The Beginning of Trenton’s Italian Chambersburg Section 1866
By: Tom Frascella August 2017
Over the past forty years a number of people have asked me to write articles that include the origins of the 19th and 20th century Trenton Italian-American neighborhood known as Chambersburg or, for many the “Burg”. There have been literally hundreds of articles, even books and short films on the development of the Chambersburg Italian-American community from a starting point in the 1890’s thru its decline in the 1960’s. However, as you can see from the title of this article I place the origin of the community in a much earlier time frame. In fact I place the “Italian” presence and influence on the development of the area as early as 1800. In so doing one of the misperceptions of the Burg I hope my article avoids is the sense that the “Italian” immigration displaced earlier “immigrant” settlement. Contrary to that point of view I would offer that Italians and Italian-Americans were among the earliest settlers of the region in post-colonial and pre-urban times. They also held important positions as directors of the development of what became a mid- 19th century industrial based urban community.
Although, as stated above there have been many articles about the “burg” few have included the perspective of San Felese families who were among the earliest of the mass immigration of Italians to the U.S. San Felese presence existed in Trenton starting and is documented as early as 1862.
To begin my discussion on the origins of the Italian-American “Burg” it is important to consider the area through its historic physical perspective rather than the urban environment that came later. For much of Trenton’s early colonial and post-colonial 18th and early 19th century history Trenton is better described as “Trent’s Town”. It was a small community located just north of the Delaware River Falls. The Falls mark the northern end point where deep draft vessels can sail, or navigate on the river. At the time of the American Revolution Trenton was a community of about 5,000 people occupying about a quarter square mile. It was a municipal “township” within Hunterdon County. It became the Capital of New Jersey post Revolution in 1790 and would see growth both through the annexation of parcels from neighboring communities and development of its industrial base. Trenton “enlargement continued for well over the century. This was possible because most of the surrounding areas were sparsely populated woodlands and colonial farms. Even by 1850 the population of Trenton Township had only grown to approximately 7,000 souls. For my purposes I will refer to the original colonial boundaries of Trenton, as either “center city” or “old” Trenton.
The geographic area of our focus in this article however, lies to the south and east of old Trenton. Therefore, it was not a part of the original municipality. Originally this land was a part of colonial Burlington County. In addition what we now know as “south Trenton” was a part of Burlington’s Nottingham Township. Nottingham Township would eventually be re-named Hamilton Township and like Trenton became part of a “new” county created in the early 19th century and named for American Revolutionary hero General Hugh Mercer who was killed at the battle of Princeton. The County created from parts of Hunterdon, Middlesex and Burlington is known today as Mercer County.
Aside from a wharf area just below the Falls much of the river coast land south of old Trenton in Burlington County was made up of large farm parcels as late as 1845. One of these parcels “Rosey Hill” was owned by the Italian-American Sartori family starting in 1804. Giovanni Sartori was Emissary to the U.S. from the Vatican States and his home therefore served as the official Vatican State residence. A short distance from Sartori’s estate was one owned by Joseph Bonaparte. Joseph Bonaparte was born in Corsica at that time a possession of Genoa and so at birth Bonaparte was Italian. Joseph, was appointed during the reign of his brother Napoleon, King of southern Italy and later King of Spain. After Napoleon’s defeat and capture, Joseph would eventually choose exile in 1814 to New Jersey. There he would acquire large land holdings in Bordentown and northern Burlington along the Delaware River. Those land holdings extended northward into Nottingham Township. The estate near Trenton was used by Bonaparte to house his mistress and the two children of that relationship. So by the early 1800’s there were at least two prominent men born of Italian ancestry who held extensive land ownership in what would become “south Trenton”.
The story of the “burg” and of the urban/industrial development of this area comes into play somewhat later beginning in the mid-1840’s. This is after both the Bonaparte and Sartori family descendants had begun to sell off the land and had left the area. However the story of this part of “south Trenton still relates to Sartori and Bonaparte land holdings as those holdings were the first targeted for industrial development.
