Italian immigration into Pennsylvania was negligible until the late 1800s. Between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I, thousands came, primarily from Sicily and the southern parts of the peninsula. The vast majority settled in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Moving into areas whose population did not share their language, religion and cultural traditions was not an easy thing to adapt to. Italians from both the northern and southern provinces migrated because there were few opportunities for economic and social advancement in Italy.
The United States Census shows that in 1870 there were only 784 Italian-born people residing in Pennsylvania. By 1900, there were 66,655. But the greatest increase occurred between 1900 and 1910 with 196,122 native-born Italians living in Pennsylvania. By 1920 an additional 26,642 Italian-born immigrants had settled in the State.
When the new wave of Italian immigration to Pennsylvania began in the late 1870s, most of the newcomers were young single men from the villages of southern Italy. The Italian laborers who came to Pennsylvania in the 1870s usually arrived in New York City and traveled to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh by rail. Many were hired to lay track by the Pennsylvania and the Reading Railroads. Other Italian workers found employment in coal mines and the slate quarries. A significant percentage of these workers traveled back and forth between Pennsylvania and their native Italian villages numerous times, but others remained in Pennsylvania permanently.
At the turn of the century, Italian immigration to Pennsylvania was still primarily from the provinces of southern Italy. By this time, however, the immigrants were coming in greater proportion with their families, evidence that they had little intention of returning to Italy. With steamship passenger service to Philadelphia beginning in 1908, a number of Italian families traveled directly to Pennsylvania.
Angelo’s uncle Tony, and Tony’s father, Dr Angelo Bongiovanni, were among the Italian immigrants from Sicily who settled in Pennsylvania after arrival in America. Sixteen year-old Tony arrived in 1902 and I assume his father was with him, but I have not been able to locate any records on his father to verify this. Ten-year-old Nicolina Nastasi, also from Sicily, arrived in America with her mother, two sisters, a brother, an aunt and cousin in 1904. The Nastasi family also settled in Pennsylvania, and Nicolina would later become Tony’s wife.
Wherever in Pennsylvania the Italians settled, they faced many hardships. Thousands worked in jobs that were low paying and hazardous, prompting them to support the labor union movement. Neither steel nor bituminous coal employed large numbers of Italian immigrants.
Despite instances of discrimination and exploitation, the Italians did not surrender their values and culture. Instead, they developed religious, political, economic and social institutions to support them in adjusting to life in Pennsylvania and to preserve their heritage. The majority of Italian immigrants to Pennsylvania were Catholics. They struggled to establish their own parishes and schools. They wanted Italian, not Irish priests to preside at daily mass, feast-day celebrations, christenings, weddings and funerals. Many of the Italian parishes founded in the state’s largest cities still flourish today.