The Center of the Italian Community in the East Village: Mary Help of Christians
Many vestiges of the immigrant communities that called the East Village home remain to this day. The area in and around First Avenue and Avenue B between East 11th and East 12th Street was once a thriving Italian-American community. Our research on each of the thousands of buildings in the East Village has helped us identify buildings owned and occupied by Italian-Americans as well sites of Italian bakeries and shops. We also learned that there was an Italian theater in the back buildings of 416-418 East 11th Street. Some Italian businesses remain today, like Lanza’s Restaurant at 168 First Avenue, De Robertis Caffe at 176 First Avenue, Russo Mozzarella and Pasta Shop at 344 East 11th, and John’s of 12th Street at number 302. Not unlike the South Village the center of this Italian immigrant community was its church, Mary Help of Christians.
Construction of Mary Help of Christians at 436 East 12th Street started in 1911 and it was completed in 1917. Its origins date back to the late 19th century when the Salesians of St. John Bosco emigrated to the United States to help care for the children of working immigrants. The architect Nicholas Serracino modeled the church’s design on the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin, Italy. As the parish grew a school was built in 1925.
Tthe intersection of East 12th Street and Avenue A has been renamed Father Mancini Way in honor of Father Virginio Mancini, a parish priest at Mary Help of Christians from 1949 to 1986 who had a remarkable impact on youth in the area. Mary Help of Christians has also been memorialized in the poetry of Allen Ginsbgerg who lived across the street for many years. Dorothy Day, the Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, worshiped at Mary Help of Christians and has said that it was “indeed what a church should be, the center of the community.”
Sadly, Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church closed in 2007. In response to concerns that the Church and its related buildings might be demolished to make way for new development, GVSHP and other community groups submitted a request to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking them to landmark the buildings, which was denied. You can read our letter here which also has more information about the history of the church. Potential losses like this underscore the need for landmark protections in the East Village.
Soon, we will be posting Q & A’s from parishioners about their memories of Mary Help of Christians. In the meantime you might want to read a touching post about Italians and the East Village at EV Grieve.