Yesterday’s news about a new pope in Rome has me thinking about Catholic institutions a bit closer to home. When I think of leaders of catholics in the Village, I always think of Father Antonio Demo, the revered pastor who led Our Lady of Pompeii Church from 1898 to 1933. Many might recognize his name from the recently renovated park, Father Demo Square, at the juncture of 6th Avenue, Carmine Street, and Bleecker Street.
Father Demo was born at Lazzaretto di Bassano in the province of Vicenza, in the northeast of Italy. His first post in the United States was in Boston. In the beginning of his service at Our Lady of Pompeii, he oversaw a congregation largely of recent Italian immigrants. He established church groups, worked with local charities, and was active in social services, such as translating documents, finding jobs, and aiding in the immigration process. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, where 146 women and men died (many recent Italian and Jewish immigrants), he conducted scores of masses for those who perished.
In 1926, Demo learned about the impending plan to extend 6th Avenue south, to direct traffic to the soon-to-be-built Holland Tunnel. Since Our Lady of Pompei’s building stood in the middle of the proposed street bed of the extended Sixth Avenue, Father Demo organized the campaign to buy another property and to build a new church, rectory, and parochial school. By the end of his service, the congregation at Our Lady of Pompeii had largely transformed from one of recent immigrants to one of second and third generation Italians who had succeeded in their new country. Father Demo’s extraordinary organization and record-keeping has enabled scholars to study the church’s early Italian congregation and their impact on the neighborhood.
You can learn more about the community Father Demo led in GVSHP’s report, The Italians of the South Village, which traces the history of this immigrant group’s impact on the neighborhood.