Jersey Italian Heritage and the Feast of St. Gerard
There are a handful of incredibly important events during Italian Heritage Month. To me, one of the most important events is the Feast of St. Gerard at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark. Since the dawn of the Great Migration, St. Lucy’s has been the literal cornerstone of the Italian community. I am the fourth generation of my family to attend mass and participate in events at St. Lucy’s.
In the late 1800s, a wave of Italian immigrants came to the United States. Tens of thousands from Avellino in Campania settled in the Old First Ward in Newark. With them came their own unique form of Catholicism, with a great focus on their patron saints. For those immigrants, their patron saint was St. Gerard Maiella.
St. Gerard’s life was full of sorrow and abuse. But he looked to God for strength. He joined The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which was was formed in the early 1700s. Founded as a congregation dedicated to missionary work by Alphonsus Liguori at Scala, near Amalfi, their primary purpose was the neglected people around Naples. He died at age 29 of tuberculosis in Materdomini, Campania.
He was canonized in December of 1904 by Pope Pius X. For the immigrants of of Newark, St. Gerard came with them from their Motherland and they built St. Lucy’s Church and the shrine to St. Gerard on Seventh Avenue. The church’s cornerstone was set in 1891.
Sadly, over the decades, the leaders of Newark destroyed this tight-knit community. They referred to it as a slum. They forced families and businesses out of the area to nearby towns like Belleville, Nutley, and Bloomfield. Little did the city know the true slum was yet to come when they built low-income projects and criminals terrorized the neighborhood.
Finally, the projects came down and the church was able to raise funds to purchase the property across the street so it could never be developed again. Instead, it is now a lovely plaza filled with religious statues and benches. It is another wonderful place to sit quietly contemplate your faith.
Every year the families of those original Italian immigrants still come back to the neighborhood and participate in the procession through the streets with St. Gerard high atop of decorated cart. It is a wonderful exhibition of faith, culture, and community.
While the feast finished yesterday, the church will always be there for the faithful to visit. And that brings great comfort to me. To know I am the fourth generation to sit and pray in that same church, I know those who have passed away sit beside me.