Of key importance to that story of industrialization is native New York industrialist Peter Cooper (1791-1883). Mr. Cooper was one of the great American inventors and industrialists of his time. Among his varied business interests was iron mining and production. Mr. Cooper owned iron ore mines in northern New Jersey. Coal the fuel of the day, was being mined just across the river in Pennsylvania. A seeming match of resources. However, this region in the early 19th century presented both logistical difficulties for transport and a lack of labor force for refining. The Pennsylvania coal region was in fact the “frontier” of America at the time.
The question for the industrialist was where to best locate a production site where raw materials could efficiently be transported and where a labor force could be assembled for the refining process. Based upon the infrastructure of the day, raw materials, iron ore and coal could be brought down river via canals constructed starting in the 1830’s to a site just south of the Trenton Falls. Cooper realized that from there it could be manufactured and shipped either south by river or north by canal and later rail. I should note that Trenton’s central, Mid-Atlantic location was generally well known to U.S. planners in the early 19th century. Trenton had in fact briefly served as the U.S. Capitol and was the location of the U.S.’s primary hospital during the War of 1812 because of its geographic setting. Trenton’s location would thru the 19th century attract many business and manufacturing entities.
Based upon this analysis Cooper determined to locate an iron manufacturing plant near the Trenton Falls. Political efforts arose, no doubt fueled by Mr. Cooper’s interest, to develop the area south of Trenton on the navigable Delaware into this industrial location. The initial political efforts successfully created a parcel which by act of the New Jersey Legislature in 1840 broke off a small portion of northern Nottingham Township., creating a “new municipal entity called Lamberton Borough.
In fact, the site Cooper chose to purchase in Lamberton Borough for his iron manufacturing plant included all of the Rosey Hill estate formerly owned by the Sartori family. Mr. Cooper named his iron manufacturing plant the Cooper-Hewitt Iron Works and began construction in 1847. The name of the Iron Works references his son and son-in law who were to run the plant. In fact the Sartori house served as the company President’s home and later its company’s headquarter office.
The Borough of Lamberton would eventually be annexed, in the mid 1850’s, into Trenton as the initial part of what would become known as “south” Trenton. So actually it was the industrialization of the area that “displaced the original farming families including those of Italian heritage. It also began the creation of more “urban” type envirnoment to support the factory workers.
What would become known as Chambersburg at this point, the 1850’s, was not included in the Lamberton section, as Chambers farm was located further east and still a part of Hamilton/Nottingham Township. Chambers farm and adjacent properties would remain a relatively rural area which was part of Hamilton Township through 1870.
Mr. Cooper also convinced a fellow industrialist, John A. Roebling, who relied on Mr. Cooper’s iron works for iron cable strands to locate his factory next to the Cooper-Hewitt works on the Delaware River. Mr. Roebling began construction of his factory, located adjacent to the Cooper-Hewitt Iron Works in 1849. Mr. Roebling was a German immigrant and European trained engineer. Both men and their respective families would over the course of the next two decades build very successful manufacturing operations in Trenton which would attract many newly arrived immigrants seeking work. Fueled in large part by Trenton’s industrial surge the population of the town grew from about 7,000 people in the 1850 census to 17,000 in the 1860 census.
Mid-19th century iron manufacturing was hard work completed under poorly paid and harsh working conditions. The success to these two industries depended on a steady supply of cheap labor. While some of that labor came from native born Americans much came from newly arriving immigrants. Industrialist of the day were quick to find that these poor newly arriving immigrants would work cheaper and harder than most native born Americans. Roebling, in part because of his ancestry, favored hiring “German” or German speaking immigrant workers at his industrial site. So German or German-speaking immigrants were also a part of the newly developing industrial neighborhood that was being created near the new factories.
It is important to point out the distinction between what today we might consider “German” and what was “German” in the 1850’s. Germany as we recognize it today did not exist in the 1850’s or 1860’s. What did exist was the German Confederation made up of approximately 37 kingdoms, with Austria and Prussia being the two most powerful. In addition to the 37 kingdoms much of the territories surrounding them contained both ethnic Germans and German speaking peoples.
