The Neighborhood House – Ministry to Italian Immigrants

One of our early local mission projects involved a ministry to local immigrant families.

Immigration is much in the news today, but the level of immigration is small compared what our area experienced at the turn of the last century.  Like New York City, Philadelphia was a center of immigration, particularly for immigrants from Italy , where a prolonged economic crisis in both the north and south of Italy made immigration a virtual necessity for hundreds of thousands.  By 1930, immigrants and their children accounted for almost a million of the residence of Philadelphia.  These included about 200,000 Italians and an equal number of eastern European Jews.  Overall, the city’s population had grown from 850,000 to 1,900,000 in the half century between 1880 and 1930.

1915 was the peak year for Italian immigration, and some of these immigrants had settled nearby, establishing a neighborhood in South Ardmore.  It was that year that the Ladies Aid Society, an early version of Women’s Association, “sensed a real challenge for work among the Italian immigrants in our community.”  After much prayer, it was decided to start a ministry, to be located at a house on the corner of Spring and Greenfield Avenues.

Known as the Neighborhood House, the ministry opened its doors in December of 1915.   The initial programs were for the children of the immigrant families. With an average attendance of 60, the daily children’s classes included sewing for girls, and clay modeling and carpentry for boys.  The last half hour of the afternoon was spent in singing and stories.

Later, the Men’s Bible Class assumed responsibility for a men’s program.  On Tuesday and Thursday evenings English was taught to the men and short religious services were held.  The average attendance was 45.  On Saturday evenings, the house was opened for socializing. “Games, reading matter and a piano were at their disposal.”    On Sundays, the Men’s class led a worship service followed by a Sunday school.

Eventually, the church purchased Neighborhood House for $5,000, and the “work took on new vitality with a sense of security and permanence.”  By 1921, the church hired Mr. Polycastro and Mr. Rose, both Italian ministers, to help lead worship and teach Bible classes.

But in December of that year the ministry came to an untimely end.   Only four days after a well-attended Christmas service, a fire broke out causing “such serious damage to the house that the work there had to be halted.”

After careful consideration, the Board of Trustees decided that the Neighborhood House should be sold. The sale was completed in 1923, and the net profit – $610 – was turned over to the Building Fund for our new sanctuary.

Although not mentioned in our church history, the closing of the ministry occurred at about the same time as changes in immigration law imposed quotas which sharply curtailed immigration from southern Europe.  It is possible that as the current immigrants became assimilated into the community, and no new immigrants were on the horizon, the future possibilities of the ministry appeared limited.

Despite its short tenure, H. Rey Wolf, clerk of Session and author of the original church history, gave a very positive assessment of the Neighborhood House ministry.  He stated: “There was convincing proof of changed lives, evidence of an aroused interest in the things of the spirit. Ten of the men were united with our church and the boys and girls were given instruction in the truths of the Bible which was reflected in many ways in their lives.”

“The teaching of English and United States History was of immeasurable value to those prospective American citizens.”