(revised July 2012) In October 1937, members of the Society of Mount Carmel, a mutual aid society of Italian Americans, began building an extraordinary grotto next to their community hall on Amity Street in the Rosebank neighborhood of Staten Island.
You must see it. After the ferry ride, then a ride on the Staten Island rail to the Clifton Sirtoa stop, then a zigzagging stroll on three avenues, and finally through the increasingly narrow streets of Rosebank to arrive at 36 Amity Street, a visit to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto takes on aspects of a pilgrimage. Arriving at the end of the dead-end street, signs on the worn fence indicate the destination. "All Welcome," the sign reads.
Walking down the red brick path toward the grotto, this fanciful work of ecclesiastical homemade architecture comes into greater view with each passing step. The structure curves and flows in a serpentine shape. Perfectly lined stones are set in concrete with a myriad of details. Ahead on the path, a stone fountain is painted in bright turquoise. Up close, many saints, flowers, succulents, shells, and handwritten poems come into focus.
How can anyone in New York City not know of this place?
Below is a short version of how this grotto came to be and how it is remembered.
Vito Russo (1885-1954), an Italian immigrant, dreamed of such a structure even before arriving in the United States in 1903. After settling in Rosebank, he joined the Society of Mount Carmel, an organization founded that same year. A charismatic man, Russo became president of the society and was eventually elected president-for-life. In 1935, when Russo's youngest son died of pneumonia, it was said that Russo channeled the energy of his grief to realize his vision. Before work began on the stone grotto, Russo built a model made of paper, cardboard and aluminum foil and kept it in his house. He inspired his fellow members to build the grotto with him.
A longtime active member and officer of the society, Mike De Cataldo, explained how the structure was built. The grotto makers often worked inside the community house, constructing the work in sections with wood-framed molds. They carefully set smooth stones, pieces of hand blown glass, seashells, and other materials in sand, and then poured the cement over them. De Cataldo said, "They literally built the shrine in sandboxes." The men brought the pieces outside to add them to their growing structure. They built the initial fieldstone structure out of discarded blocks they picked up during their regular WPA work jobs in the city. They worked with materials available on hand, including seashells from the nearby beach.
Fashioned in shapes reminiscent of the Italian churches of their memories, the grotto quickly became a focal point of the community. Over the years, the faithful contributed statues of saints, icons, prayer cards, and written memories. Planted succulents further contributed to the organic nature of the structure. It's not finished either. De Cataldo showed me where he plans to build an addition, a wall and arch originally envisioned by Russo. The arched passage will lead around to a wooden structure used for food and beverage service on festivals days as well as to the shady open lawn. The archway seems to want to be there somehow, as if a mystical force drives the completion of its composition.
Individuals visit the grotto to spend solitary moments of peace in its beauty. On Our Lady of Mount Carmel's feast day on July 16, the grotto serves as the backdrop for a festival of friendship and homemade food. Throughout wars and the trauma of September 11, the shrine has served as a special gathering place for remembrances and tributes. For more secular-minded outsiders, the work could be viewed as one of the best examples of visionary folk art in the city.
In 2000, the National Register of Historic Places and New York State added the grotto to its list of traditional cultural properties. Because the society's property was not connected with a church or designated a museum, it was not eligible for tax exemption. In 2010, the New York legislature granted the exemption for the grotto and meeting hall, thanks in large part to De Cataldo's efforts.
Many Italian Americans still live in Rosebank, De Cataldo told me. He lives nearby. Those who once lived here but moved away often return to this spiritual center of their hometown.
The shrine is open daily to the public.
Directions: Though I took the train and walked nearly a mile to the grotto, a more direct way would be to take the S78 Bricktown Mall bus at the St. George Ferry and get off near the intersection of Tompkins Avenue and Saint Mary's Avenue. From there walk southwest to Amity Street.
View Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in a larger map
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 11, 2012. A big heartfelt thank you to Mike De Cataldo of the Society of Mount Carmel for sharing the living history of the grotto.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine was one of 40 sites selected in 2012 for the Partners in Preservation initiative in New York City, a program that raises awareness of historic preservation by involving the public in distributing grants.