La Storia della Communità Orsognese a New York e del Orsogna Club

In 2014, the Orsogna Mutual Aid Society celebrated its 75th years since it was founded.

Orsogna MAS - NYT 1982 - Columbus Parade

Orsogna MAS – NYT 1982 – Columbus Parade

On June 27, 1939 seven immigrant men from the small town of Orsogna in the rural area of Abruzzo of central Italy signed a certificate of incorporation to unite fellow countrymen who immigrated and settled in Astoria, Queens.

Orsogna is a medieval village strategically nestled atop one of the peaks of the Apennine Hills overlooking the MoroValley onto the MaiellaMountain, the second highest mountain in the Apennine mountain range.  Orsogna’ s geographic location would play a central role in the chain of events during World War II and ultimately, the decision for its citizens to migrate in mass throughout the world.

During the period of the great migration (1880-1914) to the United States, many Italians arrived through different ports, namely New York, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.  The Orsognesi typically arrived in Philadelphia and Boston due to the sophisticated social network developed by earlier immigrants from the region. A few arrived in Youngstown, Ohio, Pittsburgh and New York.  The majority, who arrived, came alone and did not stay. They worked, remained for a short period of time and returned home to their families. They were referred to as “birds of passage”.  After World War I, the landscape of immigration changed. Quotas were developed and restrictions were put in place.  Immigration from Italy was severely limited. One could only migrate to the US with a sponsorship or a job in place.

At this time of immigration, the Orsognesi’s destination was mainly New York. In the early years, Orsognesi would settle on Elizabeth Street in New York’s Little Italy. In fact, documents were discovered in the old Stabile Bank, now the ItalianAmericanMuseum on the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets of Orsognesi having bank accounts in that institution.

The first Orsognese to move to Astoria, in the county of Queens was Giovanni DiVirgilio with his family. Eventually, the rest of the Orsognesi would follow him to this area.  Many Orsognesi were men living without their families, living in boarding houses which they referred to as “caserme” while maintaining their families in Italy. Over the years, the apartment buildings on Willow Street, or later 18th Street, a long, narrow cobblestone street in old AstoriaVillage would begin to fill in with large numbers of Orsognesi arriving with their families, occupying almost 75% of the housing and remaining there for decades to come.

They arrived as unskilled laborers. In the early 1920’s and ‘30’s, New York City was in the midst of massive construction and public projects. The Orsognesi found a niche in the New York City labor pool. They would become excavators/sandhogs, working in heavy construction building tunnels, bridges and subways which would influence where they would eventually settle and impact the community in Astoria, Queens. In the 1940’s many Orsognesi began working for a construction company known as Tully &DiNapoli and Slattery Construction. Orsognesi began working on the Steinway Tunnel/East River Tunnel.  As time went on, two other major projects were developing: the Water Tunnel 2 and the Triboro (RFK) Bridge.

In the early years, these men would socialize in small rented rooms in the area where they would find friends, relatives, countrymen and get information on new jobs, the latest news on their family from newly arrived immigrants and create a support network.  It was a natural progression that in June 1939 these men officially formed the Orsogna Mutual Aid Society.
The founders were: Antonio D’Angelo, Nicola Pisotti,Giuseppe Iocco, Emidio Di Rico,Pasquale Iocco, Nicola D’Alleva, Erminio D’Amiani.  The first President elected was Filippo Di Benedetto.

It was during this period that the newly found Orsogna Mutual Aid Society acquired its new permanent location at 26-25 18th Street. The new location, an old stable/garage would be the site established to bring all the Orsognesi together.  Within a few years, the location next door, 26-23, a pool room would be available for purchase and the members added that site as an adjacent room.  Members freely loaned money to the organization for these purchases.

The club’s mission was “to foster loyalty, cooperation and mutual assistance among its members and to promote social and cultural developments”. It was to provide recreation, sports and amusement, maintain cultural traditions and language and be a central location—a central clearing house for members to obtain information and support. Most importantly, it provided a network for providing jobs, collected fees to assist families in case of illness, medical insurance and if necessary, provide burial of its members in case of their death or their families.

Early years at the club were filled with card games, following the soccer teams in Italy through shortwave radio, picnics at KissenaPark and dances. The club organized their own Orsogna soccer team who played against other Italian clubs, the Greek and German teams on a soccer field what was once called “Campo Italia” on 20th Avenue and Steinway Street in Astoria. The third President of the Club, Ugo Felice Lauro was a garment shop owner and was a Captain in the Italian army during World War I.  He was responsible for forming an Orsognese folkloric group. He also organized many cultural activities such as plays for the members and their families. Lauro, himself was an actor in the Italian theater in New York City. Lauro also did readings from classic Italian authors for the membership and then led discussions.

During World War II, all immigration from Orsogna had ceased, however the members here in Astoria made major contributions to the war efforts through fundraisers, collecting food and clothing for the needy in Italy. Many of the sons of Orsognesi fought in Italy on the Allied side.

World War II had a major impact on the town of Orsogna. The battle of the SangroRiverValley which included Orsogna, was among one of the most difficult in the Italian campaign. Its geographic location became a stronghold for the Nazis and the battle raged on with the Allied forces for over six months devastating the town and the surrounding area with thousands of casualties.