So as factory workers began to locate near the initial Roebling plant in the Lamberton section of south Trenton, the “German” element located there and favored by Roebling was actually more ethnically diverse than we might think today. There were in facts also Swiss, Poles, Hungarians, Italians and Jews basically coming from central Europe.
It was recognized as that population grew that the material and social needs of this non-English speaking element of factory workers presented a unique set of challenges which had to be addressed. American society as a whole was not prepared to deal with large numbers of non-English speaking peoples and their customs. These challenges included providing for the basic needs of this population. It was critical to provide for these needs in order to assure that a steady stream of labor could be maintained. Among those social needs were basic housing, markets, churches and schools that could help German speaking immigrants in their transition into the community.
Initially in the 1820’s “German” immigrants were primarily from northern German kingdoms. But by the 1840’s many of the “German” speaking immigrants to the U.S., New Jersey, and Trenton were suddenly coming from the southern German States such as Bavaria and Austria and their affiliated territories. Which from a religious standpoint meant they were mainly Catholic. The Catholic Church as it existed in the 1840’s and 1850’s was small and poorly equipped to handle mass immigration and particularly non-English speaking immigrants. In fact New Jersey was considered for Catholic administrative purposes a mission territory divided north south and attended by the Dioceses of New York and Philadelphia.
With the mass Irish immigration starting in the 1840’s there was a major shortage of Catholic clergy in the U.S. in general. Although the Irish immigrants spoke English there had been few Catholic churches, parishes or Dioceses established in the U.S prior to 1840. As an example, New Jersey’s first Catholic Church was not built until 1814 and that was privately built by Sartori in Trenton. It listed only twenty families in its congregation. Of note as I said that church was paid for privately by Giovanni Sartori and a friend Jean-Baptiste Hargous. It was built on Lamberton Street on the Nottingham Township border with old Trenton.
However, with the Irish and German immigration creating a surge in Catholics here and in other northeastern States the task of establishing an expanding Catholic ministry and resources fell to American bishops. In partial response the Diocese of New Jersey was created 1853. New Jersey’s first Bishop, James Roosevelt Bayley was appointed and invested, along with three other newly appointed U.S. bishops in the Cathedral in New York City by the Papal Nuncio to south America in 1853. Bishop Bayley immediately understood, like all U.S. Catholic bishops of the era, that he did not have enough trained clergy for the growing ministry. It was estimated as written by Bishop Bayley that initially when he was installed as Bishop of New Jersey that New Jersey had 40,000 mostly immigrant Catholics and 25 priests. There were no religious orders established in the State at that time and no Catholic educational facilities of higher learning. Like most U.S. Catholic bishops of the era he took a two prong approach to addressing the shortage of trained personnel. First, he established domestic training institutions, a college and seminary, and second, he recruited European trained clergy through various orders for work in existing and newly created parishes.
On the educational side Bishop Bayley is to be credited with establishing Chegary Academy, old Seton Hall, in 1856 with its religious training center. In addition he was a primary mover in establishing the North American College in Rome to further American vocational training in Italy where teachers were more available. Looking to Italy for help in 1860 Bishop Bayley recruited FR. Januarius De Concilio, a young Neapolitan theologian to come to America. Fr, De Concilio was an Aquinas scholar and considered a top young Italian theologian in his own right. Fr., De Concilio duties were to be principle theologian for seminarians at Seton n Hall. Among Fr. De Concilio accomplishments in America is that he is credited with drafting the 1885 version of the Baltimore Catechism.
Photograph of Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley
It is Bishop Bayley’s recruitment of religious orders to establish “houses” within the State of New Jersey and to help with the ministry of the State’s Catholics that brings this article to its focus in south Trenton and eventually to Chambersburg. The late 1840’s and 1850’s saw enough German speaking Catholics arrive in Trenton that a separate Catholic Church and school was needed. St. Francis Church was created, taking over the building that had once held New Jersey’s first Catholic Church. That former parish having grown enough to require a new site and much larger Church. Eventually the German immigrant community outgrew this facility as well and began construction of a new St. Francis located in “old Trenton” on Front Street. Trenton’s German speaking catholic community continued to grow.
