By the end of the nineteenth century Italy was overcrowded, poverty was rife and taxes were ever increasing. Between the years 1890 and 1910 some three million Italians immigrated to the United States. Often they were single men, but also married couples with children or older children with their parents, leaving Italy for what was thought was the land of opportunity and fortune. For many who settled in the United States, that was the case, but not for all. Hard work, hardship and poverty also accompanied immigrants. Many ultimately returned to Italy, realizing conditions were no better where they had gone than where they had come from.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, my hometown of Portland, Oregon, had a large Italian immigrant and Italian descendant population. Like other immigrants, be they Irish, German, Lithuanian, etc., people were seeking a better life on American shores in the mid and late 1880s. My father’s ancestors were German Anabaptist Mennonites who came to America in the early 1800s. They came as pacifists and fleeing some amount of persecution in Germany. My mother’s ancestors were French Canadian Catholics. I know less about their reasons for leaving Europe, but presumably it was the pursuit of a better life in North America.
Between 1900 and 1910 Portland, Oregon, saw the largest growth in its early twentieth-century Italian immigrant population. In 1900 there were about one thousand Italian-Americans in the city and by 1910, there were five thousand. Those who came often ran dairies and others had vegetable or berry farms. In the early 1900s Portland was, of course, a much smaller city than today and there were many thousands of acres of farmland just outside of the city limits to have dairies or for various kinds of farming. Where many farms once were, there are residents and businesses today. My brother and his family live in what was once a berry field, where I picked berries as a youngster! More about that below.
Some Italian immigrants to Portland got jobs in the railroad yards, some as street graders or as builders and maintainers of roads. Of course, roads were unpaved in those days, so people relied on horses and men to build and keep city streets and roads serviceable. Some Portland Italians ran restaurants or had stores of one kind or another. Several Italian language newspapers were produced in the city in the early twentieth century, so that people could keep up on current events. By the 1920s Portland’s Italian immigrant and descendant population grew to about thirty thousand people.
Where I grew up was technically outside the city limits of Portland, but it was a populated area, what we would now call the suburbs. Within a few miles of home were berry fields and vegetable farms, where we youngsters worked in the summers picking berries or beans, earning some spending money. These farms were often operated by Italians or their descendents, who also had fruit and vegetable stands at their farms or other places in the city.
As Catholic church-life was important to most Italian immigrants, Saint Michael’s parish was established in Portland in 1901, a church that is still standing and an active parish, part of the greater downtown area. At its beginning, Saint Michael’s was in the midst of Portland’s “Little Italy,” a term that has pretty much vanished, because of demographic changes and road construction that occurred in Portland in the early 1960s.
Other Portland parishes that were founded to accommodate or that became populated by many Italian families well into the middle of the twentieth century and beyond, include Saint Stephen, Saint Philip Neri, Saint Rita and Saint Charles, my home parish. As noted above, I am not of Italian descent, and where my parents ended up living when I was growing up was within the borders of Saint Charles parish. Part of the reason my family lived where we did was so that my siblings and I could attend the thriving parish school, run by the sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. When I attended the school, between 1959 and 1967, there were some six hundred or more students with two classes for each of the eight grades. Sadly, the parish school closed in the 1970s. I am eternally grateful for my eight years there. I was baptized and confirmed at Saint Charles parish also.
My home parish still has its annual Italian “Spaghetti and Meatball Dinner” around the feast of Saint Charles Borromeo in November. It draws a lot of people from around town and is a parish fundraiser. Several other parishes in the city with strong Italian links have annual spaghetti dinners also.
Long after I left the Portland area to become a monk in 1971, the city saw another flow of immigrants from Italy in the 1980s. Eventually an alliance was formed between the city of Portland and that of the city of Bologna in Italy. The “Bologna Sister City Alliance” was formed in 2003 to promote exchange of culture, good will, food and friendship between the two cities. Festivals are held each year in Portland and Bologna to honor the alliance between them.
All this being said and done, I have always felt at home with Italians, having had friends of Italian heritage as I was growing up, then living in Italy for studies from 1985 to 1988, then back again for nearly the past two years to work in Rome. I am more or less comfortable in the city, having grown up in one, but also at home in the countryside, where I have lived in New Mexico for the past forty years. City and country, certainly contrasts, but for me, home. Home is where the heart is, as they say, and I try to be attentive to the present moment, not focusing on where I’d rather be or what I’d rather be doing, but simply living in the present. This is not always easy, of course, but it is my intention and goal.
I cannot imagine pulling up stakes and moving permanently to a new land, with an unknown language, different climate and culture. I admire the immigrants from Italy who came to America under such circumstances and who sank roots in my hometown and many other places in North and South America. Our present pope is the product of Italian immigration. Such people have certainly added to the fabric and life of my hometown and continue contribute to the religious, economic and cultural heritage of Portland, Oregon. I am sure the same is true of many other cities as well.