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Protestant roots in the Delaware Valley’s Italian-American Community


Early proselytizing seen as attempt to wean Italians from Catholicism

by Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Italy today is still considered a country in which the majority of its citizens are of the Catholic faith. For those who have studied the events that shaped the primary religion of the country, the conversion from Roman mythology to Christianity is often credited as the catalyst which first introduced monotheism to the Italian peninsula.
However, it was actually Judaism that was the first monotheistic religion on the peninsula. Judaism was practiced even prior to the birth of Jesus Christ when merchants from Judea were allowed to take residence in Rome as peddlers. Then on April 14, 70 A.D., during Passover, Titus laid siege to Jerusalem and brought hundreds of Jews to Rome as slaves. In later years a new monotheistic religion would begin to take root on the Italian peninsula, Christianity.
When Christianity did reach Italy, it was not very prevalent among the populace and a long history of persecution followed until Constantine converted and became the first Christian Roman emperor.
In February 313, Constantine met with Licinius in Milan where they crafted the Edict of Milan. The edict said that Christians could openly worship what they chose. From that point forward the Roman Catholic religion has been and still is the prominent religion of Italians and their descendants around the world. However Article 19 of the Italian Constitution states, “Anyone is entitled to freely profess their religious belief in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public
or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality”. This article brought an end to Roman Catholicism as the state religion of Italy.
Today Italy remains a predominantly Roman Catholic country, with minorities of Muslims, mostly from recent immigration, Sikhs and Jews. Christian Protestants are historically few since 97.67% of Italians are baptized according to the rite of the Catholic Church.
Here in the U.S., Protestantism seems to have taken a stronger hold on Italians and Italian-Americans dating to 1656 when a considerable number of Italian Waldensians escaping persecution landed in what is now New York City. Many of them settled in New Castle, Delaware and from there moved on to Philadelphia.
In 1889, on Catherine Street in South Philadelphia, Dr. Teofilo D. Malan established the Methodist Episcopal Italian Evangelical Church. This church published La Verità, an Italian language newspaper founded by Dr. Malan in 1890. The First Italian Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia was established in South Philadelphia in 1900 at 1020 S. Tenth St. Its first pastor was Reverend Amaldo Stati. The Church’s first services took place in a tent near the site that would eventually be where the church would be built at 10th and Kimball Streets. It didn’t take long to build a permanent structure, since the church had rapidly converted enough members to raise the funds to do so. By 1903 the Church established its first Italian mission and flourished as an Italian based congregation. Since a significant number of my husband’s relatives were congregants of the church, I heard first-hand of the effort made by many members of the church to convert relatives and friends.
After the success of the First Italian Presbyterian Church, the Second Italian Presbyterian Church was established at 65th and Callowhill Streets in the West Philadelphia Italian enclave. It began as the Christian Italian mission in November of 1905. The mission quickly gathered momentum and in 1908 the trustees build a new and larger church on a parcel adjacent to St. Donato’s Italian National Roman Catholic Church.
In 1910 the Christian Italian Mission was renamed the Second Italian Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Today these two churches are still active, but are no longer are named “Italian Presbyterian” and serve the Korean and Vietnamese communities. Unlike their Catholic counterparts, Italian-American Protestants quickly assimilated and moved out of the old neighborhoods. Today, though an overwhelming majority of Italians-Americans in the Delaware Valley are Roman Catholic, there remain among them Protestants of all denominations, mainly Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists.
As of the latest research, there are no longer any Protestant churches in the region specifically identifying as “Italian.” However, the 2010 census estimated that 14% of Italian-Americans identify themselves as Protestants.
While there is no question that the effort to convert Italians in this country to Protestantism had its religious significance, there was another underlining reason for this proselytizing effort. The powers behind this early effort to convert Italian immigrants to Protestantism were part of a mission to wean Italian immigrants away from Catholicism. Many believed this would

facilitate the Americanization and assimilation
into the “melting pot.” IAH

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