by Joseph Sciorra
In the early twentieth century, Sicilian immigrants established a storefront chapel for the Black Madonna del Tindari in Manhattan’s East Village. The original Sicilian statue of the Virgin Mary dates back to the Middle Ages and is associated with a passage from the Old Testament’s Song of Songs. For decades, an annual feast was celebrated in the city streets in honor of this dark-skinned Madonna. Although the New York community of believers no longer exists and the chapel has been closed, the American statue has been saved and is now in a private home in New Jersey.
Devotion to the Black Madonna has long existed in Europe. The various aspects of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary are considered miraculously powerful and are credited with having protected believers from such afflictions as earthquakes, pestilence, and the attacks of invading armies. Representations of the Black Madonna in European art depict her with a dark complexion but not "African" facial features; thus they are different from the religious images developed for local communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Italy has one of the highest concentrations of Black Madonnas in all of Europe, and they are known by their gradations of skin color: nera (black), scura (dark), or bruna (tawny). The millions of Italian laborers who emigrated to the United States from 1880s to the 1920s brought their religious beliefs and practices to the New World, especially their profound devotion to the Blessed Mother, who also arrived in the form of the Madonna Nera. In particular, the cult of the Sicilian Madonna del Tindari took root in the New York metropolitan area.
Tindari is part of the municipality of Patti in the province of Messina, in northeastern Sicily. The Greeks founded the city of Tyndaris in the fourth century B.C., and the sanctuary to the Madonna was built where once stood a temple to the fertility goddess Cybele, also known as the "Great Mother."
According to a popular legend, a polychromed cedar statue was brought to Sicily from the Middle East sometime in the eighth or ninth century to save it from destruction during the Iconoclastic Wars. Yet the statue is similar in style to the Romanesque "throne of wisdom" figure, with the seated infant Jesus enthroned on his mother’s lap, created in Europe during the twelfth century.
At some point in time, the Latin words Nigra sum sed formosa ("I am black but beautiful") were inscribed on the base of the statue. This phrase is taken from the Old Testament’s Song of Songs, in which a captive shepherdess declares her love for a young shepherd to the women of King Solomon’s court. As with much of the scholarship on the origins of the Black Madonna, there is significant disagreement over the relationship of this biblical phrase to the dark figure. Feminist historian Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum maintains that the expression is a testament to the image’s Semitic antecedents. Jungian analyst Ean Begg notes that the French abbot and theologian St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) compared the shepherdess’ love to that of Mary in his influential writings; as a result, the sunburned shepherdess and Mary were conflated and images were darkened to illustrate the connection. Cultural studies scholar Monique Scheer, on the other hand, argues persuasively that Europeans, and in particular Germans, coupled the saying and images of the dark Virgin in the eighteenth century as they developed the concept of a unique "Black Madonna" and sought a theological explanation to counter the then-popularly held negative association with blackness.
In fact, it is not until 1751 that someone in Tindari distinctly mentions the statue’s color and also associates it with race. Abbot Spitaleri wrote with hyperbolic language of the "exceedingly miraculous image of the Most Holy Mary, who with marvelous portent came from Africa...which, in fact, is extremely black" (immagine miracolosissima di Maria Santissima con stupendo portento venuta dall’Africa...che in effetto è negrissima). Contemporary devotees recount a sacred narrative that illustrates the negative sentiments held at times for the Black Madonna del Tindari. According to the story, a woman made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary to give thanks for the miraculous healing of her daughter, and upon seeing the statue’s dark visage, she exclaimed, "I traveled so far to see someone uglier than me" (Sono partita da lontano per vedere una più brutta di me). The woman proclaimed her rekindled devotion to the Black Madonna after the Virgin Mary saved her child a second time.
Immigrants from Patti and neighboring towns established a community of believers in the Black Madonna del Tindari in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1922, Sicilians in Hoboken incorporated a mutual aid and lay religious association, the Societá di Mutuo Soccorso Santa Febronia Patti e Circondario. Society members built a freestanding chapel, which exists to this day, on Fifth Street in the city’s western and historically Italian section. A priest from the local church celebrates mass at the chapel twice a year, and the society sponsors a procession of the Black Madonna through the city’s streets every five years on the weekend closest to her September 8 feast day. But an older and now-defunct community once existed on and around Manhattan’s East Thirteenth Street.
This statue of the Black Madonna and Child, now in a private home, once drew worshippers to a shrine on East Thirteenth Street. Photo: George Chinnici, 2003
The Italians of New York, published in 1936 as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, briefly mentioned three "private" chapels open to the public on East Thirteenth Street, one of them being for the Madonna del Tindari. I found the research notes for this WPA ethnic guide on microfiche in New York City’s Municipal Archives. Here is J. Isola’s unpublished account of the New York devotion, dated September 25, 1936, with editor S. Naft’s corrections (deletions in bold):
Three small private chapels exist on East 13th Street, New York, which is a center of Sicilians. One of these chapels, dedicated to St. Sebastian, patron saint of Minstretta, Sicily, is located at 513 East 13th Street and has been open to the public for the past 10 years. The second is the "Cappella Cattolica M. di SS. Assunta e V. B. Rosalia", at 426 East 13th Street, formerly annexed to, which is the "Cappella Maria SS. del Tindari", at 447 East 13th Street.
