Around 1937, members of The Society of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, an Italian-American community in Staten Island, began building a unique and elaborate shrine out of stone, concrete, and metal. They adorned this grotto with living plants, seashells, glass, and statues of saints—all recycled or individually-donated. Dr. Joseph Sciorra, folklorist and Director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, begins his essay on this grotto with a quote from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: “Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” Sciorra’s inquiries into the history of the site and his interviews with community members helped to consolidate an agreed-upon historical narrative about the building of the grotto. In his article, Sciorra explain that the history of the grotto is not fixed, but is instead part of an ongoing process of cultural memory and community building. By putting into writing what had previously been oral history, Sciorra sought to document the open nature of the historic narrative of the grotto, and took a step toward creating a scholarly history for the site. He revisited his material years later at the request of the Society to create a brochure for visitors, which now provides an authoritative history of the site.

Sciorra led the members of the “Cultural Conservation” course on a visit to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto (OLoMC) last week, where we met Mike DeCataldo, treasurer of the Society, and one of the site’s most involved caretakers. Mike told us of the “old timers” who came from all parts of Italy, and who worked here as craftsmen and city employees. He explained how they used their knowledge of antique architecture, along with their building and masonry skills, to create a form expressive of new world creativity and make-do. Mike pointed out improvements to the structure that have been made over time, some of which he had done by himself, as well as other places where repairs need to be made. Aside from a few superficial flaws in the structure, Mike assured us that the structure is very solid. He doesn’t know exactly how the old timers did it, but he knows they “built it to last.” In 2012, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto participated in a competition for funds via Partners in Preservation, a program in which American Express, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, awards grants to historic places across the country. The funds were used to replace the roof of the adjoining lodge, which the Society calls home. Although the choice was made to invest in cultural preservation, rather than physical conservation of the visible parts of the site, it was important to keep the lodge a functioning space. The lodge hosts community functions as well as Society board meetings. In keeping the lodge safe and open, the community can ensure continued maintenance of the grotto.

The ethnic landscape of Rosebank has changed since the 1930s. Mike explained that many community members are now Catholic immigrants from Latin America, who, he was pleased to report, were actively engaged in keeping the grotto as a vibrant and lived religious space. Although the saint statues installed and favored by the Hispanic Catholic community are different from those the Italian-Americans were used to, Mike felt that the community was happy to see the grotto being used and loved by this new part of the community. He reminded us that it’s up to each new generation to make their mark on both religion and community, through their continued and different ways of involvement in sites like this grotto. Mike explained how non-Catholics visitors also come and use the site, and he was very open to people of all faiths coming to pray, visit, photograph, and enjoy this oasis. He told us how some teenagers in the community came to sit and write their college applications in the quiet and peaceful garden space. Many tourists appreciate the grotto for its artistic as well as religious value. Again, Mike was happy that people are visiting for any and all of these reasons—-and he was especially touched by the visitors who loved it for its aesthetic value, some of whom told him that the original craftsmen here were “true artists.”

Over the course of the 20th century, the OLoMC grotto has served as a focal point for this Staten Island community. Mike lamented that, as often happens, it’s hard to keep young members of the community invested in the upkeep and preservation of the grotto. Since it is an ongoing project that requires maintenance, care, and dedicated support, continued community involvement is crucial. Mike told us that his grandfather was involved in the grotto, and he hopes his grandson will be too. But he also worries that certain craftsmanship skills, like masonry and stone laying, haven’t been passed down through to the younger generations, and that young men today aren’t interested in manual labor. Nevertheless, Mike points to a continued community involvement by explaining how various local companies have donated extra building materials, such as cement or electrical wiring, to keep the grotto strong and structurally sound.

The social hall above the adjoining lodge used to serve as an event space for weddings, sweet-sixteen parties, and many other personal and community events. Now, that space is only used for society board meetings, at which members discuss plans for the upkeep of the grotto and plan their annual July 16 Festa, which celebrates the Saint’s Day for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This summer festival has become one of the mainstays of the community, and serves as the only fundraising opportunity for the Society all year. Each year at the festival, the Society brings in a variety of bands and entertainers, and has community bakers prepare traditional Italian-American food and desserts such as zeppoles and calzones. The non-corporate, non-vendor approach to the festival has been a big part of keeping it alive and personally meaningful for the community, Mike said. He said the food they serve there is “what we would eat in our own homes.”

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A framed needlepoint in the lodge shows the oft-quoted line from Genesis: “Surely the Lord is in this Place.” After visiting the grotto, and seeing the care and devotion that this community continues to put into their shrine, we couldn’t help but agree.

Text and photographs by Sophia Lufkin and Maeve Hogan, M.A. students in “‘Cultural Conservation’: Preserving Place and Practice.”