Around 1880, East Harlem was the center of immigration from southern Italy. These poor people left family, language and culture behind them. But they did carry their religious fervor with them. They longed for some comfort from home. Gradually a group of men, remembering the festivals formerly celebrated in the southern Italian Kingdom of Two Sicilies, formed themselves into the Mount Carmel Society, to hold a religious “Festa” or Feast to Our Lady. This was hoped to become similar to the ones they had known. In a very humble setting, the men and their families venerated a painting of Our Lady, and prayed a Rosary in Her honor. They had no priests available for Mass, and thusly they celebrated the Lady. Gradually word of the devotion began to attract pilgrims. The Society felt enabled to replace the painting with a Statue of Our Lady, the one enshrined in our church today. Cardinal McCloskey, Archbishop of New York, realized the need for a church for this community and invited the Italian, German and English speaking Pallottine Fathers to construct such. The Pallottines sent the very able Father Kirner, who raised the money, bought the land and supervised the construction. The Statue was eventually purchased from the Society for an exorbitant-for the times- $100.00! The area selected for construction was surrounded by the East Harlem “Little Italy” then the largest in the US, with some earlier Germans who had moved north from Yorkville. One must also remember, Italians were not always welcome in other Catholic churches. In fact, they often had to worship in the basements of established Catholic churches, as they were “too rough”, or “unclean”, or unable to “understand” the preaching at main Masses. Many times, these basements did not provide chairs or kneelers for the congregants. Mt Carmel, as a parish, was born to attend to their spiritual needs. Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was declared the original Italian National Shrine Parish for the United States and the Americas. It long has provided spiritual comfort, and a sense of home for the Italian Community. The church was built at night during 1884 by Italian men, who had finished a hard day’s work. The women, so devoted to the Blessed Mother, prepared food, carried bricks and even helped push the wheel barrows. Each had a private reason, some asked for a favor, some worked in Thanksgiving: All saw their work as prayer. Unfortunately, dear Father Kirner, so devoted to our Shrine lost his life, during the construction of the first parish school, when an unfinished wall collapsed upon him. It is important to remember that Mt. Carmel became the center of Italians in New York City. Gradually, celebrations of the many towns of Southern Italy, the Madonna Incoronata, Madonna Addolorata, Saints Cosmo and Damiano, San Felice, St. Joseph, St. Anthony, Santa Elena di Laurino, etc. were added to the yearly celebrations held at the Shrine. In the current years, devotions of other ethnics, such as the Virgin of the Cloud from Ecuador, Our Lady of Providence from Puerto Rico, Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, and Santa Nino and the Black Nazarene from the Philippines have become at home here. Today, increasing numbers of Haitians, Filipinos, Asians and Latinos have joined in the yearly celebrations in honor of Our Lady. The Shrine remain a house of devotion and prayer.
Timeline 1880-1881 Beginnings of Festa in New York by Private Mount Carmel Society 1883 Statue ordered from Italy to replace paper painted image 1884 Church built by Pallottine Fathers (Father Kirner) during the night by local residents, ownership of statue transferred to church. Statue enshrined in lower church. 1902-1903 Due to immense devotion, and favors granted at Shrine, Canons of St. Peter’s Basilica, at behest of Leo XIII, conduct investigation and declare Image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, be formally incoronated (crowned with a golden crown). Leo orders it done, but dies before finalization. Pope St. Pius X reviews decree and publishes it under his name. To truly show his support for the coronation, he sends two emeralds from the Vatican to be fitted into the crown. 1904 Image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is crowned on July 10th, making it the third formal incoronation outside of Europe. Shrine is ranked in the incoronation decree as a Sanctuary to Our Lady 1906 Pius X grants plenary indulgence in perpetuity from July 6th -23rd. 1923-24 Pius XI approves transfer of the Sanctuary to upper church, affirming the status of Sanctuary (major Marian Shrine) 1953 Pope Pius XII declares high altar of the Sanctuary a privileged major Marian altar. 2004 Special 100th anniversary public reenactment of the coronation 2015 Complete artistic and physical restoration of the Crowned Madonna, including Statue, dress and hair.
Father Marian Wierzchowski