Filitalia International’s annual La Festa della Repubblica on June 1st, otherwise known as the Italian Street Festival on East Passyunk Avenue, was far more significant this year. It also marked the grand opening of the entity’s History of Italian Immigration Museum, 1834 E. Passyunk Ave., which seeks to celebrate “Italian roots and American dreams.”
The museum’s mission is similar to that of its sponsor organization, which translates to “Love for Italy,” and that is “to promote, protect, and preserve the Italian heritage, language, culture and customs throughout the world and encourage the study of the Italian language.”
Dr. Pasquale Nestico founded Filitalia International in 1987 and maintains a busy cardiology practice at 1809 Oregon Ave. He was immensely pleased with the festival and the grand opening and said “It was a remarkable day – we had about 15 to 20 thousand visitors.” He and his peers also raised nearly $20,000 and sold about 25 of 233 12” x 12” tiles that will be embedded into the sidewalk in front of the museum over time.
In the 27 years since its inception, Filitalia has grown to include 20 chapters, nine of which function outside of United States borders. Through scholarships, language classes and exchange programs, the organization aims to preserve its cultural heritage as well as impart upon generations of young Italian Americans the importance of acknowledging where one comes from.
“We’re trying to raise funds to make it a museum, hopefully lasting for life,” Nestico said.
The South Philadelphia chapter president, Rosetta Miriello, is fully aware of both where she comes from (she arrived in America at the age of 19) and how challenging it can be to instill a sense of history and heritage into a primarily apathetic generation of young Italian Americans.
“Now we see the interest in the next generation. We raise them, they become rebellious, but then they come back and once they have kids, they’re more interested,” Miriello said, hinting at the proliferation of Italian language courses that Filitatlia will be offering, due to demand, for a wide spectrum of age and skill.
“We’re working for the future, not just for our children and grandchildren,” she added, hoping to instill in her children and children’s children the drive to celebrate their heritage and language.
The museum space itself is the first floor of a rowhouse that takes visitors on a path from the New World and concludes at the Family History & Genealogy Center. The first exhibit highlights the legendary explorers who started it all: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Amerigo Vespucci and Marco Polo among them.
The museum is temporarily housing a Seton Hall University exhibit of photographs that capture mid-19th and early 20th-century immigration. The flow of the museum takes visitors through skills and trades, World War II service, religion and idols and features a vintage barbershop setup. The modest space also houses a teaching and working kitchen and features flexible spaces that can be used for language courses.
The celebration nearly two weeks ago was emceed by Fox29’s Sue Serio and Miss Delaware, Vincenza Carrieri-Russo, arrived in a Fiat. The museum took about two and a half years to come to fruition with a board approval in November 2012 and committees created the following spring. But it all started with a vision Nestico had while driving in a car.
“It was a vision, it was a dream,” Miriello explained. “Now the History of Italian Immigration Museum is here today and here to stay.”
Michael DiPilla is also leading a charge for a broader and more ambitious Italian cultural museum, but for now he’s still raising money, creating interest and hunting for an appropriate location. The South Philly native knows that Italian Philadelphians will rally for the cause eventually; it’s just a matter of when and how.
“Ultimately, we know that the power exists within the community,” he said. “Italians got the money together to build the [Christopher] Columbus statue that’s now on Broad Street [and Oregon Avenue] but used to be in Fairmount Park.”
He also pointed to the opera house Italians built at South Seventh and Catharine streets.
DiPilla leads a committee that has achieved 501(c)3 status and recruited help from First District Ctiy Councilman Mark Squilla and U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania in the First congressional district, Bob Brady.
“This is something that I have been working on for many years,” DiPilla said. “We want people to know Leonardo DaVinci as well as they know Don Corleone.”
“All museums start where someone has the idea,” Dr. Joseph Scelsa, the founder and CEO of New York’s Italian American Museum in Little Italy, said. “Today, Italian Americans are doctors, lawyers, politicians, businessmen and everywhere imaginable. It’s time, now that we have the luxury to look back at who we are and where we came from.
“From this generation that’s growing up today, they really don’t know about immigration issues with Italians; they just don’t.”
DiPilla, however, is an encyclopedia of Italian contributions to Philadelphia life. For instance, he’s got his sights set on a collection of statues that were donated by the Italian government to the city of Philadelphia for the 1876 centennial. They’re currently in the possession of the Smithsonian – “They are in a warehouse in Maryland,” he said. Lucky for DiPilla, Brady sits on the House Administration Committee that oversees the management of the Smithsonian Institute.
DiPilla and his crew are also working on a tour of Italian contributions to the city. His vision for a tour and museum would undoubtedly detail the presence of Italian influence in everything from the Constitution to architecture and, naturally, cuisine. Ben Franklin, for example, loved macaroni and brought a macaroni machine to Philadelphia in the 18th century. But as DiPilla points out, “Parmesan cheese and olive oil were imported to Philadelphia as early as 1740.”
Scelsa is excited to see a rich patchwork of nuanced and varied tributes to Italian culture emerging across the country and encourages every institution to take a close look at their immediate surroundings. “I would concentrate primarily on what the Italian contributions to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania [are] because they’re huge,” he said. “Together, we will continue to add to a larger mosaic.”
Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at email@example.com or ext. 117.