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Voices Fall-Winter, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt of “The Lisanti Family Chapel in Williamsbridge, the Bronx” by Joseph Sciorra here.
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The Lisanti Family Chapel in Williamsbridge, the Bronx


In 1905 Francesco Lisanti, an Italian baker in the Bronx, built a private family chapel, which today reveals much about the challenges turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants faced and the creative solutions they devised to meet their spiritual needs. This place of worship served the Lisanti family as well as community members until the 1970s. Although many Roman Catholic churches in the United States were altered after the Second Vatican Council, the Lisanti chapel remains unchanged—and an unparalleled example of sacred vernacular architecture decorated with examples of once-popular Catholic iconography.
The Lisanti Chapel
The Lisanti Chapel is at 740 East 215th Street in Williamsbridge, the Bronx. Jo Ann Pisacane and her brother Robert (seen in the doorway) opened the chapel for the author in July 2000. Photo: Joseph Sciorra.
On August 9, 1898, Father Dominic Marzetti, the pastor of St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Hoboken, New Jersey, wrote to Bishop Winand Michael Wigger of the Newark diocese, expressing his concern about the "contagious fever of building private chapels" among the city’s Italian immigrants. Seven years later, that religious and architectural zeal crossed the Hudson River and inspired Francesco Lisanti, an Italian baker and peddler, to commission a family chapel on his Bronx property.

The Lisanti chapel, at 740 East 215th Street in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, is the only known extant freestanding private chapel built by an Italian immigrant in New York City, and possibly the country. The chapel, with its rough-hewn granite exterior and arched bell cote topped by a wrought iron cross, is a rare example of Italian American religious vernacular architecture in the United States. The interior is a testimony to immigrant artisan skills and decorative work, seen in the wood lattice altar screen, the altar’s tiled floor, the marbleized walls and ceilings, and the original paintings of religious scenes...


Francesco Lisanti
Francesco Lisanti (c. 1858-1922), an Italian baker, built a private Roman Catholic chapel in the Bronx. This image was exhibited in the chapel until the mid-1950s and used on the family gravestone in St. Raymond Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Jo Ann Pisacane.
...The published materials about the chapel all state that Lisanti was a peddler of bread and cakes. It is hard to imagine an immigrant peddler being in the financial position to buy property and a house and then build a chapel. The New York City Directory for 1904-1905 lists Lisanti as a baker, a more prestigious and artisanal occupation. Theresa wrote that her father was "the only man that had means to spend" money on a proposed neighborhood church for Italian immigrants in 1903. The practice of a devout individual erecting a private family chapel—a display of wealth—was prevalent in nineteenth-century Italy...


...Robert Orsi, the Warren Professor of American Religious History at Harvard University and the author of La Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, wrote in his letter supporting the landmark nomination that the paintings in the Lisanti chapel are significant as rare survivors of religious art in New York City:
...the murals preserved on its walls are among the few remaining examples of what was once a thriving local art form. Most of these—including some spectacular murals on the ceiling of the Immaculate Conception Church and on the walls of its Saint Anthony’s chapel, were painted over during the somewhat chaotic period of liturgical reorientation following the Second Vatican Council. It is almost impossible today to show students of immigration history or religious history examples of Italian American sacred murals...
Lisanti chapel interior
Simple benches face the chapel’s tiered altar with its triparte arched wooden screen. At the altar’s base is the intertwined emblem consisting of the letters A and M, standing for Ave Maria, and topped with a crown. Photo: Joseph Sciorra.


 


Folklorist Joseph Sciorra is the assistant director for academic and cultural programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of Queens College (CUNY). Dr. Sciorra successfully nominated the Lisanti Family Chapel and the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Staten Island to the New York State and National Lists of Historic Places.Joseph Sciorra




According to the 1934 New York World-Telegram article, the building of the private chapel resulted from a disagreement between Lisanti and either the clergy of Immaculate Conception or his fellow parishioners, or perhaps both, about the proper way to honor the Virgin Mary.

Relevant Readings

Noyes, Dory. 1991. The Satisfactions of Reproduction: A Baroque Painter in Italian Philadelphia. Folklife Annual 1990, edited by James Hardin. Washington, DC: American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, 58-69.

Orsi, Robert A. 1985. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sciorra, Joseph. 1993. Multivocality and Vernacular Architecture: The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island. Studies in Italian American Folklore, edited by Luisa Del Giudice. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 203-43.

____. 1989. Yard Shrines and Sidewalk Altars of New York’s Italian-Americans. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, III, edited by Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 185-98.

Tomasi, Silvano. 1975. Piety and Power: The Role of Italian Parishes in the New York Metropolitan Area. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Turner, Kay, and Suzanne Seriff. 1993. "Giving an Altar to St. Joseph": A Feminist Perspective on a Patronal Feast. Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore, edited by Susan Tower Hollis, Linda Pershing, and M. Jane Young. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 89-117.

Vecoli, Rudolph J. 1969. Prelates and Peasants: Italian Immigrants and the Catholic Church. Journal of Social History 2(3): 215-72.



This article appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Fall-Winter 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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