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Home : News : Local
8/19/2011 3:06:00 PM
Italian immigrants became key part of Portland life
Catholic Sentinel archives
St. Michael Church, her shown not long after it was built in 1901, quickly became a center of Italian faith and culture.
Catholic Sentinel archives
St. Michael Church, her shown not long after it was built in 1901, quickly became a center of Italian faith and culture.

 Grotto photo
Italian prisoners of war attend Mass at The Grotto, 1944.
 Grotto photo
Italian prisoners of war attend Mass at The Grotto, 1944.
Oregon Historial Society, Catholic Sentinel archives, writings of Fred Granta

By the end of the 19th century, Italy had become overcrowed, with low wages and high taxes. Between 1890 and 1910, almost 3 million Italians left rural areas of their homeland and came to the U.S.

In and around cities like Portland, immigrants found work as laborers, shopkeepers and farmers. The Italian population of Portland surged from 1,000 in 1900 to 5,000 by 1910. They first settled south of town near Marquam’s Gulch, a district shared with Russian Jews. Later, Italians moved to Ladd’s Addition, Brooklyn and Parkrose.  

The immigrants, many of whom were single men, accepted low wages and worked in railroad yards and on roadways, sometimes being seen as a threat by Irish-American laborers. Italian entrepreneurs opened shops and restaurants, while others established truck farms east of the city. Many Italian men were fruit and vegetable peddlers.

The late Paulist Father Vincent Sampietro grew up at St. Philip Neri and St. Michael parishes, where he discerned a vocation and preached around the Northwest for decades. He recalled the musical call of vendors as they drove carts or walked down the streets.

When he was a boy, the Italian Ranchers and Gardeners Association established a retail produce outlet, precursor to today's farmers markets.  

Italian families often took in single men as boarders and neighborhood life was lively. Clubs emerged and held dances. Men gathered to play bocce ball regularly.

St. Michael Church, established in 1901, became a hub of faith and culture. St. Philip Neri served the same function on the east side. St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie would also have a strong Italian presence.

Dario Raschio, a lifelong member of St. Michael's, recalls being a scrawny boy on Portland's south waterfront in the 1920s. He and his pals would jump off parked rail cars into piles of straw or dirt. Raschio once soared into what looked like gray soil, but was hot ash. He still bears the scars from the burns.

“When I look back at it, I think we were living in a ghetto," Raschio told the Catholic Sentinel in 2005. "But we didn’t know it then. It was our place.”

Raschio was an altar boy who rose at 5:30 a.m. to serve for Mass at the convent of the Holy Names Sisters at St. Mary's Academy. He would became a decorated Navy pilot during World War II.  

Urban renewal in the 1960s erased much of the South Portland Italian district. An Interstate 405 ramp, for example, runs through what used to be the living room belonging to George Galati's godmother.

Galati, who would become principal of Roosevelt High School, walks the re-engineered streets of his old neighborhood. Amid roaring with traffic, he sees more accommodating days of the 1930s and 40s in his mind’s eye. There is where Jacketta’s Grocery stood. At Third and Lincoln was the Lincoln Theater, where he went on adventures via the silver screen. At Third and Sheridan, you could get a good haircut from Mr. Medici.

After Mussolini’s government fell during World War II, Italy declared war on Germany and Italian prisoners of war were put to work in the U.S. on conditional status. One of the new Italian units was housed at Vancouver Barracks. Portland priests said Mass for the soldiers at places like The Grotto. St. Philip Neri Parish held a spaghetti dinner for the men and other churches hosted dances. Some civic leaders were miffed and worked to put a halt to the hospitality. Six of the Vancouver prisoners returned after the war to marry Portland women.

As wars ended and cultures mix inextricably, the Italian presence in the local church was memorialized at St. Mary Cathedral. There, one of the stained glass windows installed in 1998 features St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian and patroness of immigrants.  

Other memorials come in the form of pasta and sauce. Dozens of Italian church dinners continue at parishes like St. Ignatius, Ascension, St. John the Baptist, St. Philip Neri and St. Charles. In the 1940s, Portlander Josephine Burgherra made a living going from parish to parish preparing authentic Italian spaghetti sauce.

A human legacy of the Italian Catholic community has become widely noted for good sense, kindness and walking the path of Jesus. She's Holy Names Sister Margaret Graziano, the daughter of two early Italian fruit and vegetable entrepreneurs. Sister Margaret still ministers to inmates at the Lane County Jail, where she is a legend.

Related Stories:
• Tradition of hospitality lives on at corner
• 'Going like a house on fire'
• Social clubs promote Italian culture
• An ancient sport bonds young and old
• Festival celebrates 'la vita dolce'

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