Strolling through Father Demo Square at 6th Avenue and Carmine and Bleecker Streets, one might naturally assume that the name of the park has something to do with the neighboring Our Lady of Pompei Church, whose bell tower rises over the west end of the plaza. That assumption is correct, but who really was Father Demo, and why was he important to the community? Today we thought that we would look into this as part of our series, ‘What’s In A Name?,’
Antonio Demo was born on April 23, 1870 in the town of Lazzaretto di Bassano in northern Italy. By 1896 he was ordained into the Catholic priesthood of the Scalabrinian order. Part of the original mission of the Scalabrinians was to minister to Italians who had immigrated from Italy to North America, and thus, newly ordained Father Demo was sent across the Atlantic, first to Boston. After a couple of years in Boston, Demo was transferred to New York as an assistant priest at Our Lady of Pompei Church in the South Village.
The congregation of Our Lady of Pompei got its start in 1892, and by 1895 was serving thousands of Roman Catholics at a church building at 210 Bleecker Street. When Father Demo arrived, he found a growing congregation of Italian immigrants, who had recently begun their great wave of migration to the city. Churches serving the Italian community were developing in Little Italy, in the South Village — St. Anthony of Padua nearby on Houston Street –and even in the East Village at Mary Help of Christians. The pastor at the time of Our Lady of Pompei was growing old and infirmed, and in 1899 Demo was appointed as the new head of the church.
Father Demo took on a great many roles as head of the growing church, which by the early 1900s saw its 2,500 seats packed for all six Sunday masses. As Mary Elizabeth Brown (author of GVSHP’s report The Italians of the South Village) notes in her book about Our Lady of Pompei, From Italian Villages to Greenwich Village, “life in early twentieth century was not compartmentalized. Parish families did not have ‘spiritual’ problems or ‘practical’ problems—every problem has spiritual and practical aspects. All problems were brought to one person, the priest, who handled all aspects of the problem.” That said, she also asserts that “most people who wrote Father Demo did not need advice. They need something more concrete: a baptismal certificate, perhaps, or a reference letter.” Father Demo worked for 30 years serving the ‘practical’ needs of his parishioners, including connecting immigrants with proper city agencies and Catholic social services, providing character references, and serving as a liaison between employers looking for workers and parishioners seeking employment.
As many of the immigrants moved into city’s workforce, many of the special masses conducted during the week for Catholic feast days and other holidays ended up conflicting with their work schedules. Father Demo took special care to rearrange the church’s schedule to include evening and night masses to accommodate the workers, many who labored in sweatshops nearby in the South Village and NoHo. It was also Father Demo who presided over funeral masses in 1911 for several young women of the congregation who had been killed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire nearby.
Father Demo also facilitated fundraising and even the physical relocation of the church. When the City decided to extend Sixth Avenue south from West 3rd Street in the early 1920s, the church on Bleecker Street found itself in the path of the new thoroughfare. Faced with demolition, Demo organized the campaign to move and construct a new church and school at the current site at Carmine and Bleecker Streets. The cornerstone of the new building was laid in 1926 and the church was dedicated two years later.
By 1935, Father Demo retired from his active pastoral duties and passed away just a year later. In 1941 the city undertook improvements to the triangular piece of land between Sixth Avenue and Our Lady of Pompei (triangular because of the earlier extension of Sixth Avenue through the existing street grid). When completed, the new park space was named in honor of Father Demo and his work in the neighboring South Village community.
GVSHP spearheaded the successful effort to get much of the South Village, including our Lady of Pompei and Father Demo Square, landmarked. You can see more images of Father Demo, Our Lady of Pompeii Church, and the community it served in the Center for Migration Studies Collection of our Historic Image Archive.