We don’t know much about Nicosia Graziano’s story. But the few details we do have are emblematic of what many immigrants to this country one hundred to two hundred years ago went through, especially Italian immigrants.
This image is from the Center for Migration Studies Collection of our Historic Image Archive. The sixteen images, all of which date from the early 20th century when Italian immigration to our city was at its height, are from the center’s Our Lady of Pompeii Church papers, and relate to that Italian-American congregation’s history.
The present-day Our Lady of Pompeii Church is a well-known fixture in the South Village, with its gracious Italian-style campanile rising over the corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets, and overlooking the piazza-like Father Demo Square.
But this historic (and now landmarked) church is actually the new Our Lady of Pompeii Church, constructed in 1926-27. The original Our Lady of Pompeii Church, which is what the congregation occupied when these images were taken, was demolished in 1925 to make way for the southward extension of Sixth Avenue below West 3rd Street and the construction of the IND subway line underneath. That building was erected as the Third Unitarian Universalist church in 1833. In 1883, the Unitarians sold the building to the fledgling African-American Roman Catholic congregation of Saint Benedict the Moor. The Church of St. Benedict was named for a 16th-century African-born friar. The church was initially funded by money left in the will of the Reverend Thomas Farrell, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue and one of the earliest priests to advocate racial equality. The will stipulated that if such a church for blacks was not founded within three years, the $5,000 seed money was instead to go to a Protestant orphanage, making it impossible for the church to deny the gift. In 1898, with New York City’s Black population moving to the West Fifties, Saint Benedict’s sold the church to the Italian-American congregation of Our Lady of Pompei (this was an unusual move; Roman Catholic parishes usually stay in one place, serving whoever settles in the neighborhood, and was indicative of the racism of the day). The church stood at 210 Bleecker, its façade looking up Minetta Street, flanked by Downing Street on the southwest and Hancock on the northeast until its demolition.
Nicosia was part of this community. What we do know about her is that she was listed as Nicasia on the ship manifest when she arrived in New York at age 15, not long before the image of her was taken. She arrived aboard the R.M.S. Celtic of the White Star Line on March 18, 1911. She was prevented from leaving Ellis Island because she was an unaccompanied minor, and thus at risk of becoming a public charge. The Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants interceded for her with the Labor Department’s Immigration Board, and she was allowed to depart the island on March 24, 1911. In the image we have of her, she is standing in front of 15 Charlton Street; the view is looking east, with the corner of Prince and MacDougal Streets in the background.