Places that Matter
Black Madonna Chapel & Phoenix Bar
Place Matters Profile
By Joseph Sciorra
Today, Italian American New Yorkers and their friends meet every September 8th at the Phoenix Bar to commemorate the feast of the black Madonna del Tindari, a tradition followed by Sicilian immigrants on and around this site in the early 20th century.
On September 8, 1905, Sicilian immigrants from the town of Patti in the province of Messina, who had settled in the Italian community burgeoning along First Avenue south of East 14th Street, came together to celebrate their first public feast in honor of their town's spiritual patroness, the black Madonna del Tindari. According to sacred narrative, a polychromed cedar statue was transported to the Sicilian town of Tindari from the Middle East sometime in the eighth or ninth century to save it from destruction during the Iconoclastic Wars. At some point in time, the Latin words Nigra sum sed Formosa ("I am black but beautiful") from the Old Testament's Song of Songs were inscribed on the statue's base.
The following year the Sicilians established Il Comitato Pattese alla Vergine SS. del Tindari (The Pattese Committee for the Most Holy Virgin of Tindari) and commissioned a statue of the Madonna and Child. The Manhattan statue was not a duplicate of the Sicilian original, differing significantly in regards to a number of stylistic features. It was stored in a basement until 1913 when the group secured a storefront space at 443 East 13th Street to create a chapel/social club. The chapel was a narrow room alongside a funeral parlor that accommodated approximately a dozen people. New York's Sicilian devotees of the black Madonna festooned the statue with ex-votos in the shape of body parts in thanks for her miraculous healing. For decades, the organization sponsored an annual festa on East 13th Street, complete with a procession through the surrounding streets for their dark-skinned Madonna.
During the 1970s, members of the lay religious association and the neighborhood's Italian American community began moving away and dying. The chapel suffered several setbacks during this time when thieves twice broke into the storefront to steal money and the jewels from the Madonna' crown. In the spring of 1987, the remaining members dissolved the organization, donated the money from the closed savings account to the sanctuary in Sicily, and gave up the lease on the space. A devotee transported the statue to her home in south New Jersey where she created a private domestic chapel.
On September 8, 2004, a new generation of Italian Americans met at 447 East Thirteenth Street, now a gay bar called the Phoenix. They decorated the exposed brick walls with images of the Madonna as they chatted and drank beer. Attuned to a multicultural perspective and progressive politics, these artists, scholars, and community activists have reclaimed the Black Madonna as a potent symbol of an inclusive spirituality that reveals the historic connections between Italian Americans and people of color. Meeting in this place, they are adopting and transforming the religious and cultural legacy of those early twentieth century immigrants in the service of the ongoing journey in search of self, community, and the divine.
[Posted, Jan. 2008]