Built in 1918, Old North Church’s Gift Shop was once the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel, an important religious and cultural center for Italian Protestant immigrants living in Boston’s North End. Delaney Sieber, our Research Intern, put together this video delving into the unique relationship between these Italian immigrants and Old North Church.
See the video and transcript below!
Hello, my name is Delaney Sieber and I am a research intern at Old North Illuminated. I am in the building that houses our current gift shop. Every year, thousands of visitors come to Old North’s gift shop to find souvenirs, but not many stop to think about this building or its connection to the North End’s immigrant community. This building stands as a physical reminder of the unique relationship between a small group of Italian immigrants and Christ Church in the City of Boston, the official name for Old North Church. Join me as we explore their relationship.
The architecture of this building, including the stone cross near the front door, leads most people to assume that it was previously used for religious gatherings. That assessment is correct. Our current gift shop was originally an Italian Protestant chapel called the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel. The construction of this building was funded by Cecelia Frances Lincoln and William H. Lincoln, and the chapel was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day 1918. An Italian carver named Angelo Lualdi, a prolific sculptor who was active in the United States throughout the twentieth century, did some of the carvings for the chapel. However, he was not allowed to have his name appear next to his works, likely due to his Italian heritage.
Although Old North Church’s members supported the Italian chapel, they had a complicated relationship with the incoming immigrant community and felt that immigrants threatened the church’s high social standing in the neighborhood. The North End was home to Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. In the early twentieth century, the North End became crowded with tenement housing. Old North Church’s congregants feared that these conditions would break up their church community. Mary Kent Davey Babcock, one of the church’s first historians, wrote in an article about the church that as more immigrants moved into the North End, “Congestion and sanitary conditions grew worse and worse. One by one Christ Church lost its old parishioners, obliged to retreat before the invading foreigners.” Bishop William Lawrence, who was Old North Church’s rector at the time, decided to restore the church to what was thought to be its original colonial appearance. This included restoring the church’s box pews which were removed in 1806 to allow space for more worshipers. This renovation likely occurred because of the congregation’s concerns over the poor conditions around them as well as their desire to control their own space in the neighborhood.
The poor living and working conditions of new immigrants led activists, both white Americans and immigrants, to fight for social betterment and labor rights. One notable labor activist who lived in the North End was Reverend Gaetano Conte. Reverend Conte was an Italian Methodist minister who came to Boston to help improve the immigrant experience. Reverend Conte established the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants on January 2, 1902. This organization had representatives go to ports, like Ellis Island, to translate interviews with customs officials and arriving immigrants. They also made sure immigrants got on the right train and were not taken advantage of by train ticket sellers. The Society also distributed publications in the United States to teach Americans about Italian culture and maintained an English-Italian school. Reverend Conte also helped organize Italian-American socials that let white Americans and Italian immigrants interact and see a better side of each other. There was even a large children’s Christmas gathering at Faneuil Hall in 1901 where writer, abolitionist, and early feminist activist Julia Ward Howe spoke. Howe wore a white Italian mantilla and gave brief remarks to the children in Italian.
Reverend Conte demonstrated how an Italian could make a difference in the community. He helped establish several organizations to improve employer-employee relationships. He guided Italians through the immigration process and tried to help Americans better understand Italian culture. He also urged employers to pay workers directly rather than deducting pay for an employment agency. Reverend Conte’s work ultimately helped Italian factory workers become more aware of their rights and employers more cautious of their actions toward their workers.
Besides the Italian Methodists, there was a small Italian Protestant community called the Waldensians who also lived in the North End and fought for social betterment. The Waldensians were founded in the Middle Ages in Europe by Peter Waldo. A strong Waldensian community established themselves in the mountains of Italy and over time some immigrated to the United States. Like the Italian Methodists, the Waldensians also contributed to the social welfare of their congregants who lived in the United States. They established the American Waldensian Aid Society in New York City in 1906 with a Boston branch established in 1908. The American Waldensian Aid Society also created an Italian Immigration and Emigration committee in 1912 to help new arrivals find Waldensian churches.
The Old North Church decided to support a small group of Waldensians who settled in the North End, including the St. Francis Chapel, as part of the Episcopal City Mission. People who were affiliated with Old North Church, including Mary Kent Davey Babcock and Bishop William Lawrence, also joined the Boston branch of the American Waldensian Aid Society. Reverend William Dewart, Old North Church’s rector at the time, hired an Episcopal priest named Reverend Henry Sartorio to minister to the Italian Waldensian congregation of the St. Francis Chapel. Reverend Sartorio ministered to the new immigrants using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer translated into their native language of Italian. He was a dynamic speaker who captivated his congregation.
Reverend Sartorio noted that Old North Church served as an important mission because the church provided simple religious ceremonies and personalized assimilation. Reverend Sartorio believed that Italian immigrants responded better to assimilation when they could adapt to their new society while retaining their Italian culture. However, the relationship between the two congregations was not always equal. For example, the Women’s Guild of Christ Church had a strict policy regarding Italian use of the Parish House next to the church. Several times the members of the Italian Chapel asked to use the space for their events. The Women’s Guild rejected them saying they did not want the house to be associated with “Italian Work.” They believed the Italians always left spaces they used a mess.
The Waldensian community used the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel until 1955 when it was sold to Old North Church and converted into a gift shop. As Italian Waldensians began to move away from the North End, they no longer used the chapel as a worship space. However, the purpose of the St. Francis Chapel was to offer a temporary meeting place for Italian immigrants who had just arrived and help them integrate into American society. Today, not many people remember that a Waldensian community once lived in the North End, and it is somewhat difficult to learn about them. Perhaps their story was overshadowed by the more public and widespread work done by other Italians such as Reverend Conte. It is also possible that historians, and congregants of Old North Church, did not want to include Italian immigrants in the national history of the United States. Many Boston Brahmin, the city’s upper-class, believed they needed to take control of Boston’s history and make sure a specific version of it was told. With the influx of immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, Boston Brahmins wanted to maintain their authority in the city and their sense of social superiority.
The story of the Italian Waldensian congregation that gathered here adds to the rich history of this church and the North End neighborhood. It also demonstrates how two groups from very different social, cultural, and religious backgrounds can form mutually agreeable working relationships, even if those relationships were not always equal. Thank you for watching this video discussing the St. Francis Chapel and its Italian Waldensian community. We hope to see you at Old North Church soon!