The veneration of a martyred-thirteen-year old virgin once brought residents of the South Village together in celebration every August 11th. A special mass would kick off the event, which was anchored at the intersection of Sullivan Street and West Houston by a tall, papier-mâché tower atop which stood a statue of the martyr and a shrine built in her honor.
Residents would complement these with their own personal towers. The feast was held until the middle of the 20th century; but its roots in the neighborhood can be traced back over a hundred years and across an ocean to the birth of the Italian nation. The story of how the feast came about, and why it was unceremoniously ended, tells us a lot about the history of immigration, religion, and myth-making that has shaped life in our neighborhood.
It is hard to imagine that, not that long ago, New York City, the Italian-American capital of the United States, contained hardly any Italian immigrants. At the turn of the 21st century, more people in the city and even in the state name Italy as their country of ancestry than any other country. But this dramatic turnabout began only in the 1880s. Within a few years, however, it would turn Little Italy and the South Village into the most prominent concentrations of Italian life in the country.
The South Village first developed in the 18th century as farm land. Its fertile soul, access to Minetta Creek water and to the Hudson River led to the creation of agricultural estates. Around the turn of the 19th century, estate owners began disposing of their land, clearing the way for housing development that included some of the Federal and Greek Revival style row houses still with us today.
By that time, major groups in the area included Irish immigrants, who started arriving in the 1840s, fleeing the potato famine, and Blacks, some descended from freedman granted farm plots by the New Amsterdam government around what is now Washington Square Park, some freed blacks from New York, and some arriving as migrants from the South during the second half of the 19th century. Into this mix came Italian immigrants, starting in the 1860s. Within a few decades, they would become the dominant group in the South Village. The reasons for this development originate in 19th century Italy.
The second half of the 19th century was a tumultuous time in Italy, or we should say “Italy”, since the nation was only then coming into being. The Risorgimento or Unification that led to its creation proceeded in stages, starting with the Revolutions of 1848, taking a big step forward with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, and concluding with the capture of Rome in 1871. This process was enormously destabilizing, particularly in the south, where the economy collapsed under the new government’s imposition of free-market reforms. In addition, the industrialization of the peninsula, which accelerated toward the end of the century, led to further social and economic dislocation, again especially in the south. Italian immigration to the United States reflected the pattern of this upheaval. Although during the mid-19th century, Italian immigrants arrived mostly from the north, which had better transatlantic transport access, once shipping lines started making stops in Naples and Palermo after the Risorgimento, Italian immigrants arrived disproportionately from the south. By the 1890s, tens of thousands of Italians were immigrating to this country every year. By the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands were. Many decided to settle in their port of entry, New York City, where an exploding industrial economy seemed capable of absorbing as much labor force as became available. As a result, starting in 1860s, the Italian-born population in the city began to triple every decade. Only the national quota system introduced by Congress with the National Origins Act of 1924 put an end to this trend. By then, Italians were an overwhelming presence in the South Village.
Italians who settled in the city brought with them, as one would expect, their language and customs. One of those customs was the organization of mutual benefit societies, town-level entities that collected contributions into a common fund in order to finance extraordinary expenses, notably funerals, for its members. These expenses included the sponsorship of a feast for the local patron saint in coordination with the local church. A mutual benefit society arose in the South Village, and the church with which it coordinated its efforts was Saint Anthony of Padua, the permanent home of which was dedicated in 1888, almost twenty years after the parish was carved out of the historically Irish-American Saint Joseph parish in order to serve the growing Italian population. The Feast of Santa Filomena became one of the new parish’s main celebrations.
The story of Filomena begins with an 1802 excavation looking for martyr graves in the Priscilla catacombs in Rome. This search uncovered inside a loculus a glass vessel containing the bones of an adolescent girl and a small phial with what appeared to be blood flakes inside. The tiles covering the loculus read in jumbled order pax tecum Filumena (“Peace be with you, Filomena”) and featured three decorative elements — a palm, two anchors, and three arrows — that, along with the blood phial, were understood to symbolize martyrdom. The remains were transferred to the church of Mugnano in Nola, near Naples, on August 10, and enshrined under one of its altars, whereupon miracles started happening, including the overnight healing of grave wounds and cancers.
The little that is known about the martyr behind these wonders came from Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù, a Neapolitan nun, who experienced a revelatory vision about her life. According to this revelation, Filomena was the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Greek king who had converted to Christianity. She had taken a vow of chastity as an expression of her devotion to Christ. When Roman Emperor (and notorious Christian persecutor) Diocletian threatened war against her father, the family traveled to Rome to avert the conflict. Diocletian agreed to accept the king’s peace terms if Filomena became his bride. Filomena refused his offer and subsequent entreaties, because of her vow. In response, the Emperor — who apparently did not take rejection well — had her locked up and subjected to a series of tortures. Filomena was brutally scoured, thrown into the Tiber with anchors tied around her neck, and shot full arrows. The reason for the overkill is that heavenly intervention kept undoing the damage wrought by Filomena’s tormentors, healing her wounds, cutting off the anchors’ rope, and deflecting the arrows (some of them back at the archers themselves). On August 10, the Emperor, at the end of his own rope, had her decapitated.
Devotion of Filomena spread in tandem with word of the miracles surrounding her relics and, in a matter of years, turned the church of Mugnano into a pilgrimage site. In 1837, Pope Gregory XVI liturgically canonized her, which officially allowed devotions of the martyr and the celebration of mass and liturgical feasts in her honor. (These were traditionally held on August 11, the day after the anniversary of Filomena’s martyrdom, so as to not conflict with St. Lawrence’s Feast). Filomena, however, was never formally canonized nor added to either the official list of saints, the Roman Martyrology, or the General Roman Calendar. Moreover, in 1961, she was removed from the Roman Missal, the document that allowed the celebration of masses in her honor. The reason for this removal likely relates to the controversy that arose in connection to evidence that cast doubt on the correspondence between the tiles covering the Filomena’s loculus and the identity of the remains (which appear to be of a later date) and on the nature of the phial’s contents (which may have been perfume). In short, this evidence, though disputed, called into question whether the found relics were in fact Filomena’s and those of a martyr. Though the Holy See has made no effort to suppress devotion to Filomena or to challenge Sister Maria Luisa’s revelation, the apparent demotion seems to have put a damper on feasts held in the “martyr’s” honor.
The Feast of Santa Filomena is still celebrated in some parishes. The South Village, however, has for years not been among them. For one and with few exceptions, Columbus Day celebrations long ago supplanted such neighborhood feasts in the city. For another, the number of Italian and Italian-American residents in the Village is a small fraction of what it was once. After constituting the majority of the local population during the first decades of the 20th century, exceeding 26,000 in the 1920s, the Italian community shrank to about 9,000 by the 1960s, and the pattern only accelerated as the century wore on. Nonetheless, it left behind an architectural and cultural legacy that continues to enrich life in the neighborhood even today.
You can find resources to learn more about the history of Italians in the South Village here.