Though steadily losing its Italian identity amidst the influx of other immigrant groups, Bensonhurst remains a famous Italian enclave and one of Brooklyn’s links to the old world.
Since 1972, the cultural center of the neighborhood has been St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church, the 2001 Bay Ridge Parkway church founded to absorb the throngs of Italian immigrants who moved to the neighborhood in droves from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s.
The church, its parishioners, and the Italian traditions they maintain in Brooklyn are the subject of a new photo exhibit by Sicilian photojournalist Delizia Flaccavento, which will run at the Italian American Museum at West 57th Street in Manhattan until May 28.
Copiously researched with six months of field work, Delizia’s exhibit – entitled “Faith and Identity: Saint Dominic Church and the Italian Americans of Brooklyn” – is comprised of 20 photographs laid out on three walls.
In an interview conducted over email, Delizia said her goal for the exhibit was to bring attention to the often overlooked struggle of her fellow Italian immigrants.
“When I arrived in the States, I felt the moral duty to pay homage and give visibility to an ethnic group that, in the last fifty years, has erroneously been considered automatically assimilated because they are white Europeans,” she said.
As the exhibit shows, these Italians derive great pride from their ethnic identity. And despite its modest appearance – the church lacks a traditional long aisle, apse, and transept – St. Dominic is where they come together to celebrate it.
A magnet for Italian immigrants since it was founded, it is the only church in New York City to offer daily mass in Italian. Today, 450 of the parishioners are immigrants, as are two visible church’s leaders, Father Ellis Tommaseo and Deacon Carlo Mellace.
“These living connections with Italy have helped first-generation immigrants overcome homesickness and maintain a strong bond with contemporary Italy, which second and third-generation Italian Americans are able to experience their culture outside the domestic environment,” wrote Flaccavento in her book on the exhibit, which is available for sale at the museum.
As Flaccavento points out in her book, the thrust at St. Dominic is less about strict adherence to religious doctrine than about preserving culture. For instance, attendance at mass is not monitored; the point is not to enforce a strict brand of Catholicism, but to use to church as a psychological and spiritual connection from the old world to the new.
“This understanding makes the parishioners feel at ease and not under constant judgment for the way they choose to live their religion,” Flaccavento wrote.
With the exodus of Italian immigrants from the area amidst the influx of Chinese, Russian, and Latino immigrants, the number of Italians in Bensonhurst and St. Dominic has declined.
During the early 1980s, there were 600,000 Italian immigrants in Bensonhurst, most of them from the southern parts of Italy still economically reeling from the effects of World War II and the slow pace of the country’s reconstruction.
Since then, however, this number has dropped to around 200,000, thanks largely to stricter immigration policies and the turnaround of the Italian economy.
As the neighborhood’s Italian population has declined, so has the number of Italian immigrant parishioners at St. Dominic, from 700 at the peak levels of the early 1980s to 450 today.
But those who remain need this connection to the homeland the most, and they go to St. Dominic to feel it. It is this connection that Flaccovento seeks to capture in her images.
“I hope that the faces of my subjects show the difficulties of being suspended between worlds, the attachment to the motherland and cultural roots, and the pride to have made it in a land that, for most people, has been everything but a dream.,” she said.
Admission to “Faith and Identity: Saint Dominic Church and the Italian Americans of Brooklyn,” by Delizia Flaccavento, is free.
Hours at the Italian American Museum, located at 28 West 44th Street on the 17th Floor, are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m.
The exhibit runs through May 28.
For more information, go to www.italianamericanmuseum.org or call 212-642-2020.