Within Saint Louis there lies a neighborhood within the boundaries of Manchester Avenue to the north, Columbia and Southwest Avenues to the south, South Kingshighway on the east and Hampton Avenue on the west. This area is referred to as the Hill by its inhabitants and the people within Saint Louis City. The area is a total of 0.97 square miles with a population of 2,443 people and is known for its Italian history and presence that it brings to the city of Saint Louis today. The Hill has and continues to provide the City of Saint Louis with a look into Italian Christianity through the presence of Saint Ambrose parish. The Hill upholds its reputation as a neighborhood that exudes Italian heritage through the presence of Italian flag colors, shops that provide Italian excellencies, Italian restaurants, and the Italian Church.
The Hill started out as a simple place that was settled by Italian immigrants in the 1830s and was referred to as Little Italy, but surrounded by a few German settlers and a few English settlers. The Italians were originally attracted to St.Louis due to the mining capabilities that the area embodied. The Hill was one of several hundred Italian colonies in the 1900s, it upheld a community in which there were 600 Italians. The Italian community within the Hill began to prosper as the years went on. The years of 1905, 1906, and 1907 witnessed the largest single number of immigrants arriving to the Hill who were mostly men. Single Italian immigrants immediately started marrying women Italian’s within the Hill and the population began to grow, this lasted from 1900 to the 1930s. By 1910, it was clear that the Hill had been taken over by Italian Immigrants from the natives that had previously resided there. The newfound stability of the Hill can be attributed to the colony’s settlement and migration process. Although the Hill seemed to be prospering, the number of Italians immigrating during the entire period of 1915 to 1919 constituted less than one-half that of a single year in 1907. The war and a bitter strike halted the coming of Italian immigrants. Once Italians overcame this period, from 1920-1923 the Hill experienced an exodus in which large groups of Italian immigrants were flooding into the region. The Italian immigrants within the Hill differed immensely from other immigrants due to their settlement-oriented migration patterns but also their stability upon arrival. Although there had been fatal mining accidents over the years, Italian immigrants began to settle because the Hill was developing into a community in which companies, bakeries, safety, and the ability to practice their religion in the Church were guaranteed. The 1970s were when the Hill truly thrived with 5,000 American-Italians occupying the space, it had evolved to an ethnic community, noteworthy for its cohesion, stability, and permanence. In the 1920s, the Hill was a flourishing cultural community. The Hill has continued to exude the Italian culture that was originally brought from Italy through the 96% of Italians who emigrated between the 1900s and 1925. (1)
Today, the Hill’s Italian influence remains evident in its Italian American majority population and widespread Italian businesses. Walking through this neighborhood, one cannot fail to notice the plethora of authentic Italian restaurants, shops, and bakeries. Domed churches can be found on every block, towering architectural masterpieces reminiscent of the neoclassical style brought in by Italian influences. In the shops one will find religious objects, such as books, scriptures, ornaments, and trinkets. The Hill is full of Italian-American Catholics who are welcoming and warm. This population is proud of its heritage and its religious roots, making it a pleasantly rich area in terms of culture.
The heart of Italian Catholicism in the Hill is St. Ambrose. The Italians originally built it in the middle of the city so that it would be the center and joining factor of the community. St. Ambrose Church was built in 1903 by the Italian immigrants who had settled as an Italian-Catholic Church that was the center of the community and served as a place for the people to worship, give thanks, and wed in. On January 20, 1921, the church was destroyed by fire. However, the people were determined to rebuild the center of their community because of the importance they felt to have a place to worship and thank God for their blessings. The Church was eventually rebuilt and reopened on June 26, 1926, with the new addition of five bells. The five bells represented St. Ambrose, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Theresa, St. Nazario, and St. Vincent Ferreri. The priest at that time, Father Giovannini, gave a speech in which he dedicated the new parish to the Italian immigrants of the past and the present. He respected them by saying “this Church stands as one of the best in the city and will remain as a monument to the Italian people.” To this day the Church remains the center of the community and serves as a worship place for the current community. (4)
On our visit to The Hill, we were able to talk to Rev. Mr. Joseph at St. Ambrose Church. After asking several questions about the history of the church and traditions that the church still partakes in, we learned that Italian immigrants wanted the church to be the center of the town and everything else was built around it. Many people seemed to have walked to church on Sunday morning and it was their routine. It brought the community together and was part of their culture. We also noticed that the majority of the stores on The Hill are closed on Sundays. This shows how the importance of Sunday as a Holy day continues to be part of the tradition that The Hill practices. The church continues traditional events such as having processions in the streets on Holy days. On the first Sunday of the month at the 11am, there is a mass that is spoken all in Italian. Rev. Fragale said that this mass is still widely attended. Additionally, he mentioned that the inside of the church looks just like any other church that one would see around the world because Christian Catholic beliefs are seen throughout the world. Italian influences in culture is seen in St. Louis on The Hill.
Researched and written by Danielle Macpherson, Hannah Peterson, and Hope Waters
Mormino, Gary Ross. Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882-1982. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 2002.
Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th street: faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. 3rd edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Wayman, Norman L. "The Hill." History of St. Louis Neighborhoods - The Hill - Churches. Accessed October 18, 2017. https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/archive/neighborhood-histories-norbury-wayman/thehill/churches13.htm.
Fortieth Anniversary Historical Review, Brief Historical Sketches and Data of Saint Ambrose Parish, 1903-1943: Past and Present Achievements by Italians in America. Saint Louis, MO: Saint Ambrose Church, 1944.