Vito L Russo 1914 to 1954
A Brief History of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society
and Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island.
organization open to all irrespective of their town or regional affiliation. It was under the tenure (1903-14) of the society's first president Andrew J. Palma (and father of former Borough President Joseph A. Palma) that the organization purchased land and erected a meeting hall.
The voluntary association hall historically functioned as a male-only social club where men gathered after work. In addition, the hall's upper floor has been a place where society members and neighbors celebrate rites of passage and annual holidays.
While membership is now open to any Roman Catholic regardless of his or her ethnicity, the organization remains predominately Italian. The women's auxiliary was established after World War II and female members outnumber their male counterparts by 2 to 1.
Vito Russo is credited with being the driving force behind the construction of the grotto and is intimately identified with the site. Vito Louis Russo was born on November 6, 1885 in the town of Sala Consilina, in the province of Salerno. Orphaned at an early age, Vito and his younger brother Giovanni immigrated to the United States.
Italian immigrants began arriving in Rosebank in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with the majority settling in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Present-day Rosebank families trace their roots primarily to towns in Italy's Apulia, Calabria, and Campania regions.
In the early part of the twentieth century, immigrant men worked as laborers either in construction, on the railroad, as longshoremen on the nearby docks, or in some form of agricultural work. It wasn't until the 1930s that Italian immigrants and their American-born children were employed in civil service jobs, with a number working on W.P.A. projects and as sanitation workers. Italians operated local factories such as the now defunct DeJonge paper mill and the Sun Chemical dye plant, known locally as the "Color Works."
To help themselves meet the challenge of the United States, Rosebank's Italian immigrants formed mutual aid societies which offered such benefits as unemployment and burial insurance. These voluntary associations were responsible for introducing and organizing religious processions and street feasts in honor of the Virgin Mary and patron saints of Italian towns.
Vito married the American-born Theresa Cavallo; the couple had seven children. After serving as president of the Society of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for twenty-five years, Russo was "unanimously" elected "president-for-life" in 1939, a position he held until his death on February 22, 1954.
It is believed that Russo conceived the building project as a way to address his grief at the death of his five-year-old son Vito Jr. from pneumonia in 1935. One source of inspiration for the grotto was Russo’s shrine to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel he crafted out of paper, cardboard, and aluminum foil in his Smith Street home, which was based on photographs of Italian churches.
While Russo's central role in the history of the grotto cannot be ignored, the construction is the result of a collaborative effort of society members. A Staten Island Advance article dated May 7, 1938 reported that the grotto was begun in October 1937 and "built by the members of the Mount Carmel Society ... during their spare time after working hours." Four men were featured in that article: the masonry work was attributed to Umberto Summa and Angelo Madrazzo; Thomas Tedesco "Marsie" Vito Russo is credited for the grotto's stone decorations; and, Vincent Lupoli painted figures on the apse's walls and vault (which no longer exist). Two hundred people attended the grotto’s inauguration on May 6, 1938.
The serpentine grotto is built out of stone blocks, brick, and cement. It has a central chapel housing a statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, which is flanked by two wings. The grotto’s surface is decorated with stones, shells, bicycle reflectors, marbles, and glass flowers inlaid in cement in a variety of shapes such as ovals, diamonds, crosses, and stars. Niches and shelves hold a host of Catholic saints such as St. Jude, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Anne, St. Lucy, and others.
Each year, the society sponsors a procession to Our Lady of Mount Carmel through the streets of Rosebank and a festa on the society grounds.
In 2001, the property where the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto and Meeting Hall stand was placed on the New York and National Registers of Historic Places. It was listed as a “traditional cultural property,” a site associated “with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that are rooted in that community's history, and are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community."
Our Lady of Mount Carmel
256 St. Mary's Ave.
Staten Island, NY 10305
2909 Dayton Drive
Winter Haven, FL 33884
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