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  The Mother of Grace Club
Margaret (LaFata) Giacalone (1912-1997), with her household altar honoring St. Joseph. Click to view larger image.
Margaret Giacalone (1912-1997), at her household altar honoring St. Joseph

The photographs of Mother Of Grace, examine an area of American life which has long been neglected. Specifically, it is a collection of stories about promise, faith, and devotion among an alliance of women, united together in friendship under the banner of Mother Of Grace. The resulting words and images, chronicle the rich cultural traditions of the fishing families living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the oldest seaport in America.

The alliance known as the Mother Of Grace Club, came together five decades ago. As an organization of women, primarily the wives of fishermen, they gather to pray, sing, and socialize throughout the year in Gloucester. This fishing town, with a history of being an important center of maritime activity, has drawn scores of immigrants to its shores and is thus imbued with a cultural heritage steeped in old world religious traditions.

During the 1940's, while the young men of the United States were fighting battles across Western Europe, fifty women in this small fishing town gathered together to pray for an end to the suffering overseas. They also prayed and hoped that their husbands, sons, brothers, and nephews would be returned to them safely. In their isolation, during the years of World War II, these women met regularly for informal family and community get-togethers. In an era when policemen and volunteers would rap on the outside of the houses to remind their occupants of the "lights out" policy designed to discourage submarine attacks along the Eastern Coastline, strong friendships grew amongst the women laying the groundwork for an organization which has lasted over half a century.

After WWII ended, this close-knit fraternity of women went on to purchase a derelict and abandoned property from the city of Gloucester for one dollar in 1944. The women went to work renovating the two story building and it soon became known as the Mother of Grace Clubhouse. Now, over fifty years later, as we move into the new Millennium one can continue to pass this building, with its doors open wide, and witness many of these same women continuing to pray and sing together in harmonic reverie. But in addition to the continued prayers for world peace, they are also hoping for blessings for young families, alcohol and drug problems, sickness, and for an abundance of fish.

Social/religious clubs or groups have played an important role in American society for over a century. The local Grange, Elks, or St, Christopher Clubs have long played an important role in the civic and social life of a community. In addition, folk customs for the veneration of images in the creation of domestic home altars have found devotional expression in every corner of the Earth. Such traditions are a fundamental part of cultures worldwide.

This sort of regional and cultural variation, as evidenced by the members of the Mother Of Grace Club, has not been recorded or explored visually, or historically, in any consistent fashion. The vitality and variety of these types of organizations are often a prominent feature of people's lives. They deserve extensive documentation and analysis of their spiritual and community functions.

Dana Salvo, Joanna Favazza, as Our Lady, in pageant for St. Peter. Color Photograph, 16 x 20. Click to view larger image.
Joanna Favazza, as Our Lady, in pageant for St. Peter

The study of Twentieth Century immigration patterns, American folklore, cultural traditions, and labor practices has been a source of countless articles and books. The Mother of Grace project however, provides a unique understanding, in personal terms, of one of America's earliest industries - fishing. While many early immigrants were flocking to cities and mill towns for work, countless others were seeking a livelihood along the Eastern seaboard.

Decades ago, mill towns such as Lowell and Haverhill, Massachusetts lost their economic base within the textile industries. Volumes have been written about the impact this had upon New England. Only recently, as the abundant supply of fish has become endangered, have towns like Gloucester or New Bedford, been experiencing such a threat to their community or way of life.

This Mother of Grace project, with photographs and words, provides an honest depiction of a close-knit community, from which a portrait emerges of a townspeople who have nurtured themselves throughout the years that have witnessed the fabric of American family life change dramatically.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Sicily in the 1920's. As a descendant of early Twentieth Century Italian Americans, I have developed a keen interest in the cultural traditions that formed so much of my upbringing. Several years ago, while in the midst of producing and editing my book, Home Altars of Mexico, I began working with members of the Mother of Grace Club. I had just recently moved to Gloucester, the town where my wife grew up, and where we hoped to raise our two daughters. Beginning in 1992, working with my wife and partner, Dawn Southworth, we have been collecting a wide array of material, including: historical photographs, home movies, family photograph albums, oral histories and writings, as well as icons and objects.

Dana Salvo, Katie and Mike Fontana's shrine to St. Joseph, Color Photograph, 16 x 20. Click to view larger image.
Katie and Mike Fontana's shrine to St. Joseph

Thus far I have produced contemporary photographs of the two-story clubhouse, the members' domestic home environments, household shrines, backyard gardens, and family gatherings and ceremonies. The above mentioned personal memorabilia, along with my photographs encapsulate the rich cultural heritage of Gloucester's fishing populace.

These photographs and stories of the work-in-progress were recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Cape Ann Historical Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts, entitled Mother Of Grace: Gloucester Photographs by Dana Salvo. This exhibit created a renewed sense of pride for Gloucester's cultural traditions. The show included seventy photographs. In addition, while collaborating with several families of the Gloucester community, actual room environments were created to accompany the exhibition.


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