Thursday, February 26, 2015

Norristown's Immigrant Tradition

As some of you know, on Friday night WHYY aired a documentary titled "Adelante," about Norristown's St. Patrick Church and our Mexican immigrant community (this is actually an abridged version--the full film runs about 51 minutes). I watched it, and also viewed another documentary on one of WHYY's sister stations that night--titled "The Italian-Americans." Interesting to watch 2 shows about immigrants, one right after the other.

I know I've touched on Norristown's immigrant history before, but let me recap a little.  I don't think we have anyone in Norristown who can claim absolutely pure Native American ancestry, so if you live in N-town, you're either an immigrant or your ancestors were. The area was first settled mostly by English, German and Swedish immigrants back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Refugees from revolution-torn France came here in the 1790s. Welsh, Jewish, Dutch and other immigrants also settled here in the early years.

Do you think they all lived together as one big happy family? Of course not. They segregated themselves into separate neighborhoods, where they could speak whatever language, observe whatever customs, and go to whatever churches they wanted. What brought them together were the merchants. Any good merchant, on seeing a bunch of potential new customers move into town, will try to stock items that will bring in new trade.

Bagpipers at St. Pat's
The next big influx of immigrants were the Irish, who came to work on the railroads in the 1830s, then in greater numbers when the potato famine hit Ireland in the 1840s and 50s. They were thought by the existing residents to be inferior and were treated horribly. Near Malvern, 56 Irish workers and their families were murdered simply because the neighbors blamed them for the cholera epidemic. But Norristown let them settle here, though in a poor neighborhood down along the railroad tracks. The first St. Patrick's church was built at Washington and Cherry in 1839. The 2nd at Lafayette and Cherry in 1864. The coal smoke from the trains blackened the building, and the vibrations and new construction eventually threatened to bring down the church, but it was the late 1890s before St. Pat's moved to its present location.

When they Italian immigrants came in the 1880s through early 1900s, they too were thought to be inferior and were treated horribly, especially by the next generations of Irish descendants. Most Italians were Catholic, and the only Catholic church in town at the time was St. Patrick's. Italian customs and Irish customs were completely at odds with each other. The Irish in the US didn't want the Italians celebrating what were seen to be almost heathen festivals in their churches. In most parts of the US, the Catholics had to worship and hold weddings and christenings in the basements of the Irish churches instead of the sanctuaries. I don't know if St. Pat's did this or not, but the Italian community felt the need to build its own church--Holy Saviour, on East Main--before the construction of the current St. Pat's was even completed.

Mariachi band at St. Pat's
We've had other waves of immigrants since--WWII refugees from Europe, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, Puerto Rican and other Caribbean immigrants, new African and Asian immigrants, and now Mexicans and Latin Americans. Maybe St. Pat's learned their lesson when they lost all their Italian parishioners to Holy Saviour--they're now the church known for welcoming new Catholic immigrants.

But I still hear a lot of people around town speak disparagingly about immigrants, with a "we're better than them" attitude-- the "them" especially being those immigrants from the Mexican community. New immigrants are still thought to be inferior. It breaks my heart when I hear descendants of Italians talk this way. I'm 3rd generation Italian-American and I still remember stories my family told about how badly my ancestors were treated. Yes, I love my Italian traditions, but I don't feel threatened by the traditions of new immigrants. If anything, I understand their desire to keep their own customs and pass them on to their kids. I think the majority of families in N-town feel this way, no matter if your customs include bagpipes and shamrocks, or African drums and storytelling, or shoefly pie or mariachi music or whatever

Still, the film "Adelante" gave me a better understanding of the immigrant experience. These are folks who miss the families they left behind, whose kids might never meet their grandparents. Yet they're forming other community connections. St. Patrick's probably would have closed if not for the influx on new Mexican parishioners, who now make up at least two-thirds of the flock. They're bringing a new life and youth back to Norristown, and helping to revitalize our economy by opening many new small businesses.

I now sing in the English choir at St. Pat's. On certain holidays, we combine with the Spanish choir and do a bilingual mass. The first time I walked into a combined choir rehearsal, 2 Mexican women gave me, a perfect stranger, big welcoming hugs. The same way I'd be welcomed at an Italian family reunion. So really, we're not very different under the skin.

Anyway, I highly recommend even the short version of  the film "Adelante." If I see that it's being aired again on TV, I'll post it here. You can buy a DVD of the full version at this link for about $15 plus shipping. If any organizations are interested, you can arrange to host a screening of the full movie at this link.

No comments:

Post a Comment