Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada is Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College where she teaches classes on religion and masculinity, Catholics in the Americas, urban religion, and religions of Latin America. She is an ethnographer and her research focuses on material culture, contemporary Catholicism, and gender and embodiment. She is the author of Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an ethnography about masculinity and men’s devotional lives in a gentrified neighborhood in New York City. Maldonado-Estrada is currently working on a project on business and devotionalism that explores Catholic entrepreneurs and innovation. She is co-chair of the Men and Masculinities Unit at the American Academy of Religion and serves on the editorial board of the journal American Religion. She was chosen as one of the Young Scholars in American Religion at IUPUI’s Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture. She received her Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and her B.A. in Sociology and Religion from Vassar College.
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Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
NYU Press | Coming December 2020
A New York City ethnography that explores men’s unique approaches to Catholic devotion
Every Saturday, and sometimes on weekday evenings, a group of men in old clothes can be found in the basement of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Each year the parish hosts the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and San Paolino di Nola. Its crowning event is the Dance of the Giglio, where the men lift a seventy-foot tall, four-ton tower through the streets, bearing its weight on their shoulders.
Drawing on six years of research, Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada reveals the making of this Italian American tower, as the men work year-round to prepare for the Feast. She argues that by paying attention to this behind-the-scenes activity, largely overlooked devotional practices shed new light on how men embody and enact their religiosity in sometimes unexpected ways.
Lifeblood of the Parish evocatively and accessibly presents the sensory and material world of Catholicism in Brooklyn, where religion is raucous and playful. Maldonado-Estrada here offers a new lens through which to understand men’s religious practice, showing how men and boys become socialized into their tradition and express devotion through unexpected acts like painting, woodworking, fundraising, and sporting tattoos. These practices, though not usually considered religious, are central to the ways the men she studied embodied their Catholic identity and formed bonds to the church.
I discuss Lifeblood of the Parish, growing up in New York City, and the many surprises that come with doing ethnography.
Featured expert in the BBC’s first Instagram documentary, from filmmaker and religion reporter Sophia Smith Galer.
This article explores the religious lives of Catholic men in Brooklyn, particularly focusing on their tattoos of saints and Catholic objects. It argues that tattoos are much like devotional objects: they are votive and function like sacramentals. Like scapulars, medals, and rosaries, tattoos can be efficacious conduits for protection and materialize love of the saints and Virgin Mary. More, tattoos illuminate the devotional lives of lay men. Every July in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Italian-Americans celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Paulinus, the patron saint of Nola, Italy. The central event of the feast is the Dance of the Giglio, a spectacular devotional ritual in which over one hundred men lift a seventy-foot-tall, four-ton devotional tower. In exploring tattoos of the giglio and other saints, this article argues that men’s devotion is relational—the saints are always inflected with their connections to mentors, fathers, friends, and kin. They enact devotion together through shared bodily labor. Tattoos materialize the very real and affectionate intergenerational bonds men form with each other in church and in religious ritual.
This article surveys scholarly contributions to the study of Catholic devotional practice in the Americas, tracing how historical, sociological, and ethnographic studies have examined the relationship between devotion, gender, and embodiment. Scholars have explored how the saints have been brought to bear on the conditions of daily life including immigration and migration, suffering, and social change. Women’s devotion has been at the center of studies of gender and lived religion, as scholars explore the creative and tensile ways, women’s religious practice has exceeded the institutional authority and architectural boundaries of the church. This essay ends with a provocation about how the study of men and masculinities can challenge the portrayal of devotion as an exclusively feminine domain and complicate the binary of (male) clerical authorities/women that pervades studies of religious practice and materiality.
Nola, a small town outside of Naples in the Campania region of Southern Italy, and Williamsburg, the premiere trendiest neighborhood in New York, are approximately 4,394 miles apart. Nola with its stone streets and ancient grit, is in the shadow of Vesuvius, while Williamsburg is ultra-gentrified and punctuated by high-rise glass condominiums and the shells of old Brooklyn factories. Still, both are central to Italian-American Catholic practice in Brooklyn. What these places share is intense love for Saint Paulinus (~353-431 AD), more affectionately and colloquially known as San Paolino, the patron saint of Nola. Although Italian-American men in Brooklyn might be separated from Italy by generations, what they share with those in Nola is a feeling of devotion in their bodies and in their bones. To love San Paolino is to reenact his hagiography each year, through costuming, ritual and devotional play. While public discussion about the feast in his honor centers on a dying or threatened tradition, there is a larger story here about an enduring devotion among men.
Summer in Brooklyn means exposed limbs, especially at the annual Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Williamsburg. One man’s story reveals how tattoos are devotional media. Joe’s body is covered in tattoos, most of them “cultural or religious” according to him.
Like any devotional object, a tattoo can range from artful to pedestrian. Despite the skill, virtue, or intent of the creator, its use, display, and personal and communal meaning matter much more. Tattoos are key sources for the study of religion. They are much more than visual markers of individual belief or values, “texts” writ on the body, or repositories for stories of the self. By this I mean they are more like objects: they are in use, activated, and even efficacious. Tattoos are not just signs of devotion. Wearing them constitutes an act of devotion, much like using a sacramental or making a votive offering.
Here I share how I used Instagram as a replacement for slideshows and more traditional Moodle posts, allowing students to engage aesthetically and analytically with course materials in ways that felt personal and accessible.
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How might we make American religion more capacious? What sources—ethnographic, material, sensory, and historical—can provoke new narratives, stories, and documentation of religion in the Americas? What are the procedures and rituals of accessing and analyzing those sources? How is finding, reading, and creatively or affectively engaging with sources part of the research process?
In this space we spotlight sources and provocations that enrich and challenge how and where we find, narrate, and study religious lives, spaces, imaginaries, and communities. We feature emerging field sites, findings from new or ignored archives, archives that give a global or hemispheric shape to American religion, object histories, and reflections on the sensory, bodily, visual, and material religion.