice, then a refrain in which all joined to the accompaniment of tramp, tramp, tramp of marching feet. The scene was dramatic, the music of rare beauty.
(Gladys Segar. Montclair in the Elegant 80's, V.IV)

The sedate Town of Montclair became aware of the newcomers who added quite a bit of color to the local scene. A Montclair woman of the 1880's wrote: "Foreign population was negligible in the 80's.  I recalled with what astonishment I first saw Italian laborers digging on Bloomfield Avenue.  Some wore bright magenta handkerchiefs tied about the neck and a few of them had gold earrings in their ears. Their flashing dark eyes, unfamiliar language and natural excitability struck me with force. They were hard workers, too."

The wives who had joined their husbands would likewise begin their day's work before dawn.  Poor, they wasted nothing.  They gathered dandelions damp with the morning dew; they picked up pieces of coal from the tracks; they saved bits of soap to add to water to make suds.  Because their husbands worked most of the day and did not return until late, it fell to te women to be the centers of family life and pillars of strength within the home and in the religious life of the community.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Italian immigrants had settled in two areas, the Fourth Ward and a small section of Forest Street.  Their dwellings were all cold water flats, and in most cases, the only heat came from a large cast iron stove in the kitchen.




 


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