Bishop Bayley in 1865, realizing the great need for German speaking clerics in New Jersey, reached out to the Franciscan Custody which had been established in 1856 in upstate New York. In so doing Bishop Bayley was following up on the earlier efforts of Buffalo Bishop John Timon in locating trained clerics in Europe who spoke German to minister to large numbers of German speaking immigrants.
A few words concerning the establishment of the New York Franciscan Custody are probably appropriate. The Franciscan Order of Monks and Priests is a large and successful Order with a history going back many hundreds of years. The Order was established and follows the monastic Rules established by its founder St. Francis of Assisi. St Francis hailed from Assisi which is in northern Italy and the Franciscan Provence of Assisi is considered to be the Orders Central Provence. Through the centuries the Order has established Provences worldwide and has ministered through its missionary work to the poor on a global scale. However, as of 1850 it had no formal presence in the United States. Like most monastic orders of the Church the Franciscan Order has its own set of Rules which its members follow, and its own chain of monastic command. While they may operate in coordination with local Bishops they are not part of the local parish and the parish priest network within a local Diocese. I mention this because what the U.S. Bishops needed was the establishment and ministry of “parish” priests, not monasteries.
The fact that Bishop Timons was so desperate for help in 1854 that he reached out to the Order should be recognized as highly unusual. Eventually the Minister General of the Franciscan Order agreed to the establishment of a Custody, a kind of Provence in the making to be established in Upstate New York within Bishop Timons’ Diocese. It is a fact that Bishop Timons in the negotiations with the Minister General had to assure initial Diocesan support for the Custody and the Franciscan priests being sent. But of greater interests is the negotiations regarding the amount of autonomy that the Custody would have as well as the autonomy that the Franciscan priests would have while serving as Diocesan “parish” priests. It was necessary that this delineation of roles be specifically spelled out. It was a big deal as the Franciscans were under sacred oath only to take direction from their own Order’s superiors. In fact, although they would be operating in Upstate New York these initial Franciscan priests were actually subject to the orders of the monastic superiors in their own Italian Assisi Provence.
Bishop Timons agreed to the limitations placed on his Diocesan authority over these Franciscan parish priests and the Custody was established in 1856. For its part the Franciscan Order choose to send to America a small group of young, highly intelligent, highly motivated and energetic priests fluent in among other languages English, German and Italian. In other words clerics who they considered the brightest and best. Not surprising in a matter of just a few years they had helped establish more than a dozen parishes, start construction on an equal number of Churches, organize and found St. Bonaventure College and establish religious study institutions for both men and women in upstate New York.
By 1860 two Bishops in Pennsylvania were also reaching out to the Franciscan Custody in New York State, including Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia. So as I indicated when Bishop Bayley reached out to the Custody for help in 1866 he was following a model created by several other American Bishops.
The Custody responded to Bishop Bayley positively and following a negotiated agreement of operation between the Order and Bishop Bayley, the Order dispatched several Franciscan priests lead by Fr. Pietro Jachetti to establish a mission in New Jersey.
Fr. Jachetti was a man very much cut from the same cloth as the other early Franciscan missionary priests sent to America, Italian, multi-lingual, brilliant, energetic and devoted to his mission. Upon his arrival in New Jersey, he was sent to take over parish duties ministering to the German speaking parishioners at St. Francis Church in Trenton starting in 1869. It was Fr. Jachetti that then contacted Franciscan nuns in Philadelphia and three came to Trenton to teach at the German-speaking elementary school on Front Street that same year.
Generally the Franciscan Order devotes itself in most places to the care of the sick and poor. Toward that mission the Franciscan nuns in addition to their teaching duties began to treat the sick in the City. That activity very quickly in 1869, led to a Franciscan fund raising effort, led by the nuns, to build a Franciscan run hospital. By 1870 Trenton was a community of 22,000 souls but did not have any hospital facility. Initially the fund raising effort declared an intent to build a Franciscan run hospital at Cooper and Market Streets, in “old Trenton”. However, the proposal soon ran into local objections. After consultation with local benefactors, including the Roebling family, and discussions regarding “future” growth a new location was selected for purchase at the corner of Chambers Street and Hamilton Ave. in the Borough of Chambersburg.
