At the corner of 10th Avenue and Scranton Street rises the imposing mass of Saint Lucy’s Roman Catholic Church (figure 1), designed by architect Vincent Russoniello, raised between 1913 and 1924, and dedicated in 1927. From 1891 the parish was the mother church to all the Italian ‘ethnic’ parishes in Scranton. As you may have heard, the Italians know what they are about when it comes to churches. When I spotted this one, which is criminally sandwiched away in a now-lost corner of West Scranton, I had one of my close shaves of nearly driving into a lamp post, so great was my astonishment.
My time was limited, so that I didn’t get a chance to investigate the interior; today’s photoessay is already oversized with a survey of the façade and a little history of the building. The interior can wait.
Russoniello’s façade fronts a brick structure (figure 2). One might think of the Gesù in Rome, or perhaps the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, though unfinished, is a better comparandum (figure 3). The marble of the façade was shipped in from Carrara, IT.
The façade bears a small mosaic tag (figure 4) giving the dates of construction of the present building. This happily corresponds to the high water mark of American monumental building. I can’t quite figure out why “Lucy’s C.R. Church” is so written; I would have expected “R.C.” for ‘Roman Catholic’. The construction dates also encompass World War I, which will be significant.
Russoniello articulated the façade into three masses, one corresponding to each of the three naves. To my eye, the greatest weakness in his design is the stark, angular transition between the tall central mass and the shorter mass on each side. This façade is too good to be considered a mere frame for the reliefs on it, but the eye cannot but connect the two lower masses together into a wide billboard shape.
Giacomo della Porta, who set the standard for articulating the interior division and structure of a church in its façade in the Gesù also came up with the neat solution of S-shaped brackets to cushion the transition we’re talking about (figure 5).
Turning now to the artistic program of Saint Lucy’s façade, the sculpture (and other carving) was from the shop of Agostino N. Russo (1882-1945), a native of Avellino, IT, who moved to Scranton in about 1905.
At the top of the side masses are tondi with busts of the princes of the apostles, Saint Peter on the left (figure 6) and Saint Paul on the right (figure 7). Both vary a bit from their traditional iconography inasmuch as Peter usually has a full head of hair and Paul a distinctly receding hairline. Peter has his keys, of course, and Paul the sword symbolic of his martyrdom: the same attributes we find on the analogous statues in front of St. Peter’s in Rome.
Two statues (figures 8, 9) flank the steps rising to the main entrance and are fittingly considered part of the façade. They are not labeled, but it’s reasonable to think that on the left is Lucy, on the right, with child, Mary. Lucy, you may recall, is the one whose eyes were (according to the notoriously unreliable martyrologies) gouged out; she customarily bears them in a cup, or on a plate as a symbol of her suffering (figure 10).
We do not see her eyes (by the way, new ones were put in her face by God after her death) in the cup or on it in figure 8.
The seated elder woman flanked by a child or a less important adult made smaller in hierarchical scale is easy to find; the presence of a book and an arm embracing the lesser figure is also common. See, for example, the monument of Anna Houser in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (figure 11) and the figure upon the Bolte-Willms monument in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland (figure 12). In our statues, the book is presumably scripture and signifies truth or enlightenment. Lucy, you see, still needs to read it; Mary, by contrast, has serene knowledge of the truth and it is the little helper ‘angel’ who is in comparative need of instruction.
It may be that the statues in figures 11-12 were not envisioned in the original project of the façade, for Lucy appears again in the relief panels in the form of a tympanum that have been inserted into the façade. Brackets below the reliefs seem to express in a stagey way the panels have been mounted upon the façade in the manner of a museum display. The effect is rather artificial and does little to dispel the visual effect of façade as a blank canvas for the art. The central figure of Lucy, refulgent (see the light beams), bears her cup (no eyes) and a palm frond signifying martyrdom. The two trapezoidal reliefs flanking the Lucy relief appear to me identical but for reflective symmetry and the tiny imperfections of the cutter’s hand.
At the foot of the relief group will be the episcopal stemma of Michael John Hoban, Bishop of the Scranton Diocese from 1899-1926.
Centered and immediately over the three main portals of the church is another relief, this time more integrally a part of the façade than the relief group above, though it, too, is nominally supported by brackets above the pillars framing the portals. Like the Lucy group, this group features a central panel (with a figure of Christ in glory) flanked by two lesser side panels. The central, higher, and hierarchically larger Christ in glory is symmetrically appraoched by the apostles, six in each side panel. Unlike the angels surrounding Lucy above, each apostle has a unique pose and some attempt at individual characterization. In good anthracite valley style, the apostles are seen clustered about and sitting upon ledges of sedimentary rock.
This triangular composition with Christ at the apex and six apostles clustered on each side is a variant of a very old piece of Christian iconography (which goes back to Roman imperial models).
See, for example, the apse mosaic of the Basilica of Santa Pudenziana in Rome (figure 15: c. 550 C.E.) where the central teaching Christ is flanked by two groups of six disciples. Note that some of the mosaic is no longer visible thanks to alterations in the apse; the two female figures are not important here.
