BROOKLYN—When Paul Moses was a student at Mary Queen of Heaven School in Brooklyn during the 1960s, a classmate would occasionally yell, “Rumble!” as St. Patrick’s Day approached in the hope of instigating a street fight between Irish and Italian kids. Moses says those youthful challenges recalled earlier times in the second half of the 19th century and later, when Irish and Italian immigrants fought on city streets as they competed for jobs and housing.
“My childhood was an echo of those past conflicts between the Irish and Italians,” says Moses, whose mother’s ancestry is Italian and whose wife’s is Irish.
A key player during those years of unrest was St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, whose religious congregation, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, provided support to Italians who came to this country and found themselves outcasts.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, Moses will deliver a talk on Mother Cabrini and her message on Sunday, November 17, following a Mass celebrated in Italian by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano at 10 a.m. at Sacred Heart Church in Stamford.
“I find Mother Cabrini to be an inspiring figure,” Moses said. “She is very important right now and her life is worth exploring. She accomplished so much and was an amazing woman who had to deal with her own fears and overcome health problems to accomplish all she did.”
“Mother Cabrini refused to return to Italy after the Irish-American archbishop of New York, Michael Corrigan, told her to do so the day after her landing,” Moses said, although the two later worked together for the benefit of both their ethnic groups.
Moses is the author of a book about the Italian and Irish immigration experience titled, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians. Former city editor of Newsday and senior religion writer, he is a professor emeritus of journalism at Brooklyn College.
Intermarriage between the Irish and Italians and their growing association in churches and neighborhoods in the years following World War II played a role in ending the strife that existed for decades and provides a lesson for America and the Church today as we grapple with the issue of immigration, Moses said.
“This peace was achieved through love and intermarriage and because, in the fluid world of American democracy, the Irish and Italians were so often thrown together, whether or not they liked being near each other,” Moses wrote. “They clashed in parishes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and politics. But over time, these same arenas came to unite them. The Italians had no choice but to deal with the Irish, who were their union leaders, foremen, schoolteachers, cops, and ward heelers. The Irish had to deal with the Italians if they were to raise the status of the Catholic faith in Protestant America.”
Moses also said, “The Church, which was another arena for conflict between the Irish and the Italians, later becomes a place that drew them together.” Italian immigrants from Southern Italy were often treated as second class and had to hold their services in church basements amid complaints they did not contribute enough money.
He sees similarities between the treatment of Southern Italian immigrants and Mexican immigrants today. However, he is optimistic about the future and emphasizes the importance of the Catholic Church in the process of acceptance and assimilation.
“The Church still plays a very important role in bringing people together,” he says. “Ultimately it does work out. And I am convinced that the current waves of immigrants will experience the same thing. I think the big meaning of the story is there are ways that seemingly entrenched differences can be overcome. Really, the key is for people to get to know each other as people. That is happening with immigrants’ groups today.”
Moses is also author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (Doubleday 2009), which won the Catholic Press Association award for the year’s best history book and became the basis for the Emmy-nominated PBS docudrama The Sultan and the Saint.
He worked for 23 years in daily journalism, mostly at Newsday’s New York City edition. He served as the paper’s City Hall bureau chief, Brooklyn editor, city editor and religion writer. As a rewrite man, he wrote the paper’s lead stories on the World Trade Center attack and on a subway crash that killed five people, the latter winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting in 1992.
He was also a reporter for The Associated Press, and has written for other outlets, including The Daily Beast, The New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, CNN.com, Time.com, America and Commonweal magazine, where he is a contributing writer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Maureen.