Francesco Isgrò (President of the Italian American Museum of Washington DC)

La presenza, il contributo e l'emigrazione italiana nella capitale degli Stati Uniti: incontriamo Francesco Isgrò, Presidente dell'Italian American Museum di Washington DC

Mar 09, 2021 3195 ITA ENG

There are almost twenty museums of Italian emigration to America, and another one has recently been inaugurated. It is part of a wonderful complex in the US Capital, Washington DC.

I am pleased to have Francesco Isgrò as guest and protagonist of this interview, President of this wonderful new place that celebrates the Italian American experience and the remarkable contribution of our fellow Italians who emigrated to Washington. Welcome on We the Italians!

Francesco, you are the President of the Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center Inc. Please help our readers understand your personal history and the history and the mission of your organization

First of all, thank you for your interest in the Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center in Washington, D.C., and our programs and projects.

My personal history begins in Terme-Vigliatore, a coastal town near Milazzo, Sicily, where I was born. When I was a teenager, my parents moved our family to Schenectady, New York, where my grandfather and other relatives were living. It’s a common immigration theme, of course, the importance of families being together. My first residence in the U.S. was New York but, in fact, my home for the past 40-plus years has been Washington, D.C.  

After college I joined the U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer program and was sent to Central African Republic to teach for two years. It was almost accidentally that on a visit to D.C., following my return from Africa, I decided to stay here and study law.  Shortly after getting my law degree I took a position at the Department of Justice, where I spent my 40-year career as an attorney in various positions within the field of immigration law. For 30 years, I was also an adjunct professor of immigration law at several local law schools.

On a volunteer and social basis, I've been very involved in the Italian American community with various groups and activities. For example, Holy Rosary Church, the national Italian parish, has been a point of reference for many Italians and Italian Americans in the city for more than a century, and Casa Italiana, next door to the church, provides a social and cultural element for the community. When Father Ezio Marchetto was assigned pastor in 2013, he accelerated the diverse cultural activities at Casa Italiana, while overseeing the expansion of the complex with the addition of a new multi-purpose building.  After my retirement from the Justice Department, I focused more fully on the Casa Italiana activities.

A few years ago, we created a separate non-profit organization called Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center Inc. to institutionalize the cultural programs and events. My role as president and CEO, as well as those of our generous and talented board and staff, is entirely on a volunteer basis. Our goal is to support Italian-related cultural activities not only at Casa Italiana but also in the greater Washington area, and to present, promote and celebrate the best of Italian culture. So, when Father Marchetto, a history afficionado, expressed the idea of creating a small museum in the nation’s capital, which is so rich in Italian influences, I was totally on board. We started in late 2017 with a few volunteers who worked full time on the project. We are very proud to say that by the end of 2020, we had completed the museum and we held a symbolic ribbon-cutting for the launching of the new Italian American Museum of Washington DC (IAMDC).  

You also have a Casa Italiana Language School and an Ente Promotore. Tell us about them.

When the old Casa Italiana hall was built in 1981, then-pastor Father Caesar Donanzan established language classes, the scuola italiana. The late Dr. Maria Wilmeth, a great personality here, became the first director of the formal Casa Italiana Language School. Eventually the language school also became a separate nonprofit entity, managed for many years by Dr. Joe Lupo.  Today, the Casa Italiana Language School is directed by Faduma Ali and teaches around 1400 students. There are language classes of varying levels, literature and culture classes, as well as cooking classes and ceramic classes.

Subsequently, Casa Italiana also became an ente promotore.  This separate program focuses on promoting and supporting the teaching of Italian in local high schools. It is currently headed by Paola Corneo.

I know that you have a wonderful library with 2500 Italian American books and several DVDs and I think that this is very important. Can you please tell me more about this?

We actually have several libraries, which we intend to expand. One is a large library of books in Italian, beautifully catalogued that visitors can borrow from. We also have a large collection of children's Italian books and are now in the process of establishing an Italian American library, in which we want to showcase, support and promote Italian American authors and those, like you, who write about Italian Americans. In the post-covid future, one of our goals is to invite authors to make book presentations at the library, since we now have the space and excellent location.

