Joseph SciorraMay 8, 2018
Built with Faith
Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City
University of Tennessee Press 2015
Folklore scholar Joseph Sciorra is the Director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in Queens College which is part of the City University of New York. He’s also a Brooklyn-born and -raised Italian American and in this episode of the New Books in Folklore podcast, he talks about his latest book, Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City (University of Tennessee Press, 2015) which “offers a place-centric, ethnographic study of the religious material culture of New York City’s Italian American Catholics” (xiv).
A transdisciplinary work, albeit firmly grounded in folklore scholarship and based on ethnographic research conducted over 35 years, this book is a comprehensive study of the myriad ways in which a people express their personal religious faith in tangible, dynamic, and often public forms. The resulting yard shrines, sidewalk altars, elaborate presepi (Nativity scenes), and other manifestations – which also include extravagant Christmas light adornments of domestic exteriors, The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island, and a series of Brooklyn religious processions - usually receive no kind of official sanction. In fact, they are more likely to provoke disdain than approbation in most quarters. Nonetheless, they allow residents to both meaningfully relate to and actively construct the city in a way that is unique to “New York” and also speak to a vernacular Italian-American ethos that sets great store by the concept of lavoro ben fatto, or “work done well”.
In Built with Faith, Sciorra gives prominence to the voices of the creators of this landscape of devotional material culture, voices which he has captured over decades in formal interviews as well as less formal ‘phone conversations, and casual street-side chats. He also takes pains to present the history of the sorts of displays that are his subject. In addition, the volume includes numerous photographs of the sites in question, often taken by the author himself.
As noted by another New Books in Folkore interviewee, Luisa Del Giudice, in her review for the Journal of American Folkore: "Sciorra has vividly demonstrated why the study and practice of such material culture is important and how individual human creativity informed by a spiritual and cultural core becomes an act of both personal and community identity. These art forms may not have much social capital, but Sciorra does. As Director of Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of New York, editor (Italian American Review), blogger ("Joey Skee," for i-Italy), noted scholar and cultural activist, Sciorra, through Built with Faith, will make a high impact beyond the disciplines of vernacular culture; art and architecture; migration and ethnic, urban, religious studies; and beyond New York City. This is definitely a carefully crafted work—that is, un lavoro ben fatto."
Cindy R. Lobel, writing for the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s Buildings and Landscapes journal, is similarly effusive: "Built with Faith makes a fine contribution to the literature on landscape, material culture, immigration, ethnic studies, and urban studies. It offers important information on the kinds of approaches Italian American New Yorkers have taken toward shaping the built environment of New York through their religious and cultural practices. Sciorra documents and offers wonderful thick descriptions of Italian American material culture. And he leaves analytical space for other scholars to take these objects and rituals seriously and analyze them from a variety of disciplinary standpoints."
Rachel Hopkin is a UK born, US based folklorist and radio producer and is currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University.