Partire Per Morire

by by By Grace Dunham

On April 7th, Father Charles Zanoni will have been a priest for fifty years. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born in Melrose Park, just outside Chicago. When his parents emigrated from Italy in 1920, the Priest at his local parish, also an Italian, gave his dad a job digging graves at the church cemetery. When the Depression hit, his dad didn’t lose his job. The Italian priest had promised that no matter what, he would never turn away an Italian man who had a wife and children to care for. This priest was a Scalabrinian. Because of him, Father Zanoni became a Scalabrinian too.

The Scalabrinians, officially known as the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, are a Catholic order—meaning that, like the more widely known Franciscans or Dominicans, they are a religious organization within the Catholic Church defined by its own traditions and objectives. The Scalabrinians were founded in Italy in 1887 at a time of massive Italian emigration, with the aim of assisting Italian migrants both spiritually and materially in their transition to the New World. Soon after their founding, the first Scalabrinian Missionaries were sent to Boston and New York, where the largest Italian immigrant communities in America were rapidly expanding. They arrived in Providence in 1889. By 1920, when Rhode Island had the highest percentage of Italian-born residents of any state in America, the Scalabrinian Fathers staffed six of Rhode Island’s nine ethnically Italian Catholic Churches. This spring, the Scalabrinians will say goodbye to two of their three remaining parishes here.

One of these two churches is St. Rocco’s, where Father Zanoni has been for the last nine years. Established in 1903 as one of Rhode Island’s original Scalabrinian Parishes, St. Rocco’s is in Johnston, which—with over 45% of its residents claiming Italian heritage—is the most Italian-American municipality in the country. Before St. Rocco’s, Father Zanoni worked in Toronto, and then in New York City and Washington D.C. In Toronto, the majority of the parishioners were first-generation Italians who had fled WWII after their towns were destroyed by bombs. St. Rocco’s—despite its overwhelmingly Italian community—has very different demographics: Italian-Americans who, for the most part, overcame the hurdles of “integration” two, three, even four generations ago.

With no more Italian migrants in need of spiritual guidance, the Scalabrinians have expanded their scope. Today, there are Scalabrinian ministries in 35 countries and five continents. In Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia, Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam the Scalabrinians have established vocations to educate priests who will do for their countrymen what the first Scalabrinians once did for the Italians. Father Zanoni doesn’t know where he’ll be going when he leaves Rhode Island in July, but wherever it is, it won’t be like Johnston.


By the year 1900, 8 million Italians had emigrated from Italy and 4 million of those had gone to America. Though one-sixth of Americans already identified as Catholic, Irish clergy largely controlled the church. Despite sharing their Roman Catholic Faith, Irish and Italian religious traditions often differed to the point of animosity. In the eyes of the Irish, Italian Catholicism—with its elaborate and often decadent feasts and festivals—verged on the folkloric. As more Italians arrived in America, gathering in centralized and homogenous communities, they encountered not only widespread racial discrimination but also a religious environment devoid of cultural security.

After an epiphany in a Milan train station, John Baptist Scalabrini—then Bishop of Piacenza—became deeply invested in the spiritual welfare of these Italians immigrant communities. As the story goes, the masses of migrants huddled in the station’s vast waiting room triggered a profound missionary urge in Scalabrini: “Thousands upon thousands of our brothers live defenseless in another country,” he wrote in his 1887 book, Italian Migration in America, “Objects of exploitation that is often unpunished, without the comfort of a friendly word, then I confess that I blush with shame, I feel humiliated as a priest and as an Italian, and I ask myself again: what can be done to help them?” In November of 1887, with the approval and encouragement of Pope Leo XIII, Bishop Scalabrini founded the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles and in 1888, Bishop Scalabrini recruited his first ten missionaries to send to America.

In Rhode Island, the Italian population had been growing exponentially: records in 1850 showed 25 Italian-born residents; by 1900, there were almost 10,000. And so in 1889, with the approval of Rev. Matthew Harkins, the Irish-American Bishop of Providence, a group of Italian immigrants established Rhode Island’s first ethnically Italian parish—the Church of the Holy Ghost. Recognizing the need for spiritual leaders in the Italian community, Bishop Harkins wrote to the Scalabrinians. As the Italian community continued to expand, Rev. Harkins established nine more Italians parishes­­—six of them staffed by Scalabrinians.

On October 19th of 1901, Bishop Scalabrini came to Providence for the consecration of the site of what was to be the new church of the Holy Ghost on the Western-most edge of Federal Hill, built to accommodate the growing parish. Scalabrini’s time in Providence was just one stop on his American tour: in 100 days, he gave 340 speeches and confirmed more than 22,000 people in similarly Italian enclaves across the Northeast and Midwest. On his third and final day in Providence, Bishop Scalabrini confirmed 536 children. Mass was so crowded that worshippers poured out onto Atwells Avenue.


Come July, St. Bartholomew’s, in Silver Lake, will be Rhode Island’s only remaining Scalabrinian Parish. When Arthur Urbano—a professor of Theology at Providence College—was growing up in Silver Lake in the 1980s, St. Bartholomew’s was the center of his and his family’s world. His grandmother, who is 96, lives two blocks away from the house where she was born and has worshipped at St. Bartholomew’s for her entire life.

For most of the 20th century, Silver Lake was a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood. Urbano’s family has been there since the 1890s—his grandfather, who was a third generation Italian-American, claims his grandfather (Arthur’s great-great-grandfather) was the second Italian to arrive there. “As an elementary school student I thought the whole world was Italian,” said Urbano. “Everyone I knew was, so I thought everyone else had to be too.”