Tell me a bit more about the connection between the new Casa Italian Sociocultural Center building, and Holy Rosary Church and Father Ezio Marchetto.

The major inspiration for many of the new cultural projects was Father Ezio Marchetto. He understood that the influence of the Italian culture in Washington is pervasive and yet its history is little-known. For instance, few people know that the city was not only highly influenced by Italian art and architecture, but was also built my many Italian hands, who left a huge legacy.

A major change in our complex, came about five years ago, when a large construction project was changing the landscape of the area around the church and Casa Italiana. The project developers acquired some of the church’s land to complete the project, and compensated by constructing a large multi-purpose building adjacent to the church. The new building houses office space for the church and Casa Italiana, language and cultural classes under the Casa Italiana Language School, as well as the Italian American Museum of Washington DC, and a large piazza that will be used for outdoor cultural and social events. The Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center Inc. supports and oversees certain cultural events and programs, such as the Marconi Project of oral histories, as well as the museum and an archive collection.

Father Marchetto was recently elevated by his Scalabrinian Order to be Provincial Bursar for the St. Charles Borromeo Province and has relocated to New York City. His replacements are Father Pietro Paolo Polo and Father Andrei Zanon, who look forward to building on the deep religious and cultural traditions of our community.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not easy to have this kind of space in D.C.

That’s absolutely true. Holy Rosary Church and Casa Italiana are located in a great area: two blocks from the Union train station, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, and across the street from a Metro station. Furthermore, the Jewish museum is now being constructed near the historic synagogue just across from our complex. We are also close to the German American Museum, the National Building Museum, as well as the Smithsonian Museums at the national Mall.

What’s your Marconi Project?

One of the projects of the Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center Inc. is our ongoing Marconi Project, oral histories of Italian immigrants to the area and their descendants. They share their life stories and their challenges and achievements. We especially want to capture the stories of the earlier immigrants since their numbers are dwindling and it’s important to preserve how being Italian affected their lives in D.C. and the challenges they may have faced. Washington is home to many interesting Italian Americans. Among those we have interviewed are: the grandson of Luigi Einaudi, the first President of the Italian Republic; the Italian-born owner of the stone company that built the Vietnam memorial; an Italian American entrepreneur who helped develop huge parts of the city; and about a dozen others so far. I believe we need the voices of the past to help us understand the present and plan for the future.

After 14 years you recently left Voce Italiana, please tell us more about it.

Voce Italiana began publishing in 1961 under the direction of Azione Cattolica as the Holy Rosary Church newsletter.  Over the years, it developed and evolved into a more generalized publication. In 2007, Father Lydio F. Tomasi, who was at the Center for Migration Studies in New York, was assigned to Holy Rosary (his brother, Silvano Tomasi was recently elevated to Cardinal). Father Lydio greatly expanded the paper and moved it to a digital platform. I had known Father Lydio for many years through my legal work in immigration, and he asked me to become Executive Editor. Over the past 14 years in that position, my particular interest was to diversify the newspaper so that it embraces the entire local community. In the end, I believe our team achieved our objectives and produced a quality, diversified, interesting newspaper about our Italian American community and beyond.  

The new editor of Voce Italiana as of January is Paola Corneo, who is assisted by a new team. I think it's important to hear other voices reporting and writing articles of interest to the community.

In your activities in Washington, do you meet more Italians born in Italy who now work in some international institution, or more Italian Americans, people born in America with Italian origins?

The core of the community membership is Italian American. In the past few years, however, we have seen an increase of Italian natives working at various international institutions. These increasing number of Italians bring a wonderful view of contemporary Italy with them but many are in the area temporarily and then move on to other posts. Members of the Italian American community, on the other hand, have deep and strong ties here.  

Tell us more about this new, beautiful museum you recently opened: the Robert A. Facchina Italian American Museum of Washington DC. I want to know everything about it!

The inauguration of the Italian American Museum of Washington, DC on December 14, 2020, was an historic day for our Italian and Italian American community. While we were engaged in creating the Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center, Inc., and garnering financial support from our community, as I mentioned, Father Marchetto suggested that one of our projects should be to establish a museum, housed in the new building, about the local Italian American community.

