Salem’s Little Italy

Some would say that Salem’s Italian neighborhood began in a small room next to a fish market at 27 Front St. in the year 1914. It was then that Rev. Pietro Piemonte began the city’s first Italian Mass with a group of immigrant families who didn’t speak English. According to city records from 1910, about 1,300 people were Italian, 3 percent of the population. Many families had settled into the area around Margin, Endicott, High and Prescott streets.

By 1925, Rev. Piemonte’s congregation had raised enough money to build the St. Mary Italian Church on Margin Street, which quickly became the center of the community.
By the time she was a teenager, Anna Della Monica played organ at the Sunday Masses at St. Mary’s. When she was 16 the church paid to have painters come from Italy to paint Renaissance style frescoes on the sanctuary ceiling. After hearing her practice her music one afternoon, the three men asked her to come back and play for them. 
 “They’d say please come, our angels will be more beautiful if you come,” she says, smiling. “I’d run all the way from school to church and play for them all day and they’d be up on the scaffolding painting.” 
Families came together at St. Mary’s to celebrate traditional Italian feasts, holidays, weddings and births. 
 “I grew up in a household where all they talked about was church, church and church. My whole life revolved around it,” says Della Monica whose father, a stonemason, built a downstairs chapel. 
Going to church was a deeply meaningful experience for Italian families on many levels. It provided them with place for worshiping God, celebrating their heritage, and over the years as they stood in the chapel, they were able to feel close to their ancestors whose names adorned stained-glass windows overhead.

La vita Italiana

Salem’s Little Italy blossomed in the 1930s and early ‘40s. During this time, former St. Mary’s historian Regina Camarda says there were a few hundred families attending church. For these families there were potluck picnics at Centennial Park and religious processions through the streets to celebrate holy days. The Italian community was close-knit and very exclusive. 
“We always thought Endicott Street was the pillar of Salem,” recalls Paul Cultrera, 94, who today lives on Prescott Street. “There were the Italian and Greek people … We never associated with the other kids.” 
Over the years Italian markets sprung up on nearly every street corner in Little Italy, offering old-world specialties like prosciutto, cheeses, barrels of chickpeas and beans and tubs of Sicilian olive. Of these shops, Steve’s Quality Market on Margin Street is the only one left today. At that time the store was in a small wooden building with a long old-fashioned counter behind which were stored bulk quantities of goods.

At that time people would come in and you had to serve them,” recalls owner Steve Ingemi, 85, who was 8 when he started working at his father’s store. “I’d say what do you want, I want a 5-pound bag of sugar, I want this, I want that — that’s the way it was then.”
In those days markets hung prosciutto and smoked cheeses from the ceiling and offered live chickens for sale in crates on the sidewalk that would be slaughtered fresh for Sunday dinner.

Italian traditions were alive and well both at home and in the streets. Former Salem mayor Tony Salvo, who used to visit his grandmother in Little Italy, recalls her trick of being able to cure malocchio, the enviously cast “evil eye,” which Italians believed could cause sickness.

“Anytime we’d get sick we’d say, “Nonna, fa malocchio please!” he recalls. “She’d get a dish of water and a teaspoon of olive oil. She’d take her finger and dip it in the oil, drop it in the glass. If it spread that means someone put the malocchio on you … she’d say prayers all the time, no one knew what they were. I don’t know if it was psychological but it worked. My brother, when he was in the Navy, he used to call her up from all parts of the world to do the malocchio.”

With houses stacked close together gossip drifted as freely between neighbors as the smell of homemade tomato sauce drifting from open windows. Many homes were connected by clotheslines that were strung between windows on pulleys. As one resident recalls, the lines often served as the excuse to talk to your neighbor, while leaning out the window. Josephine Cultrera, 90, recalls the days her sister lived behind her Prescott Street home and the two women would use their clotheslines to transport kitchen goods.
“If I needed something I’d say ‘Grace, put it on the line,’ and she’d send it right over,” she says. She laughs, adding, “If she needed something I’d put it in a bag and send it over … One time I even sent a turkey over.”

Changes in Little Italy

After World War II the Italian neighborhood started to shift. Soldiers returned and moved away to start families of their own. Steve Ingemi and his brother Joe took over Steve’s Quality Market after their father retired. The brothers had the wooden building razed and a new, modern store constructed. Out went the prosciutto, the smoked cheeses, the bulk bins of beans. And in came a more diverse mix of foods designed to appeal to other ethnic groups in town.

“There was a big French section, a big Polish section …” says Jodie Fenton, Steve’s daughter, who grew up working in the shop. “We tried to bring in whatever these people wanted.”

Beginning in 1962 the market began carrying Polish kielbasa and corton, a traditional French pork spread, products the store carries to this day. 
Over the years, one by one, other Italian grocery shops went out of business as the community diversified and abandoned old-world traditions. 
Meanwhile, through the ‘50s and ‘60s, St. Mary’s prospered; a youth center was built and 16 tons of marble were transported from Italy for constructing new altars. 
However, the need for a separate church for the Italian people was diminishing. The children of the immigrants, in general, didn’t speak Italian. Masses were no longer held in Italian, they were in English. 
In 2002 when the Boston Archdiocese was rocked by the sex abuse scandals, the archbishop gave orders to Salem priests that one church must close and left it up to them to choose. St. Mary’s was selected, perhaps because church officials felt it had fulfilled its duty. 
St. Mary’s held its last mass Jan. 12, 2003. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Salvo recalls. 
These days Italian-Americans still live in Little Italy, mixed in with Latino immigrants and other ethnic groups. Most are third- and fourth-generation Italians whose parents tell stories of the old neighborhood. Some residents are still upset about losing their church, which they say was the heart and soul of the neighborhood. 
“Even though you don’t leave your neighborhood, your neighborhood leaves you,” Della Monica says. “Everyone needs something to love that they can all get together and socialize about and now that’s gone.” 
Despite the loss of St. Mary’s, remnants of the old neighborhood remain. Some locals visit the Christopher Columbus Society, a social club that offers a place to get together. Many visit Steve’s Quality Market, which remains owned and operated by the Ingemi family. Others still visit the old church, which is now owned and managed by the Salem Mission, a shelter and social-services organization. 
The Mission runs a secondhand clothing store inside the former downstairs chapel. Store manager Ann Richardson says former parishioners often come to visit a grassy area outside the property, where a Mission worker recently restored an old St. Mary’s grotto. Sometimes people come in and ask to go upstairs to pray in the former sanctuary.

“Any parishioners that come in, I let them go up,” says Richardson. “We would never deny any parishioners.”

Rich Richardson has tried to make visits easier by hiding painful reminders of the old days. A room divider blocks the marble altar at the head of the chapel where people used to pray. Above it, a landscape painting partially conceals a large marble cross. 
Upstairs, Little Italy’s past is locked away in the old sanctuary. High on a balcony, beneath the watchful eyes of a painted angel, sits Anna Della Monica’s organ covered in dust. On church pews where parishioners used to sit, thrift-store boxes of old toys and clothes are piled.

It must be difficult for the Italians to see their beloved church this way, but still, five years later, they come back. They say a prayer or just look up at the stained-glass windows that bear the names of their parents and grandparents, the first Italians of Little Italy.

“Salem’s Little Italy” was part 1 of series Changing cultures, changing neighborhoods for the Salem Gazette, September 2008.

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