Lifeblood of the Parish

Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

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Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada
North American Religions
  • New York: 
    New York University Press
    , December
     2020.
     304 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479830497.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada weaves together a narrative that provides readers a front-row seat to the preparations and performances of the festival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (OLMC) in a neighborhood of New York City. She sets out to explore “how religious men come to understand themselves and be recognized as men” (2). Maldonado-Estrada uncovers the world of masculine devotion created and performed through the bodily aspects of acts of strength and tattooed skin, as well as the labor necessary to put on a feast that consists of basement meetings, paper mâché, and money rooms. She also examines the way that social networks affirm ideals of masculinity by highlighting mentors and leaders.

While much of the existing literature on religiosity indicates that women engage in more devotional practices than men, Maldonado-Estrada encourages readers to rethink the way devotional practices are conceptualized through her study of male devotional labor surrounding the feast of OLMC. Most gendered studies of religion and religious behavior have focused on laywomen through efforts to move away from the focus on male leadership; however, Maldonado-Estrada underscores the importance of understanding the religious devotion of laymen to understand the complex ways that religion and devotion are gendered. This shift allows for a new understanding of how social masculine capital intersects with the deeply personal relationships believers have with holy beings.

The male body plays an important role in the most visible aspect of the feast, the giglio, a four-ton, seven-story structure made with paper mâché, steel beams, and wood depicting saints, arches, and columns. Maldonado-Estrada spends time both in the basement creating the giglio, observing the way that the men interact with sacred images while creating and mending them, and in the dance of the giglio, where over one hundred men lift the structure and move it in unison. The lift in the July heat of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an example of masculine bodies coming together in a unified display of strength and struggle in honor of San Paolino. Another bodily example is their tattooing practice; many men proudly display tattoos of the first giglio on their arms or calves. These tattoos provide an intersection between personal devotion and masculine social capital.

Through Maldonado-Estrada’s close ethnographic experience, she observes the ways that masculine devotionalism takes shape through acts of labor. She finds a common motto to be “you do whatever you can do to help” (15). Maldonado-Estrada explains that the way she gained access to these homosocial, heterosexual male spaces, as a woman, was through years of helping with the feast. The author identifies that the ability to quantify her contributions to the feast through time and labor gained her masculine capital, which invited her to move further into the homosocial spaces in the parish. Through labor, doing what you can to help, men show devotion to the parish and their community. For some, that means spending most Saturdays in the basement providing saints and arches with new life through paint and paper mâché; for others, it means counting money late at night during the feast or contributing to the detailed planning of meetings. Maldonado-Estrada shows that these acts of devotional labor function as more than just transactional work; they include social networks that shape and reshape what masculinity and masculine devotion look like through paint, sweat, and wisecracks in homosocial spaces.

Maldonado-Estrada observes that the importance of this devotional labor is tied to fear of a dying ethnic parish. Many parishioners have moved out of the city as the community around the church continues to be gentrified. These anxieties are met with a different, antagonistic, type of masculinity. When men engage with the larger community interactions often turn antagonistic when encountering newcomers who are not perceived as having proper respect for the feast and traditions of the community. These anxieties surface throughout the manuscript, summed up by the phrase “if the feast goes, the parish goes” (167). Male devotional labor is seen as necessary to keep the feast and community alive.

Another social production of manhood is through the appointment of roles that signal an ideal of masculinity. For example, capos (captains) are the men who command the lifts and drops of the giglio. This position is earned through lifelong devotion to the feast and associated with the traits of a family man. Maldonado-Estrada notes that for many, it took them over thirty-five years to rise through the ranks to earn the title. The author asserts that manhood is heterosexual, as exemplified by the family man capos. One man, Anthony, became an honorary capo in 2005 and had run the shrine for decades; however, when he married his husband and invited the parish to the ceremony, he was no longer allowed in leadership positions, and his title of honorary capo was revoked. This meant that he was no longer included on the list on Old Timers Day, a day of the festival that honors previous capos. Anthony’s public nonconformance to the ideals of masculinity forced him to the edges of the feast despite his lifetime of devotion to the parish.

Maldonado-Estrada acknowledges the ways her positionality might have affected her results when she describes the complex interactions between her identities as an academic, a woman, and a New Yorker. She identifies that the access she gained was primarily through masculine capital, such as producing quantifiable labor and bantering. Her ethnographic storytelling brings the feast and its preparations to life, though some details could be confusing for someone who is not familiar with the terms or stories related to the feast, as the rich descriptions overshadow clearer definitions. However, time spent with Lifeblood of the Parish is well rewarded, as this text provides scholars with a new understanding of male devotion and religious identity through labor for the church, which highlights a lacuna in our understanding of the intersection between religious devotion and masculinity and begins to fill it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emma Folkenroth is a graduate student in religion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada is assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Kalamazoo College. She hails from New York City’s Lower East Side.

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