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Throughout my research about the Irish in Greenwich Village, authors and researchers have emphasized the importance of religion to the Irish immigrants and Irish-American community who lived in the neighborhood during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. St. Joseph’s Church served the Roman Catholic Irish community, standing at the center of both the religion and culture of these Village residents. What I was surprised to learn was the influence St. Joseph’s had not only over its congregation but over the Archdiocese of New York. And more interestingly, how the side of St. Joseph’s growing congregation led to the creation of five other Roman Catholic churches in the Village to serve the neighborhoods Catholic residents. St. Alphonsus, St. Ann’s, St. Francis Xavier’s, St. Bernard’s, and St. Veronica’s were all founded within the original boundaries of St. Joseph’s to accommodate the growing Catholic population of the Village.

St. Joseph's Church

St. Joseph’s Church

St. Joseph’s was founded in 1829 and was referred to as the “Mother Church of the Catholics in Greenwich Village.” When the church was dedicated in 1834 the parish boundaries included the West Side of Manhattan from Canal Street to 34th Street. St. Alphonsus was the first of the new parishes, located on Thompson Street, about a mile south of St. Joseph’s. It was founded in 1847 to serve a growing German Catholic community in the neighborhood but soon attracted Irish Catholic parishioners who lived nearby creating tensions between the two immigrant groups. But by the beginning of the 20th century the parish was predominantly Irish and tensions had dwindled.

St. Francis Xavier’s and St. Ann’s were both founded in the 1850s, St. Ann’s in 1852 on the eastern boundary of St. Joseph’s, and St. Francis Xavier’s in 1850 in the northern part of St. Joseph’s parish. St. Ann’s, located on E. 12th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues, served the wealthy Catholics of the Village and surrounding areas. But in the 1890s the parish was nearly $93,000 in debt and much of its attraction ebbed. St. Francis Xavier’s, however, became the first real threat for the pastors of St. Joseph’s. It was the first permanent Jesuit parish in the Archdiocese of New York. From St. Francis Xavier’s inception, Archbishop John Hughes received complaints from St. Joseph’s and other churches that the Jesuits were stealing their parishioners. St. Joseph’s pastors continued to complain to the Archdiocese for over 40 years about the number of their parishioners who were regularly attending mass at St. Francis Xavier’s.

St. Bernard’s, the fourth of the parishes carved from St. Joseph’s original boundaries, was the least threatening. Located on W. 14th Street near 9th Ave., this new parish founded in 1868 was far enough away that it didn’t steal enough of St. Joseph’s parishioner’s to raise alarm. However, that wasn’t the case with St. Veronica’s.

Church of St. Veronica

Church of St. Veronica

The last of the parishes carved from St. Joseph’s boundaries, St. Veronica’s was officially dedicated in 1903 after thirteen years of construction. When Father John Salter of St. Joseph’s first heard the Archdiocese planned to create a new parish in its western boundary, encompassing nearly 30 blocks, he launched a complaint with the Archbishop claiming there weren’t enough Catholics along the waterfront to support another church. The Archdiocese, however, knew that the proposed parish was more than capable of supporting a large congregation. They answered Salter’s complaint by proposing the boundaries of St. Veronica’s be broaden, which promptly stopped the pastor’s objections. St. Veronica’s served a poor waterfront neighborhood in the West Village, worshipping from a warehouse and stable until the basement of the present church on Christopher Street was completed in 1890. The church wouldn’t be dedicated until June 1903 was St. Veronica’s was completed.

While St. Joseph’s Church remained the “Mother Church of the Catholics in Greenwich Village” and continued to serve a predominantly Irish congregation, the five daughter parishes that were born within St. Joseph’s boundaries helped shape the culture and history of not only the Irish but all Catholics in the Village.

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Day of the Dead, figure of a bride

Viene la muerte cantando
Por entre la nopalera
En que quedamos, pelona,
Me llevas o no me llevas?

(Death comes singing
Between the nopales (prickly pears)
What have we decided, bald one,
Will you or won’t you take me?)
– Popular Verse

Day of the Dead or los Días de los Muertos, is one of Mexico’s most important festivals.  Death is a prevailing theme in Mexican popular culture and according to this belief, the souls of the dead have divine permission to return each year to earth, on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1 and 2 November).  In most regions of Mexico, November 1 (also known as día de los inocentes “day of the innocents” or día de los angelitos “day of the little angels”) is to honor children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2 (día de los Muertos).  This is not a somber occasion but a time for feasting and reunion.  It is a time for families to gather and welcome the souls of the dead on their annual visit home.  Revelers build altars and adorn them with Cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, burn copal incense, and leave fresh bread, pan de muertos, candles, sugar skulls, photographs and mementos of the departed.  In Mexico, Day of the Dead is celebrated over an entire week with the preparation of altars, foods, dance, music and special offerings for people who have died.

Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders is a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating Mexican culture and promoting the understanding of Mexican traditions.  Every year, they host an annual Day of the Dead festival at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (10th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan).  Thursday, November 1st to Sunday, November 4th, 2012 marks their tenth anniversary and a variety of events and workshops will be offered in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery.

Assorted Day of the Dead figurines

Although All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are determined by the Roman Catholic calendar, pre-Christian beliefs and practices still play an important role in these celebrations.  Death, for the ancient peoples of Mexico, signified not an end but a stage in constant cycle, a cycle, which paralleled the yearly sequence of the seasons.  The Aztecs, who rose to power after 1325, regarded life and death as complementary.  Their worldview was based on dualism, a system of balanced opposites. The Aztecs were not alone in their religious beliefs.  As the inheritors of cultural traditions that were many centuries old, they shared their cosmology and their pantheon of gods with the other inhabitants of ancient Mexico.  In New Spain, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls’ combined cultural traits from Europe with pre-existing traditions. This cultural fusion has since been so complete that it would be difficult to determine today which aspects of the festival were introduced from Christian Europe and which aspects characterized the indigenous cult of the dead.

A large component of this tradition is the altar, which embodies the four elements of nature.  Earth is represented by crop (the souls are fed by the aroma of food), wind is represented by a moving object (tissue paper is commonly used), water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar, and fire is represented by a wax candle (each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul).  Families also leave toys for dead children (los angelitos, or “the little angels”), bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults, foods such as candied pumpkin and sugar skulls.  Pillows and blankets are also left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey.  In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.

A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas and caricatures of skeletons (usually painted clay) depicting everyday life.  The engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) are deeply rooted in the Mexican national culture and this tradition.  From 1888, Posada supplied images to the capital’s journal and book trades.  Since the Mexican Revolution, La Calavera Catrina (“skull of the rich woman”, a parody of a Mexican upper-class female), and perhaps his best known image, has become linked with the festival of the dead.  Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them.  They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar or ofrenda.

Day of the Dead diorama

Sources:

Sayer, Chloe.  Fiesta: Days of the Dead and other Mexican Festivals. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009

Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, “Day of the Dead”.  October 27, 2012. http://www.manoamano.us/en/day-of-the-dead-12.html

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