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One Summer in 1888, Three Milestones for the Italian-Americans in the South Village

In the latter half of the 19th century, Manhattan and Brooklyn became centers of everyday life for thousands of Italian immigrants entering the United States. Their numbers started off small — the 1860 federal census showed just 1,067 Italian-born people living in New York City and Brooklyn — but grew quickly by the end of the century, almost tripling every decade to reach 49,514 in 1890 and 145,433 in 1900. Little Italy was the first highly visible community for these new immigrants, growing out of the Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan (centered around modern-day Columbus Park in Chinatown) as early as the 1850s. But as the second half of the 19th century progresses, Italian-Americans crossed Broadway to find new homes and business opportunities in the South Village, forming a second prominent neighborhood for Italian culture and life.

The new residents of the South Village quickly started to form institutions that would help shape their everyday lives as new Americans, build community spirit, and further Italian-American life and culture in the city. Three of those key sites were established within a few months during the summer of 1888, demonstrating the empowerment of these immigrants in the neighborhood. Today we take a look at those locations: the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, and the organization Tiro a Segna.

The Garibaldi Statue

Statute of Giuseppe Garibaldi stading in Washington Square Park, two photos, one from 1895 in black and white the other other modern in color
Garibaldi Statue in Washington Square Park, 1895 and today

Known as the Father of Modern Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi led many of the successful military campaigns that helped to realize a unified Italy in 1870, a fight he had been a key player in since 1834 as a member of the Young Italy Society organized by Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini. That effort failed, forcing his exile to South America from 1836 to 1848; there, he fought against Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in the Uruguayan Civil War in the 1840s. He then moved to Staten Island for three years, and eventually returned to Italy in 1854. From 1859 to 1867, he organized volunteers into military units to participate in battles designed to join Sicily with the Italian peninsula under the auspices of an Italian national government. After unification under King Victor Emmanuel II, Garibaldi served in the parliament, and helped establish the League of Democracy to advocate for universal suffrage, the emancipation of women, limits on the influence of the church, and more public works. 

Soon after Garibaldi’s death on June 2, 1882, Carlo Barsotti and Luigi Roversi, editors of Il Progresso Italo‐Americano, an Italian‐language newspaper published in New York, began soliciting funds for a statue in Garibaldi’s honor to be placed in Central Park. Barsotti and Roversi secured the services of Giovanni Turini, who had already sculpted a bust of Mazzini there. Park commissioners instead offered a site in Washington Square Park. The Italian community dedicated the statue on June 4, 1888. The New York Times reported: “Our adopted citizens do not forget the illustrious [sic] of their native lands, and feel a pride in associating their renown with this city of their choice.” The statue — which showcases the historic figure standing awkwardly due to a late design change — became a rallying point for local Italian ceremonies for decades.

Church of St. Anthony of Padua

On March 16, 1834, the Archdiocese of New York celebrated the dedication of St. Joseph’s Church at Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place to serve all Catholics regardless of origin in what was initially a small parish. Over the next few decades, as Irish immigrants poured into Manhattan, the church served primarily Irish-American parishioners. The archdiocese had to address the rising number of Catholic immigrants coming from other lands or risk losing them to Protestant churches. To cater to the burgeoning Italian population, in 1859 a new parish was incorporated, dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, who was venerated by Italians the world over. By dedicating the new parish to him, the archdiocese was aiming to attract Italians while not excluding other Catholics.

A rented formerly Methodist church on Sullivan Street between Prince and Houston became St. Anthony’s first home in 1866. That structure quickly became inadequate as membership among nearby Italian Americans continued to flourish. In 1882, the congregation purchased another parcel of land on that same block adjacent to the church; they then hired architect Arthur Crooks to design a structure worthy of the community and that could rival Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. Crook crafted a bold, granite-faced Romanesque structure reminiscent of the churches back in Italy, one that rises 100 feet at its highest point and stretches back 150 feet. (St. Anthony’s became even more prominent when Houston Street was widened in the 1930s, forcing demolition of neighboring buildings.)

The church was officially dedicated on June 10, 1888, just six days after the Garibaldi statue, in what the Times simply called “splendid ceremonies.” The church, which continues to serve the community, is the oldest existing Italian church in the Americas.

Tiro a Segna

Buildings at 77 MacDougal Street, Tiro a Segna

Established on August 14, 1888, Tiro a Segna is the oldest continuing Italian organization in the South Village. Its name means “fire at the target,” and it was founded as a rifle club where artists, architects, businessmen, and doctors who met for business and social purposes in the South Village and practiced at a clubhouse and shooting range at Fox Hill on Staten Island (a site turned over to the federal government during World War I). 

In 1924, the members-only club — which has counted Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the tenor Enrico Caruso on its roster — moved to its current location at 77 MacDougal Street.

The site of Tiro a Segna falls within the South Village Historic District, established in 2013 following Village Preservation’s advocacy to protect the heritage of the area. Those efforts also led to the designation of the South Village extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 2010 and the Sullivan Thompson Historic District in 2016 (which encompasses the Church of St. Anthony of Padua), as well as the report “The Italians of the South Village” that thoroughly documents the Italian immigrant community in the South Village.

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