STAMFORD – They built, by hand, stately downtown office structures, roads, bridges, the Merritt Parkway, railroad tracks, and their houses.
They opened grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, tailor shops, barber shops, butcher shops, pharmacies, and dentist’s offices. They were skilled carpenters, electricians, masons, plumbers and mechanics. They worked in the city’s factories and fought in the nation’s wars.
When Stamford’s largest Catholic parish relegated them to the basement, they bought land and built their own church. When unions and political parties and business organizations shunned them, they created their own social structures and helped each other survive.
The story of Italian-Americans is woven into Stamford history, Dr. Alfred Fusco said, and it’s time to tell it.
“Italians started coming to Stamford in large numbers around 1900. They had five dollars in their pocket, didn’t know anybody, didn’t know English. But they helped build a city,” Fusco said. “There were so many of them who did so much that we decided to talk about their experiences.”
Connecticut has the highest percentage of Italian-Americans in the nation, 16.1 percent, according to 2023 numbers from World Population Review. Rhode Island is next, with 15.5 percent, followed by New Jersey with 14.6 percent.
There have been times in Stamford history when one out of every three residents was Italian-American, but their saga is barely documented, Fusco said.
So he has teamed up with the Ferguson Library; Anthony Socci and Kim Harke Sushon, authors of books on Stamford Italians; and longtime elected official Mary Lou Rinaldi to organize the first of what they hope will be an annual October celebration – Italian-American Heritage Month.
The inaugural event will focus on Sacred Heart Church on the city’s West Side, once a central Italian-American neighborhood.
This is the church’s centennial year, said Rinaldi, a West Side native.
“I have a good oral history of Sacred Heart from my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, who talked about it a lot,” said Rinaldi, a former city representative who sits on the Board of Finance.
“The 1880s to the 1920s was the time of the largest migration of Italians to the U.S., and the majority were practicing Catholics. The biggest church in Stamford then was St. John’s downtown,” Rinaldi said. “You have to remember the times – there were conflicts with Irish-Americans who came much earlier. The Irish practiced their faith differently; they took a more staid approach. The Italians had their hometown saints and statues and feasts and a more vibrant approach.”
The priests at St. John’s decided that Italians should attend Mass downstairs, not in the main church, Rinaldi said. A priest named Father Kelly, who had studied in Rome and spoke Italian, celebrated the lower-church Masses, she said.
“At some point the Italians said, ‘Why are we in the basement? Why can’t we honor our saints and hold our feasts?’ A group of them got together and went to see the archbishop of Hartford,” Rinaldi said.
“They told him, ‘We want our own church. We don’t want any money from you. We will buy the land and build the church ourselves. We only want your permission – and to keep Father Kelly,’” Rinaldi said. “They got it.”
The group purchased land on what is now Schuyler Avenue from Schuyler Merritt, a wealthy banker, executive, and U.S. congressman for whom the Merritt Parkway is named.
“They set up booths at street festivals they put together to raise money, and they got a mortgage and built the church,” Rinaldi said. “They had a great sense of pride. Within a few years, they paid off the mortgage. It became a thriving parish. It’s a beautiful story of self-determination.”
Rinaldi will be part of a presentation, moderated by Fusco, slated for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at the church at 37 Schuyler Ave. Another presentation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at the main Ferguson Library at Broad and Bedford streets.
Socci, whose book, “United We Stand: The Pre-World War II Chronicles of the Italian Colony of Stamford,” is to be published later this year, will pick up the presentation where Rinaldi leaves it off.
Socci said Italians made up the largest voluntary migration to America.
“They didn’t come because they were fleeing war or persecution. They came because the Italian economy was in ruins, they had no jobs, and they were starving. They wanted to work, but they encountered a lot of bias,” Socci said. “They weren’t allowed to join unions, so they started mutual-aid societies to create their own economic support systems.”
Fusco said American employers “wouldn’t hire Italians because they were dark-skinned and didn’t speak English.”
The Ku Klux Klan often included Italians in its persecution of African-Americans, Fusco said. “Italians started joining the Knights of Columbus as a way to try to protect themselves against the KKK,” he said.
Socci said Italian-Americans had physical strength for hard labor, and emotional strength “demonstrated by how they adapted to a new language and culture, but also by the power to retain … the importance of their own traditions in the face of overwhelming opposition.”
Socci said he met the granddaughter of a man named Cesare Latte who walked each of his grandchildren to city hall to vote when they turned 18.
“Like many Italian-Americans, he considered it a patriotic duty,” Socci said.
Italian-Americans felt the same about military service, Fusco said.
“So many were overseas fighting during World War II,” Fusco said. “There were 850 men from Sacred Heart Church alone.”
Sushon’s 2021 book, “Italian-American Recollections in Stamford, Connecticut,” chronicles personal stories.
Italian-Americans “would cluster together on a street based on which town in Italy they came from,” Sushon said. “They would work hard during the week, then whoever was a carpenter, an electrician, or could lay tile or bricks would get together on the weekend and build each other’s houses. The women cooked for the men who were working. Everybody helped.”
Eventually, Sushon said, Italian-Americans “started to mingle from street to street, and then with other groups. At the same time people were mixing and mingling, there were conflicts, but the Italians I met really remembered how the different ethnic groups came together, particularly Italian-Americans and African-Americans. They lived near each other and enjoyed each others’ food and babysat for each other.”
Though her book is finished, Sushon is still gathering stories in a file she created at the Stamford History Center. Families may write their stories to be included in the Stamford Italian-American History Project at the center, Sushon said.
“Many people, like me, may want to know their family’s story. But the Stamford History Center doesn’t have a lot,” Sushon said. “People should write their stories down. Every story is important, however big or small. If it’s one little memory, we’d be happy to have it.”
Fusco said he has a takeaway from all he’s learned while working on exhibits for the first annual Italian-American Heritage Month.
“I’m amazed at what they faced, and how much they succeeded,” Fusco said. “It made me proud, and I wanted to share it.”