Honoring Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Empire State
Immigrant-Built Grotto Continues to Draw the Faithful
Trying to find Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto is a bit like a treasure hunt, I decide, as I wind my way through the streets of Staten Island’s Rosebank neighborhood. Left on Tompkins; right on St. Mary’s; left on White Plains. Glancing again at my directions, I see I’m almost there. White Plains gently curves into Amity Street, a dead-end road.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel should be at the end of this street. But I see nothing, save some trees and curbing. Then, suddenly, it’s there.
The grotto is actually on the left, a bit before the streets ends. A battered sign affixed to a rusty chain-link fence proclaims all are welcome, while a newer, taller sign proudly notes the grotto is both a national and state historic site.
I pass through the entrance and start down the red-brick path leading to the grotto. Set toward the back of the property, it’s a folk-art masterpiece.
The main structure is a stone-and-brick chapel housing a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, with two arced wings extending from each side.
Colorful bits of glass, marbles, stones, shells and even bicycle reflectors are pressed into the cement façade, providing a cheerful, decorative touch.
Numerous niches are carefully set into the stonework, flowing from each side, and cradle statues of Mary, Jesus and a host of saints. A stone fountain fronts the structure, while several adjacent areas contain small dedications to other Catholic luminaries, such as St. Francis of Assisi.
The grotto’s most striking aspect, though, is the incontrovertible evidence of its popularity. Innumerable petitions scrawled on tiny scraps of paper are carefully tucked into crevices, behind the statuary and beneath candles. So are funeral cards, rosaries and photos of loved ones. Clearly, this humble grotto strikes a chord deep in the hearts of many. But what, I wonder, is its history?
As if on cue, Mike DeCataldo, a volunteer overseer, walks up to enlighten me. Seeds for the grotto were planted in 1903, he says, when the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society was formed as a way for the neighborhood’s male Italian immigrants to socialize and demonstrate their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The men purchased a plot of land and eventually built a meeting hall — the white building next to the grotto that I’d thought was a home.
Initially, the men had no plans to create a Marian shrine. But in 1935, member Vito Louis Russo’s 5-year-old son, Vito Jr., died from pneumonia. Distraught, Russo crafted a miniature shrine to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in his home, using paper, cardboard and foil.
That handmade creation spawned the idea of the society building a full-size grotto on the grounds. Construction began in October 1937.
Since many of the Italian immigrants were skilled in masonry, they decided to craft a stone grotto. And since a large glass-blowing factory was in the vicinity, colorful scraps of glass were gathered to dress it up, along with numerous other objects. For the next seven months, the men faithfully worked on the project, laboring for hours every night, after working 10- or 12-hour shifts at their day jobs.
“One of the guys would even cook for the men while they worked,” DeCataldo told me.
When the shrine was dedicated in May 1938, 200 people attended. Soon, an eight-day celebration was held every year around July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Part of the festivities included a procession through the streets of Rosebank, with Our Lady of Mount Carmel carefully set on a float and a little band following. The procession always ended at the grotto, where food and entertainment were provided.
Over the years, modifications were made to the shrine. A glass enclosure was erected around the main chapel to protect people from the elements and to help keep the candles aflame. Picnic tables were placed on the grounds so that visitors could enjoy a snack or meal.
The grotto’s numerous niches began to fill with hand-painted statues donated by the faithful, plus prayer intentions, photos and other memorabilia.
And word of the humble, unusual grotto spread. One woman stopped by after her 5-year-old son died of leukemia, DeCataldo said. She’d never been there before, but felt a strong urge to visit. “She told me, ‘It was like my son was calling us there, saying, ‘You’ve gotta find this place!’” Once at the grotto, she was shocked to see a photo of her son tucked into a crevice, presumably left by a relative or friend.
In 2000, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its importance in maintaining the Rosebank community’s cultural identity. It was also named a New York State Historic Site. Those designations really put the site on the map, said DeCataldo, and visitation again increased.
Today, the grotto’s popularity is partly due to the fact that it’s open 24 hours a day, offering people a place to pray when churches are closed. Many do take advantage of its nighttime hours.
The immigrants who labored long after dark for months to build this spot would undoubtedly appreciate that.
Melanie McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
If You Go
The grotto is located at 36 Amity St. on Staten Island. Take the free Staten Island ferry from Manhattan. From the dock, you can either walk to the grotto (about 2.5 miles) or take a bus to within a half mile. Celebration of the 112th anniversary feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was set for July 9-12 and 16-19. For more information, call (718) 727-0809.
- July 12-25, 2015