Casa Colombo: A Wealth of History
Guests mingling at the Le Marche lecture at Casa Colombo, Gia Portfolio© Harmony Media, NJ
While not off the beaten path, 380 Monmouth Street, Casa Colombo the home of the Italian Educational and Cultural Center, still remains somewhat of a mystery to a majority of Jersey City residents.
The institution was originally two separate entities. Casa Colombo first opened its doors in Downtown Jersey City in 1936 as a school and a meeting place where Italian immigrants arriving in Jersey City could gather and feel a sense of community.
The Italian Educational and Cultural Center (IECC) was formed in 1971 near St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in the Heights by Nicholas Di Marzio, who was the associate pastor of the congregation at the time (and who, since 2003, has served as the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Brooklyn). Like Casa Colombo, the IECC’s mission was to help newly arrived Italian immigrants. But whereas Casa Colombo’s programming was mainly limited to educational and social activities, the scope of IECC’s programs extended to such practical matters as applying for citizenship, finding work, and locating housing, as well.
Carla Mastropierro, executive director of the IECC, who began work with the organization in the 1970s, remembers the founding of the organization well. “I was working part time [there] to help, just to be of support,” she says. The center had numerous highly dedicated volunteers like Mastropierro such as Anita Apruzzese, and Mrs. and Mr. Franciosa. Under Di Marzio’s leadership, they saw to it that the IECC would help Italian immigrants to Jersey City “in any way possible.”
The IECC’s role in the community started shifting in the 1980s. Not only were fewer Europeans emigrating to the U.S. by this time (because of better economic conditions at home), but those who did come here to Jersey City tended to have jobs lined up already and therefore had different needs. In 1985 Di Marzio (who had become pastor at Jersey City’s Holy Rosary Church) moved to Washington, D.C. to assume executive directorship for migration and refugee services for the U.S. Catholic Conference. Thus the organization had to adapt. The center evolved from a source of mainly practical support to one of mostly emotional support—a place where Italian-Americans could connect socially and reinforce their sense of community.
It was in the late 80s that the IECC purchased Casa Colombo and that the institution that we know today began emerging. In partnership with the Newark-based Catholic Community Services, the Casa (as it was now called) was still providing valuable social services. But during the 1990s “the so-called ‘immigration of the intellectuals,’ known as the ‘high brains’ moved here,” says Mastropierro,” and this caused the organization to “change completely.” “The Ivy Leaguers of Italy,” as these immigrants were also called, wanted the Casa to showcase art and historical artifacts from their own upbringing. Ever-sensitive to its clients’ needs, the organization complied. By the end of the 90s, Casa Columbo was offering courses in the Italian language itself (taught by none other than Mastropierro, who had become an Italian professor in the meantime)—a sure sign it was now helping Italian-Americans reconnect with their heritage rather than adopt a new one. These programs would also increasingly appeal to Jersey City’s residents as a whole.
While life at Casa Colombo flourished through the early aughts, it diminished markedly as a result of the 2007 recession. Many structures in the immediate neighborhood were blighted as well. “This area was getting depressed,” says Mastropierro of the City’s Village section, “and interest in Italian culture dwindled.”
The building itself was also deteriorating. All but abandoned now that its clientele had shriveled, 380 Monmouth was threatened with sale or demolition when a core group of the organization’s volunteers saved the day. They obtained funding from the city, lobbied (former) Mayor Healy, consulted with HGTV “Kitchen Cousins” Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri (aka Brunelleschi Construction)—and with the financial, political, and engineering support the volunteers needed (together with the help of board member Giuseppe Munafo), Casa Colombo was able to renovate the property itself.
In the last few years Casa Colombo has blossomed. It now hosts events and exhibits that celebrate Italian culture and the history and artistry of Jersey City’s many other community-oriented residents. And it does so with an increasingly intellectual and artistically sophisticated bent.
Examples of 2015 events centering on Italian heritage include two photography exhibits opening in October: “The Italian Experience in Jersey City” (by the Embankment Coalition) and “Roman Aqueducts in the Landscape” (by Franc Palaia) and a recent lecture and film on the Le Marche region of Italy (photo of guests mingling after the lecture is featured above.) Le Marche a lesser-known area on the Northern Adriatic is prized for its beautiful landscape and centuries-old architecture and for having been the home of such notables as Raffaelo Sanzio (Raffael) and Dante Alighieri.
The guest lecturer, University of Macerata-trained Mauro Peroni, Ph.D. is enthusiastic about exposing what he describes as the more “real” area of Le Marche to audiences outside Italy and has been lecturing in the greater New York City area on Italian culture since 2013. But he realizes that too much publicity could have its downsides. “I realized there was a chance to promote my region,” says Peroni, “but it’s not easy. They [Italians] want to keep the region what it is-to preserve it.”
To view displays of artifacts from the Italian-American experience, visitors need look no farther than the Casa’s gallery, located on the third floor. On permanent display are clothing, jewelry, tableware, even a sewing machine once belonging to Jersey City’s Italian immigrants. In the same room are signed letters from Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and Umberto II (the last King of Italy) in praise of Casa Colombo’s work. Other articles pertaining to Italian-American history are showcased on a rotating basis.
Some of the general-interest programming planned for the summer and fall include the exhibitions “Environmental Resources and Issues: Investigation of Environmental Solutions for Jersey City” and “Building Studies: An Archive of Jersey City Architecture” (both can be viewed Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 3 pm through August 27); an a cappella performance on Sept. 20 by the award-winning group “Gimme Four;” and a food-sampling event called “Chefs of Jersey City” on Nov 11. Following most of the organization’s events beverages and thematically related food is served.
Where does the funding and the inspiration for such diverse programming come from? The nonprofit charges for events (typically $10 for members and $15 for others); and it relies heavily on private donations and the help of volunteers. Much of the institution’s energy and direction comes from a twelve-member board of trustees. Chairman Louis Iozzi and his wife, Frances DePalma-Iozzi are particularly active (and talented: Louis is a jazz saxophonist who has played at the house; and Frances is an artist who’s exhibited there). Frances explains why: “You see how warm it is and how everyone comes. That’s how we feel about ourselves. We are a small group that welcomes people in.”
But if Casa Colombo’s audience is widening, it is doing so amidst growing pains. “We are always struggling for money as a nonprofit,” said Louis Iozzi. “There are fewer grants because there is so much competition. We’re no longer this minority group, which is good. But by the same token, we need the funds to preserve this [place]. The Italian immigrant population in Jersey City has to contain its roots.”
It is indeed a mixed blessing, but one that Mastropierro embraces. “We want to do so many things,” she says, gazing at a memento she herself brought with her when emigrating from Italy. “We are appealing to everybody to come here and enjoy what we have.”
Casa Colombo is located at 380 Monmouth St. For more information, visit casacolombo.org.
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Photos by Beth Achenbach, Catherine Hecht and Gia Portfolio where noted, © Harmony Media, NJ. Liz Morrill contributed to this article.