The following is part five in Westerly Life’s “Behind the Murals” series discussing the history behind all of the recently created murals throughout downtown Westerly. The mural discussed below, which is dedicated to Westerly’s Italian heritage, can be found on the side of the building that is home to Avie’s Ski and Sports and E-Z Midway Liquors at 100 Main Street.
This mural celebrates the culture and traditions which have shaped the town as we know it and is centered around four important aspects of life for local Italian-Americans: Famiglia (Family), Vino (Wine), Giardino (Garden), and Sopressata. While these four features have long been among the most important to immigrants and their descendants, a bit of background is necessary to understand the true impact of Italian-Americans on Westerly.
While the first wave of Italian immigration to Rhode Island began in the 1880’s, there was not a significant number arriving in Westerly until after 1900. In 1880, only 14 Westerly residents claimed to have been born in Italy. By 1900, that number had increased to 318, and in 1910, it more than tripled to 1,049. The number of Westerly residents who said they were born in Italy in the federal census peaked in 1920, when there were 1,292 Italians residing in Westerly. This represented nearly 13% of the town’s total population at the time.
The arrival of Italian immigrants was due largely to the employment opportunities available in Westerly’s burgeoning granite industry. Many of the laborers who made the journey to Westerly from Italy quickly found work in granite quarries, often working alongside men from the same villages in Italy.
Although the newly created mural promotes four unique features of life that are important to Italians in Westerly, there are three main elements of the Italian-American story which warrant further discussion: family, community, and the preservation of heritage.
Family has, and always will be, very important to Italian immigrants and their descendants. It was not uncommon for several generations to live in the same household together, teaching and learning customs and traditions from one another. Family lore, recipes for meatballs, and techniques for creating the perfect stick of soupy have all been passed down through the years and still live on in local shops, including Westerly Packing and Ritacco’s Market and Italian Deli, restaurants such as Voc’s Dunn’s Corners Pizza & Pub and Trattoria Longo, and at family gatherings.
Also very important for Italian immigrants was the sense of community that developed among their fellow countrymen. Upon arrival in Westerly, Italians were welcomed into numerous societies which were organized specifically by and for Italian-Americans. These clubs included the Italo-American Civic Club (founded in 1916), the Daughters of Italy (founded in 1925), and the Italian Welfare Club (founded in 1926).
However, one club, The Calabrese Club, still stands as a symbol of the town’s Italian community. Originally formed in 1918 as Societa Cittadini Calabro Americani Club, it was founded by immigrants from Calabria and has been located at the corner of West and Pleasant Streets since 1934. As president George Salimeno noted in 1986, “[The founders] formed the club to take care of their own.” Even today, officers of the Calabrese Club are required to be from Calabria or descendants of natives.
Because many Italian immigrants were practicing Roman Catholics and due to its proximity to Westerly’s North End, where immigrants tended to settle, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was the church where they often became congregants. Even today, the church holds a weekly mass in Italian and the parish maintains a statue of the blessed Angelo of Acri, who originated in the same Italian town where the ancestors of so many Westerly residents were born.
Italian-Americans also sought ways to ensure that their heritage would be properly represented and preserved in their new homeland. One way this was done was through the Dante Fund, which was created in 1934 “to promote the study of Italian language and literature in the schools of Westerly.”
Westerly residents have also taken great pride in Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa who holds a special importance among Italian-Americans. Since 1947, Westerly has held an annual Columbus Day Parade, a relatively unique event in New England, which serves to celebrate not only Columbus, but also the “contributions of Italian-Americans in the United States and southeastern New England.”
In 1949, a statue of Columbus (built from granite, adding an extra layer of symbolism) was erected in Wilcox Park with an inscription which reads:
“CRISTOFORO COLOMBO, INTREPID ITALIAN EXPLORER WHO LINKED THE OLD WORLD OF OUR FATHERS TO THE NEW WORLD OF OUR SONS.”
These words serve as the perfect representation of the story of Italian-Americans in Westerly, as they strive to bring the traditions and heritage of their ancestors into the future.