So far we’ve seen that the façade is quite busy with well executed but pretty standard Roman Catholic imagery. The psilocybin kicks in as we consider the two World War I memorial reliefs centered one on each side within the flanking masses of the façade, below the apostle princes’ tondi. On the left is a relief (figure 16) depicting an American soldier fallen in battle and commending his soul to Mary. His uniform is clearly American, but there is the supporting evidence of typical shield emblems with stars and stripes on them flanking the frame across the top of the relief.
The soldier’s swoon is dramatic, his limbs and body limp. As is typical in these sorts of memorials he has not got a disfiguring wound but is imagined, in a way, to be going to sleep. His is a personal victory (dying for a good cause) and a military victory (the allies won the war), as signified by the laurels at his head.
We might fittingly compare John Singer Sargent’s 1922 Death and Victory in Harvard’s Widener Library. It’s of course very different in its choice of allegory, though no less Christian. The Widener soldier is weighed down by death, its shroud a transferred symbol for the shroud that goes over and around the dead. Simultaneously, however, he is raised by victory, who holds a palm and a laurel crown for him. While borrowed from pagan iconography, the palm and laurel are Christian symbols for a life well lived (and heavenly reward), a victory in the race of life. The Scranton memorial hints with its battlefield smoke at the dying soldier’s soul rising with Mary, who plays the same commendatory role in this relief that the winged victory does in Sargent’s.
Opposite the dying American is a soldier wearing a different uniform. He’d been wearing the Adrian helmet (figure 19, used especially by France and Italy), lies atop a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, and has a star at his collar. One can see just this uniform on the right in this Pinterest image. Our relief appears to have gotten the tunic’s buttons wrong in leaving them visible.
Most tellingly, instead of the U.S. shield with stars and stripes of the other war relief we here have the crest (figure 20) of the Savoian monarchy which governed Italy during World War I. Christ himself blesses and commends the dying Italian soldier (clutching at a neat and clean chest wound which we cannot see), whose Jovian contributions are signaled by the oak branch.
Well, Saint Lucy’s was the mother of the Italian ethnic churches in Scranton, and Italy was our ally in World War I. What better way of commemorating the sacrifices of the soldiers of both countries than to memorialize them in parallel reliefs on the façade of Scranton’s Italian-American church?
A word about Agostino N. Russo. He worked in the early 1920s on St. Peter’s, Scranton’s cathedral. He then opened a shop in Pietrasanta in Tuscany, which he retained even after he sailed home with the marbles. The Scranton Times of 1921 published a photo of him in the Pietrasanta succursale (branch office) which was reprinted in an article about Russo in the Times-Tribune in 2016 by Erin Nissley (figure 21).
Of particular interest is an enlargement made for the 2016 article (figure 22).
You know Scranton had made it when a sculptor proudly advertises himself in the shadow of Carrara as “The Scrantonian Sculptor.”
Also worth noting: Saint Lucy’s was victim of a dynamite bombing in June 1931. The theory at the time was that the perps were fascists making a statement about the church’s antifascist (in the true sense of that word) leanings. It blew out one side of the building’s imported art glass windows.
Six months later, on 11 November 1931, the Scranton house of Italian consul Cavaliere Fortunato Tiscar was bombed. The theory at the time was that this was done by antifascists making a statement about Italian foreign minister Dino Grandi‘s visit; he arrived in the U.S. the day of the bombing, 11 November (a day already pregnant with significance for this post!). Of him, the Pedia of Wiki states in part:
“Grandi was an ally to the most radical and violent groups of fascists, always surrounding himself with members of the Blackshirts. He used his power base to voice criticism of Mussolini’s attempt to reach an armistice with left-wingers and was at one point under suspicion for having attempted to replace the latter with the skeptical alleged Mussolini forerunner Gabriele D’Annunzio.”
So if you think we live in crazy-banana times, it’s worth remembering that there were even crazier-bananier times not so very long ago.
A final note: In a very “Scranton” development, in the “mid-1950s” old coal mine shafts collapsed underneath Saint Lucy’s bell tower (which explains why I didn’t see one when I visited). I let Stephanie Longo take up the story from the St. Lucy’s website:
 “Unfortunately in the mid 1950s, the mines collapsed underneath the bell tower and, due to bad advice, the church underwent many changes that it didn’t have to,” Fr. Ferretti [Pastor at the time Longo wrote] said, adding that the pastor at the time was told that the church was too heavy and would collapse into a coal mine if most of the marble was not removed from the interior.
 “There used to be a marble walk up pulpit that today would be valued between $300,000- $500,000. The bottom of this pulpit had three angels holding a rose garland and the top showed Christ entering Jerusalem with a crowd all around him,” Fr. Ferretti added. “But now the base is outside at St. Ann’s [The Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Ann, also located in Scranton] and the pieces of the pulpit are in someone’s yard, eaten away by decades of acid rain. We offered to buy the pieces but the owners wouldn’t sell.”
 “Other interior changes included the removal of a marble depiction of Christ’s crucifixion above the main altar and the removal of the church’s original marble flooring.”