Prof. Donna Budani from the University of Delaware wrote of Orsogna and the Orsognesi of today in America: “World War II and the conditions of the German occupation along with the battle of the SangroRiverValley destroyed the physical community of Orsogna and left its inhabitants scattered doing what they must do in order to survive. What remained of houses, businesses, schools, those places that become in our minds sites of our living of our childhood and our adult lives, were no more than rubble. Yet the community of Orsogna-individuals and families-remained intact for the community existed in their minds and hearts reflected in their values, their relationships and the way they believed how one’s life encompassed family and friendships. The war came as a rude intrusion in their everyday lives ordered by the rituals embedded in living one’s life. Someone once said to me: ‘Germany and America decided to fight and they did it in Italy.’ It must have seemed so to your grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles who were young, filled with generosity and hopes. Their legacy to you is contained in their stories on how they managed to live through war and remained a community of families, relations and friends.”

After the war, with the new immigrations laws, mainly the Refugee Act, Orsognesi arrived by the hundreds, if not by the thousands. Boatloads of Orsognesi arrived daily with their families and settled on 18th Street and the surrounding neighborhoods, making 18th Street “Little Orsogna”. By the 1950’s, the club’s membership swelled to 500 members. The club, which was originally founded by members who came to the US during the great migration period, had changed. It now was becoming epicenter for refugees from World War II. The socio-psychological dynamics of the new Orsognese immigrant was very different.  The new Orsognesi immigrants had to completely rebuild their lives and Orsogna MAS was there to embrace and assist them.

In 1969, the facilities were enlarged with the purchase of additional properties adjacent to the original clubhouse (26-27 18th Street and 18-15 26th Road) which would include a huge courtyard. The yard was large enough to hold massive feasts of their patron saint, Saint Rocco, a bocce court and many outside dinners and events.

During these expansive years, Orsogna Club catered to its community with a soccer team for young adults, cultural programs, picnics, porchetta dinners, and visits from Santa Claus or the Befana for the children. They published a newsletter, sponsored scholarship programs, organized cancer fundraisers, organized a women’s committee, had youth dances, tombola nights, beer nights, home-made wine tasting and sponsored cultural programs from abroad such as the Coro di Orsogna and the TeatroPlinio.  They organized occasional trips abroad and around the US.  Each year a plethora of events fill the calendar with events maintaining their traditions. Their annual dinner dances became memorable events with over 600 guests attending each year.

The annual St Rocco’s feast,including the annual procession in the surrounding neighborhood, became the mecca call for all Orsognesi. In the early 1980’s, the Orsognese tradition of I Talami, live biblical scenes, was recreated here in New York during the Feast of St. Rocco. Today, our procession continues the tradition from Orsogna with women carrying “Le Conche” filled with flowers balanced on their head in honor of St. Rocco. In 1976, Don Vincenzo Camplone, Pastor of the Church of San Nicola in Orsogna, personally delivered the statute of St. Rocco from Orsogna which is now placed in its own niche in the courtyard.

In 1979, Orsogna MAS revised their by-laws by allowing women to become full members.

The club was proud to have its own folkloric group and marched every year in the annual New York City Columbus Day Parade. In fact, in 1982, their pictures appeared on the front page of the New York Times in Orsognese costume to highlight the parade.

Orsogna MAS also became a must visit spot for many luminaries such as  former Governor Mario Cuomo and former Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro both of whom  visited our club during campaign season in their early years. It became the go to place, a central location where many officials from Orsogna and Italy came and visited.

In 2011, a new kitchen was built in order to provide the growing demand for more and more events. The main hall has been renovated in honor of the75th anniversary as it was done during the 25th and 50th anniversaries.

Over the years, thousands of Orsognesi immigrants, their families, children and grandchildren passed through our doors.  Many have moved to different parts of the city and state, but most have remained in Astoria and still continue to participate in our club. The original founders are obviously all gone and only a handful is left who arrived prior to World War II. The club is still 250 members strong and in the past few years has again, been growing with the help of a new generation of Orsognesi willing to continue the culture and traditions and recognizing the importance of its legacy.

The Orsogna Mutual Aid Society has been an anchor for the Orsognesi community in the United States. It gave stability and strength for over seven decades to immigrant families struggling to define themselves in a new nation without losing their identity.  Its founders had the unique ability to envision the longevity of the organization by structuring its By-Laws, its mission of establishing itself as a Mutual Aid Society and the purchasing of the properties, and therefore insuring the perpetuation of the institution.

As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, we reflect on the role Orsogna MAS has played our lives, the sense of community it has given us, the extended families we have formed and the awareness of our rootsand ancestry. We reflect on our humble beginnings at the time of our arrival in America, we look to the future with confidence knowing full well that succeeding generations will be able to take pride in their heritage and instill in their children a sense of our shared identity and purpose with fortitude and vision due to thanks to Orsogna Club.

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Article Name
La Storia della Communità Orsognese a New York e del Orsogna Club
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Maria Fosco describes the story of the Orsogna Mutual Aid Society and of the Orsogna Club in NY.
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