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Museum creators bring a vision to life on Passyunk Avenue


The History of Italian Immigration Museum HIIM is in South Philadelphia, but its perspective is global.

“It isn’t about South Philadelphia,” Michael Bonasera, its chairman and curator, said in an interview along with his wife, Wanda, who helped create the museum in 2014. “It isn’t about Philadelphia. It isn’t about America. It’s about immigration.”

And it’s Italian immigration. “The only other culture that I know that has that sense of pride is the Irish,” he said. “ ‘Italian roots and American dreams’ is the museum tagline.”

One of the more worldly items among its hundreds of artifacts is a photo of a South American department store with signage in Italian, donated by a California library.

Michael and Wanda Bonasera, creators and curators of the History of Italian Immigration Museum in South Philadelphia. | COURTESY OF MICHAEL BONASERA

The museum welcomes gifts of artifacts (“Michael always says ‘yes,’ ” Wanda said) and monetary gifts as well.

The museum rents two floors of a rowhouse at 1834 E. Passyunk Ave., from Filitalia International & Foundation, a nonprofi t founded in 1987 to promote and preserve Italian heritage, language and customs throughout the world. Filitalia leaders Trisha Volpe and Nicholas Santangelo help run the museum.

The museum came about when Bonasera was asked about his goals for being on the Filitalia board. Various entities in Philadelphia for years had been unsuccessful in creating an Italian museum. Filitalia had voted to establish a museum, and it was the Bonaseras who committed their time, muscle and expertise to create it. Committees were formed and within a year HIIM opened on June 1, 2014, with a ribbon cutting as part of Filitalia’s annual La’Festa celebration.

It is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is $3-$5. Details are at filitaliainternational.org/history-of-italian-immigration-museum.

Michael traces his heritage to Sicily, where all four grandparents were from. Wanda’s heritage is German (she’s a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution) and Pennsylvania Dutch. “The only Italian I know is buona sera,” she joked.

He grew up in Brooklyn, in an Italian-Irish area of Bay Ridge, and he recalls “the food and the noise.” The food, of course, starred a great red sauce (Wanda requests Michael to make a pasta when she wants something special), and he has a fondness for sfi ngi (deep-fried sweets made with ricotta) and S cookies (named for the shape and usually lemony). Michael has inherited his mother’s cooking skills, Wanda said, and his children regularly reach out for recipes. The noise came from “everybody talking at once competing with the music.”

Both are retired, Michael from careers in aircraft mechanics, mechanical engineering and engineering management; Wanda from tax offi ces and project management. Since their 1994 marriage, they have visited Italy twice.

A few years ago they moved from Jenkintown, Pa., to Carlisle, Pa. The drive to the museum now takes more than two hours, but Michael is still committed to HIIM “as long as I can.” That commitment includes research, building exhibits, restoring and repairing artifacts if needed in “Pappy’s Workshop” at their home.

Museum exhibits cover 1,300 square feet on the main fl oor, with 700 square feet downstairs including a 12-seat theater (with century-old refurbished theater seats from Brooklyn) and the Learning Lab (with space for Italian language classes, presentations, and bus tours).

The main floor is dominated by the barbershop of Sal Rosati, who came from Italy to Philadelphia in 1953. The setup is a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s design, with Rosati from time to time donating other artifacts – such as a working wall phone that predates his arrival and sterilizing jars.

Bonasera has donated multiple items, including photos of his grandfather as an actor, his father’s trade as a leather cutter and a quilted blanket that his thrifty mother made from scraps of cloth and old sweaters.

Museum displays continue to evolve. It recently added items on Italian opera from the Enrico Caruso Museum, which closed. And coming soon, HIIM will open an exhibit about St. Frances Cabrini that Cabrini University in Radnor, Pa., is developing.

The museum’s items, individually and when presented together, tell some of the stories of Italian immigration, from early explorers (starting with Cristoforo Colombo, Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni da Verrazano and Giovanni Caboto) to the two signers of the Declaration of Independence with Italian heritage (William Paca and Caesar Rodney), and from the Great Arrival (4 million Italians from southern Italy and Sicily emigrating between 1900 and 1920, halving the population of those communities) and to how these immigrant Italians strived to live the American Dream and succeeded to make a profound positive impact on many facets of society and have shaped modern sciences and arts.

Before the museum opened, Bonasera told We the Italians that he hoped it will “perpetuate our causes, protect our heritage and share its riches with the world.” And it does.


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