But Urbano’s Silver Lake was decidedly different than the Silver Lake of his grandparents’, let alone that of his great-grandparents. By the 1980s, the Italian community in Silver Lake—and the rest of Rhode Island—was no longer a fundamentally immigrant one. “I would never think of the Scalabrinians helping me to integrate into American society,” said Urbano, “I looked at them more as bringing me into contact with my Italian heritage.” The Church planned weekly Italian dinners and held the festival of St. Bartholomew every August—Urbano recalls fireworks, huge crowds, and a procession that marched through the streets carrying a giant statue of the saint. If the Scalabrinians had once been facilitators of integration, they had now become the guardians of tradition.

As the challenges of integration became a fact of the past, Italian-Americans also began to leave Silver Lake for places like Johnston and Cranston—safe suburban towns with bigger and more expensive homes. In the early 90s, immigrants from Latin America started moving in. In 1990, 43 percent of Silver Lake claimed Italian Ancestry and 7 percent of Silver Lake identified as Hispanic.  By 2000, 42 percent of Silver Lake identified as Hispanic. As the demographics of the neighborhood changed, so did the demographics at St. Bartholomew’s. In 1999, after census data revealed that 80 percent of residents in the area surrounding St. Bartholomew’s were Hispanic, Father Joseph Pranzo spearheaded efforts to create a Hispanic ministry within the church. He started offering Mass in Spanish and helped create a center to aid Hispanic immigrants in finding jobs, learning English, and getting citizenship training. At St. Bartholomew’s, the Scalabrinians were doing for Hispanic immigrants what they had done for Italian immigrants nearly a century earlier.

The most difficult part of this initiative was mediating the tension between Hispanic members of the church and the Italian-American families who had been there from the start. When Hispanic parishioners wanted to participate in the procession for the festival of St. Bartholomew, Italian parishioners resisted. “I told them they had to welcome them into our Parish the way our Italian ancestors had not been welcomed into the Catholic Church,” Father Pranzo said, “I told them, if you don’t accept them, say goodbye to the Scalabrinians.”

This year at St. Rocco’s—the church where Father Zanoni will celebrate his fifty-year anniversary—a dispute broke out between the Clergy and the city government when Johnston refused to let a Hispanic soccer league continue playing a weekend tournament in the field behind the church. Residents had expressed concern about possibility of illegal immigrants; some cited a fear of drugs and others claimed to have seen players pull their pants down and urinate on the field.  Father Mario Antonio Titto, the Italian-born priest who runs the Scalabrinian Center connected to St. Bartholomew’s, was kicked out of the Mayor’s office when he showed up to protest. The city refused to let the soccer tournament continue unless the Church paid $600 per weekend and agreed to let a police detail watch the field at all times. Neither Father Zanoni nor Father Mario can reconcile that fact that this battle is occurring in a predominantly Italian-American area. “For me it is quite disturbing, the fact that many people who were discriminated against in the past are part of the American mainstream and forget their own history,” said Father Mario. “Once I was bringing a Guatemalan boy to the hospital who injured himself playing soccer…he called his mother and he was speaking to her in Quetchua…we are saying that these people do not belong here…and he is speaking a language that was here before Christopher Columbus! If you speak English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, you brought this language here from Europe. And yet we say this boy doesn’t belong here.”


Provincial Father Matteo Didone, who presides over the Scalabrinians’ Eastern Province (the region extending from Canada, through the East Cost of United States, and down to Haiti, Columbia, and Venezuela), was ultimately responsible—with the approval of the Scalabrinian general administration in Rome—for the decision to let go of the two churches in Rhode Island. “Migrants do not stay in one place,” said Father Didone, “If we want to settle down we should not be Scalabrinians. We Scalabrinians should be without a suitcase in our hands, always ready to go where the migrants are calling.”

Migrants, it seems, are calling in churches like St. Vincent’s, the “multi-ethnic Parish” in Florida where Father Pranzo went after establishing the Hispanic ministry at St. Bartholomew’s. At St. Vincent’s, there are English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and Portuguese-speaking parishioners. Father Pranzo conducts masses in all three languages and works with Scalabrinians from Central America and Brazil. Multi-ethnic churches like St. Vincent’s are the future of the Scalabrinian Mission.

When Father Zanoni leaves Rhode Island, he’ll leave behind a fellow priest—in his 80’s—who he’s cared for since he joined St. Rocco’s nine years ago. This priest has lived in Johnston his entire life and only speaks Italian and English. Within the scope of the new Scalabrinian Mission, there won’t be a place for him much longer. Among the Scalabrinians, there is undoubtedly a divide between priests who came of age serving homogenous Italian-American communities, and those now entering into priesthood. The math is simple: church attendance is declining in Italy and rising in Southeast Asia. A younger and more diversified population is the future of the not just the Scalabrinian ministry, but the Catholic Church as a whole.

“There is a shortage of priests,” Father Didone said, “Just as there is in the Universal church. And so you look around and you see what you must do.” This is why the Scalabrinians will remain at a Hispanic church like St. Bartholomew’s, in Silver Lake, and not at St. Rocco’s, in Johnston. It is a matter of priorities. The Scalabrinians are leaving Rhode Island so that they can survive. “In Italian,” Father Mario said, “When we leave a Church, we say partire per morire—when you leave you die. You have to learn everything new. New streets. To start all over is hard. But that is part of life.”

GRACE DUNHAM B’14 always has a suitcase, maybe even a U-Haul.