All three chapels, whose standing capacity does not exceed 12 persons, are not under the supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities, and are maintained by liberal contributions of faithful Sicilians, who in an effort to revive the customs of their native land, hold a day of festivity once a year. On this day the statue of the saint is exposed in the window of the small chapel, the streets are decorated with lights and banners, and stands selling popular, if not sanitary delicacies line the streets. On this day of festivity these faithful Sicilians also have a solemn High Mass served in the [Mary Help of Christians] Catholic church on East 12th Street, where innumerable people gather.
Of the three chapels, the oldest and therefore the most mysterious—since the original pioneers are deceased—is that of the Black Madonna. The Madonna is a reproduction, none too well done, of an ancient statue venerated at in Tindari, formerly an ancient city in the northerneastern part of Sicily and today a small village in the province of Messina. The original Madonna which was buried in the mountains near Tindari to save it from Turkish Saracen invasions in the seventh ninth century, was black, not because it lay moldering in flames, but as homage to the biblical description "Nigra sum, sed formosa"—"I am black, but beautiful".
The festivity of the Black Madonna was celebrated for the first time in New York on September 8, 1905. The following year, 1906, a congregation of Pattesi was established and the now existing statue of the Black Madonna was constructed under their sponsorship by Santo Bucca of Barcellona, Sicily. Though the original statue was in wood (of Libano cedar of Lebanon), the present image here in New York was constructed of stucco.
The statue was then offered to the church of the Salesian fathers on 12th Street, but since the ecclesiastical authorities did not encourage the yearly street festivals, it was refused and remained in a basement for many years. In 1913 Mr. Vincenzo Cavallaro, of 443 East 13th Street, constructed the present chapel of the Black Madonna, where one may see a picture of SS. Cosma [sic] and Damiano, one of the Madonna di Pompei, and the statue of the Black Madonna in the center surrounded by offerings made by devottees in semblance of graces received cures effected on different parts of the body, such as arms, legs, hands, breasts, etc. and a banner offered by the "Il Comitato Pattese alla Vergine SS. del Tindari," on its right (WPA, Federal Writers’ Project, New York City Unit, Italians of New York, MN#21258, Roll#259).
I included an excerpt from Isola’s account in a recent traveling exhibition about the Black Madonna with the hope that viewers might shed light on this little-known chapter of religious and immigration history. Anne Palermo Carroccio, a resident of East Fourteenth Street, attended the exhibition’s unveiling on February 13, 2003, and told me that her father, Antonio, and brother Santo Palermo were active society members. Carroccio remembered that the social club-cum-chapel was next door to Rotella’s Funeral Home. She also introduced me to Mary Chinnici of Vineland, New Jersey, who provided additional information.
Mary Chinnici’s parents emigrated in 1921 from Milazzo, twenty-five miles from Patti, and settled in Bridgeton, New Jersey, where her father worked on the Seabrook Farms. In 1935, a relative living in Little Italy told the family about the East Thirteenth Street Madonna, and Chinnici and her mother began an annual pilgrimage to the storefront shrine each September 8. Chinnici recalls that the statue was paid for with members’ donations and that neighborhood nuns had sewn the statue’s cloak. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, thieves twice broke in and stole money and the jewels from the Madonna’s crown.
In the early 1980s, as members of the community died or moved away, Chinnici was given a key to the storefront chapel so that she could visit at will. The dwindling organization’s members decided to officially dissolve the society and give Chinnici the statue of the dark-skinned Mother and Child. In April 1987, she transported the figure from the Manhattan chapel to her home in south Jersey. There she built a platform for the statue and sponsored an annual panegyric mass for approximately seventy-five people in her house each September. Carroccio, her sister Connie, and their husbands would travel from Manhattan to Bridgeton for the service. When Chinnici and her husband, Joseph, moved into a small apartment in 2001, she gave the figure to their son George, who built a special room for it in his home in Mullica Hill, New Jersey.
According to George Chinnici, the statue measures forty-seven inches from the base to the top of Mary’s head; the crown adds another eleven inches to the overall figure. The statue is clearly different stylistically from the one found in Tindari and, for that matter, Hoboken. The facial features of the Chinnici statue are rendered in a naturalistic fashion, with glass eyes, and skin coloring (and hair) that is jet black, whereas the Sicilian original has an elongated, oval face with unpainted, seemingly closed eyes, and a dark brown coloring. The infant Jesus sits on Mary’s left leg, instead of being centered directly in her lap, as in the Sicilian statue.
Carroccio said her brother Santo was responsible for handling the dissolution of the society’s state charter. In 1987, he placed an announcement in the Italian-language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano about the society’s termination and stated that the money in the closed savings account had been donated to the sanctuary in Tindari. A week or so after presenting Mary Chinnici with his beloved statue of the Madonna and Child, the seventy-two-year-old Santo passed away. Carroccio maintains that her brother died of a broken heart from seeing the society, the storefront shrine, and the statue disappear.
Rotella’s Funeral Home closed and became the back end of a bodega located on the corner of East Thirteenth Street and Avenue A. In 1998, when new tenants took over the lease to create a bar, they walled up the door to the bodega and knocked a hole into the adjoining 447 East Thirteenth Street. There they found an empty space that had suffered a fire and a ceiling that was partially collapsed, which they repaired.
If you are ever in the neighborhood, stop by the Phoenix Bar and go to the narrow side room where the potent Black Madonna once reigned over her Sicilian devotees. You might still be able to hear the receding voices of whispered and shouted prayers anxiously imploring the Madonna Nera for her heavenly intercession.
"The Black Madonna of East Thirteenth Street" by Joseph Sciorra was published in Voices Vol. 30, Spring-Summer 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society.