Saint Ambrose Catholic Church

Did you know that today is the commemoration for Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter? The timing for our visit to The Hill was quite felicitous in that regard! Ambrose was one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Church, (the others being Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great), and writer of my favorite Advent hymn, “Savior of the Nations Come.” The Catholic church on The Hill was obviously named in his honor.

As part of “Christmas on The Hill” this year, we took a tour of The Hill. And by tour, I mean we went to the church, St Ambrose Catholic Church, and the bocce club. You know, the two most important places in the neighborhood.

I found learning about the history of the church, and by extension, the neighborhood, to be fascinating.

The current church building, which is absolutely beautiful, was built in the early 1920s, after the original wooden church building burned down. (Why the church burned is up for some debate–it was either the result of a unsupervised candle burning out of control when a priest fell asleep reading, or the explosion of a still. The latter story is much more interesting, in my opinion, so I’m going with that one!) The pillars in the church are buried 40 feet in the ground for support, which is amazing to me.

We learned that it took only four years to build, which I think is astounding given the time at which it was built, and cost $285,000. They had the whole project paid off in 10 years, (also astounding!), and raised money for it in a variety of ways, including having children pay for the bricks used at a cost of 10 cents each. There were improvements done to the church in the 60s, following Vatican II, including the addition of a new, very grand, altar.

The church has been, and still is, the center of the community. It was clear, even in our brief time there, that it is still a gathering place–people were meeting on the church steps and talking, the salamites were distributed in the parking lot, and the crowning event of the day was an evening Christmas concert at the church, (which I hope to attend one of these years).

Christmas on the Hill 2011

Today, for the second year in a row, we went to “Christmas on The Hill.” I think it’s safe to say that this has become a new, yearly, family tradition!

One of my favorite parts of Christmas on The Hill is the nativity walk. All of the shops have nativity scenes in their windows, (some have several!), and many of them are from different places around the world. It’s really interesting to see all of the different styles and sizes, and the children loved going from window to window to find all of them.

Another favorite activity, and one that Bunny specifically wanted to do, is touring St. Ambrose Catholic Church. It is a magnificent building, and everything inside, from the ceiling, to the altar, to the organ, is grand. It was interesting comparing it both to our own church, and the Greek Orthodox Church we toured earlier this year.

As part of The Hill tour, led by Joe DeGregorio, (who also does paid tours of The Hill, by appointment, and tells awesome stories!), we learned some about the history of the neighborhood. I didn’t realize that when the area was first settled, the immigrants from Northern Italy, (the predominant settlers of The Hill), and those from Southern Italy didn’t get along. At all. Their dialects were even so different they had a hard time understanding each other! Those differences were resolved, however, as was evidence by the fact that our tour guide, who was awesome, is of Sicilian descent, and obviously has many friends in the neighborhood.

I also learned about some of the differences between the two groups, including that Northern Italians are more known for cream-based sauces on their food, (my favorite kind of Italian food), while Southern Italians are known for the traditional tomato-based sauces we typically think of when we’re talking about Italian food. Northern Italians are also more similar to Northern Europeans, (like my ancestors), while Southern Italians are the stereo-typical “New York Italians” that are portrayed in movies and television.

As a part of the tour of The Hill, we also got to go in the Italia-America Bocce Club. I’ve always been curious what the inside of that establishment looks like, and I have to say, it was nothing like I imagined, although, to be fair, I really had no idea what a bocce club looked like at all! It seemed like a very fun place to get together with friends and play a game!

No visit to Christmas on The Hill would be complete with sampling the salamites, and I finally learned what they are. They’re basically baby salamis, before they’re cured. So, the taste of salami, with the texture of a bratwurst. Delicious!

We stopped at Gelato Di Riso to hear “La Befana” tell her story, and learned a few songs in Italian, including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The school children from the area are obviously familiar with Italian, as they sang along with no difficulty. Just another charming aspect of life on The Hill!

The children got to cut soap at the Herbaria. They were shocked to learn that you can use plain old cookie cutters for this purpose, although it certainly wouldn’t work on a regular bar of soap. The store smelled wonderful…like mint and lavender. You can smell the soap from several blocks away!

It’s also fun just to look at all of the different buildings and houses in the neighborhood. The Italian pride is very evident everywhere, which is a nice thing to see.

Much as I feel Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, even though I’m not, when we go to Christmas on The Hill, I feel as though I’m Italian for the day, and I have to admit, it’s a very fun feeling!