We formed a team to work on the project and thanks to a generous gift from Commendatore Robert A. Facchina, the dream became a reality. To show our appreciation to Mr. Facchina, we named the museum in his honor. Furthermore, the Facchina family has strong roots in the community, dating back to the early days of the formation of Holy Rosary Church, more than 100 years ago.

The museum has a vertical footprint: exhibitions are found on each of the four lobby areas, as well as in some separate rooms and galleries. As you enter the museum, we display the names of the more than 100 generous donors “founders,” who contributed to Casa Italiana. We have a quote on the wall by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that sets the tone. His words read: “It is important for us Italian Americans to remember the stories, to remember the people who came before us and on whose shoulders we stand.”

Many in D.C. are not aware of the challenges, tribulations, or achievements of Italian Americans in the city. In large numbers, they helped build monuments, offices, government buildings, bridges. They helped build the city, and then Italian sculptors and stone cutters helped beautify it.

As you enter the first-floor lobby, there is a beautiful large wall map of Washington, D.C. that points to 30 of the many sites that were created by or somehow touched by Italian hands. A few examples: the statue of Dante, carved by a Sicilian sculptor, is located in a city park; the six statues in front of Union Station were carved in 1910 by Andrew Bernasconi, whose descendants are still in the area; and the huge statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial was carved by the Piccirilli brothers, who did numerous other carvings throughout the city. Our map also includes various museums in the city with their outstanding collections of Italian art and artifacts.

Next to the map is a display case that honors Italian and Italian American stone workers and carvers. You can see some of the tools that were used to construct the Vietnam memorial by a stone company started by an Italian immigrant, as well as an original piece of column carved by an Italian in the late 1860s for the U.S. Capitol. A modern artist and sculptor named Davide Prete created the 3D reproduction, also on display, of another Capitol column created by Italians in the 19th century.

The second-floor space is dedicated to the immigrant experience – the everyday lives of the early Italians in D.C. A large timeline tracks the arc of Italian immigration to the city going back to Thomas Jefferson who first recruited Italians to beautify the growing city and Italian musicians to play in the President’s Marine Corps Band. Cases include family artifacts donated by local descendants of immigrants to the area.

The third floor is devoted to the history of the local community—of the century-old old Holy Rosary Church and the Casa Italiana, which opened in 1981. Beautiful religious artifacts are on display here.

The fourth floor harkens back to the first in celebrating Italian artistry but displays artwork by modern artists. We asked for art donations and about 30 artists came forward and their works are displayed in these galleries – from modern art to mosaics to ceramics. Our objective here is to promote local Italian American artists.

We are very proud that our museum is the only one in the country that, as Italian Ambassador Armando Varricchio stated on our inauguration day, “showcases the contributions that Italians and Italian Americans have made in the Nation’s Capital.”

As we said, your area of influence is Washington, District of Columbia. Today in the capital some want to delete references to Columbus, following the attacks and violence against statues in different parts of America. What are your thoughts on all this?

In recent years, Columbus has become highly politicized, and used by one side or the other to represent something ideological, not cultural. We celebrate him because he instills a sense of pride in us Italian Americans. We celebrate Columbus because when our ancestors and other Italian immigrants were discriminated against, they had a hero to lift them up, and they could say with pride that Columbus, an Italian, had discovered America. We now need to tell our stories of what Columbus means to our community and why we erected statues of him across America. The fact is that we are all here because an Italian navigator opened the doors to European migration.

Columbus was not a perfect man, but instead of destroying his historical significance and the statues, let's all learn from his missteps and challenges. The past should serve as our guide toward a better future.

We will definitely proudly continue to celebrate Columbus in Washington for what he represents to us. We have a beautiful statue of the young Columbus in our new piazza, a statue that was donated by the Lido Civic Club, a local Italian American institution in the capital for more than 90 years. Each year we gather around the statue, and by remembering Columbus we also recall the history of Italian Americans in America and we celebrate their many contributions.  

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