The Hill is a well-known Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. This area is filled with authentic Italian restaurants, grocery stores, and shops. Along with the great food and shops, the area has a long history of Italian immigrants and religion that still have an impact on the neighborhood today. Religion plays a huge role in the community and St. Ambrose Church is a very prominent church in the area that has a long history and influences many people. Overall, this tight-knit community is passionate about keeping alive today the Italian culture that was brought over so many years ago.
In order to understand the complete history of the Hill, one must first investigate the history of its people. Until quite recently, many of the neighborhood’s residents have been descendents of ancestors who immigrated to the area from Italy. In the early nineteenth century, entire districts were forced to migrate out of Italy to avoid starvation caused by overpopulation, agricultural depression, and poor living and working conditions. Initially, a large number of northern Italians, mainly Venetians, Piedmontese, and Lombards, immigrated to other European nations or South American nations, specifically Argentina and Brazil. However, between 1886 and 1890, the flow of immigrants to the United States exceeded that to Europe. This is because Southern Italians, mainly from the provinces of Sicily, Basilicata, and Campania, immigrated to fill the need for laborers in construction and heavy industry that resulted from the building of the Frisco and Missouri-Pacific Railroads between 1853 and 1890 that ran South and West through the area.
These early immigrants established the “Fratellanza,” which was the earliest Italian American organization in the United States. It was founded to sustain the Italian culture while assisting in one another’s assimilation into America. This helped to unite the Italian immigrants and, in the beginning of the twentieth century, with around 10,000 Italian immigrants, St. Louis had the twelfth highest population of Italian residents among American cities. More immigrants came in small numbers, established businesses and were easily assimilated into the community.
Although the immigrants migrating to the Hill are a huge part of this community’s history, there is also a lot of history revolving around religion and churches that have impacted this area in many ways. An important factor in the development of the Hill was the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. With the growth of Italian immigration came the growth in the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the earliest Roman Catholic parish in the area was St. Aloysius Gonzaga, which was actually a German congregation organized in 1892. Although this parish was a German congregation, since the population was primarily Italian immigrants, people in the community hoped for a church that represented where they came from and who they were. So, Reverend Caesar Spingardi of St. Charles Borromeo Church established a mission for the Italians in the basement of St. Aloysius German Catholic Church. This movement was followed by a drive to obtain funds to build an Italian church in the district, which led to the creation of St. Ambrose Church.
Now that there was a drive to build an Italian church in the community, the construction of St. Ambrose Church had begun. A site at Cooper (now Marconi) and Wilson Avenue was purchased, and a frame church was dedicated there in 1903, which was the initial establishment of the church. This was named for Saint Ambrose, and the church soon became an important force in the Italian community because it helped improve relations between people from Northern and Southern Italy. In addition, several religious societies were organized in the parish.
Although things seemed to be going well for the church, tragedy struck when the original frame of the church was destroyed in a fire in 1921. However, things quickly turned around when a new cornerstone was laid in May 1925. The new $250,000 structure was dedicated on June 27, 1926, and is still the one that is there today. The design is based in the Lombard Romanesque style, which is similar to the ancient San Ambrogio Church in Milan. The exterior walls are composed of brick and terra cotta, while the interior has high barrel vault ceilings consisting of three naves, which are separated by arches that rest on six columns.
In 1955, another change happened to the church. The church was redefined from a national parish to a territorial one. This says that the parish basically encompasses the Hill, which means it is “restricted,” or will stay in this area because of how significant this church is within the community. Another addition was incorporated into the church in the early 1970s. A statue of an immigrant, sculpted by Ruby Torini stands next to St. Ambrose Church. The statue is a reminder of the sacrifice immigrants made, especially Italian Immigrants, to create a better life for themselves and their families. The statue features a man holding a suitcase and a woman carrying a baby in her arms.
Today, St. Ambrose Church is still the center of the community on the Hill, and is also the location of a Catholic grade school. This church represents the culture of the people living in this community. It has made an impact on the community and people in many ways and will forever be apart of the Hill’s history.
Even today Italian culture is still a large part of the culture on the Hill. The Italian background of the Hill is a point of passion to the community. On almost every storefront, on every fire hydrant, and even painted on a street intersection the Italian flag’s colors of green white and red are proudly displayed. It would come as no surprise with all the pride for Italy and history of Italian immigrants that the Hill would become a neighborhood with plenty of very good Italian restaurants. Many of the restaurants feature authentic Italian cuisine while many offer new twist on Italian food such as Toasted Ravioli, which is a local St. Louis delicacy but it is still not clear which Hill restaurant was the first to come up with it. Some of the more famous examples of Italian restaurants and grocery stores on the Hill include Zia’s Restaurant, Charlie Gitto’s, Mama’s on the Hill, DiGregorio’s Imported Foods, and Gioia’s Deli. Many restaurants on the Hill were started by first-generation Italian Americans, however pride of Italian heritage is still carried out by many third- and fourth-generation Italian Americans who run the restaurants in the Hill today and even by people who moved to the Hill who have no Italian background in their ancestry. Today in the twenty-first century, additions include coffee houses, studios, retail, and small businesses. Even these new additions to the Hill show pride for Italian heritage of the area by displaying Italian flags.
St. Ambrose Church also remains a large center of the community today. The Church still holds daily mass and community events. On the Hill there are no other large churches of Catholic or any other denominations besides St. Ambrose. St. Ambrose and Italian Catholic history have remained central to the culture of the Hill.
Researched and written by Julianne Haglof, Drew Ottenlips, and Ashley Wroble
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