The incredible story of the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the heart of a notorious Manhattan neighborhood.
At its worst, East Harlem was considered the most dangerous neighborhood in Manhattan.
Violent crime plagued the community while its streets ran red with the blood of warring gangs.
Near the East River, Pleasant Avenue is forever remembered in the annals of crime history as the birthplace of the first Mafia family in the City.
And then there were the race riots of ’35, ’42 and ’64, all contributing to the notorious reputation that haunts the alleys north of 96th Street to this day.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the early 1800s it was a sprawling countryside dotted with the estates of wealthy farmers and landowners, including the estate of Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton Grange.
As waves of immigration began to drive the borders northward, squatters took up residence in what would be East Harlem’s first shantytown along the river. Large communities of Irish, African American, and German immigrants flocked to the area initially … and then came the Italians.
When the first Italian immigrants arrived in East Harlem, they found themselves an unwelcome minority. Ethnic divisions ran deep at the time even among Catholics, and with that, they had no church to worship in, and this is where the story begins.
It was the summer of 1881 when a small group from the town of Polla in southern Italy gathered to honor Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, their patroness. They rented a small room on the ground floor of a tenement on 111th Street near the shores of the East River. Within its cramped confines, they would pray the Rosary and other devotions before a printed image of Our Lady and then share a meal. Little did they realize what this humble devotion would lead to.
Over the next two years, the devotion exploded, attracting thousands, and on her feast day, a procession through the streets began. And an Italian priest named Fr. Domenico Vento unofficially joined the community and started celebrating the sacraments in their makeshift chapel.
But it was in May of 1884 when Fr. Emiliano Kirner, a German priest from the Pallottine Order, arrived to serve the growing Italian community that the change that they had been praying for would finally come … a church of their own.
As he set out to build a new church, Fr. Kirner enlisted the help of the men and women of the Italian community, who took to constructing it with their own hands, often in the evenings after a long day’s work. And in 1885, the city’s first Italian-built church, and its first southern Italian parish, in the area that holds the title of the city’s first “Little Italy,” celebrated its first Mass.
The “Madonna of East Harlem”
The new parish, received a new image of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the form of a statue, brought by Antonio Petrucci from Salerno, Italy. And in only a few short years, due to the incredible devotion and favors granted at the church, a request was sent to Pope Leo XIII to elevate the church to a Sanctuary under the protection of the Blessed Mother. The application was approved and followed through by the next pope, Pope Pius X, who authorized the Canonical Coronation of the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel that was enshrined in the church.
And on a sunny, July day in 1904, the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was crowned in nearby Thomas Jefferson Park before a tearful and joy-filled crowd of thousands. The crown itself containing two emeralds sent from Pope Pius X himself as a show of support. And the church, crafted by the sweat and blood of the founding parishioners, was raised to the status of the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
Today the parish celebrates Mass in English, Spanish, Latin, and Polish in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms and remains the pillar of faith for its community. And while its roots will always be the red, white, and green of its Italian predecessors, the Shrine of Our Lady embraced the countless immigrants that followed — Hispanics, African Americans and other ethnicities all calling the parish their home.
What began with the faith of a small group gathered in a candlelit room by a river paved the way for the founding of a parish, what would become one of the largest Marian festivals in New York City, and over seven documented miracles (and who knows how many more).
The Shrine of Our Lady that endured amidst the trials of Harlem paints an authentic portrait of the struggle between the darkness and the light. And an age-old truth is revealed as Harlem heals from its past in the shadow of the Shrine that truly is the crown jewel of East Harlem “… the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
For information about the Shrine or to visit, please go to the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel – Harlem.