Fr. Pietro Jachetti
The Borough of CHAMBERSBURG
As the American Civil War came to an end in 1865 the industrial might of the northeast, awakened and stimulated by “war” production needed to change gears for “peacetime” production. Both Peter Cooper and John Roebling recognized this as they planned for the future. The two Trenton enterprises had before the war projected a business model in which their factories would derive most of their revenues from manufacture related to railroad construction, including iron manufacture related to bridge work. In fact Roebling began to solicit bridge design work. That solicitation of course lead to his design and building of the iconic “Brooklyn Bridge”. With success comes among other things expansion. The factories located on the Delaware River had become hemmed in by the urban housing that was developing around it. By way of illustration according to U.S. Census information Trenton’s population rose from 7,000 in 1850 to 22,000 in 1870. However, there was more than ample room for factory construction and housing east of the river in the rural area of northern Nottingham/Hamilton Township which included the Chambers farm. Mr. Chambers had died in 1865 which probably helped make the land acquirable. This land provided easy transportation access from both the Canal system and the railroad line that went thru Trenton.
So the plans to expand the Roebling enterprise into the area near the Chambers farm took shape between 1865 and 1870. Fr. Jachetti arrived in Trenton in 1869 to minister to the needs of the German speaking population, most of whom had connection to the Roebling enterprise. It is obvious from his and his fellow Franciscans immediate actions that they were very aware of the plans to expand Roebling’s manufacture eastward from the River. It is also evident from the success of their fund raising efforts for projects that they had the support of many of the elite families of Trenton. In 1870, around the time that the Borough of Chambersburg was coming into existence by Act of the New Jersey Legislature, the Franciscans purchased as stated a parcel of land at the intersection of Hamilton and Chambers Streets in the new Borough. So at this point the Borough was no longer a part of Hamilton Township but was not yet annexed to Trenton. The purpose of the purchase was for the building of a Hospital to serve the poor and factory workers of the city of Trenton. The Franciscans under the guidance of Fr. Jachetti understood that there was going to be substantial urban development as a result of the Roebling factory expansion and other manufacturing coming to the city. Again by way of illustration from the Census counts Trenton’s population was 22,000 in 1870 when they laid the plans and purchase for the hospital. However the population of the city grew to 30,000 in 1880 and 58,000 by 1890.
The purchase of the site for the future hospital was followed in 1872 by Fr. Jachetti purchase of a large parcel of land on Chestnut Avenue located between Elmer Street and Mott Street. This site was roughly half way between the hospital site and the purposed new additional Roebling factory site.
Fund raising under the guidance of Fr. Jachetti then started for the purpose of construction of a small chapel and a “study” for the religious training of young novice candidates for Franciscan ministry at the Chestnut Ave site. Fr. Jachetti named the chapel Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel.
Fr. Jachetti was a man of great vision but it should also be noted that that his actions in Trenton in the 1872 purchase of the Chestnut Ave site were guided by his superiors in the Custody in upstate New York with the consent of Bishop Bayley in Newark. Between 1872 and 1886 Fr. Jachetti would start a dozen parishes around New Jersey. However, the Chestnut Ave. site in the heart of the Borough of Chambersburg was special in his purpose and intent.
Fr. Jachetti and his superiors in the Custody saw the great potential surge of population comprised mainly of immigrants that would arrive seeking work at the developing factories. These immigrants, many of whom were extremely poor and uneducated would tax the resources of the Church but also would provide a rich potential vocational pool of devoted Catholics to help, if trained, with the ministry.
So the fact that Fr. Jachetti choose the Chestnut Ave. site to construct a small chapel and a “religious study” needs to be appreciated for what he was actually planning for this community, “the Borough of Chambersburg” as it developed. This was the only parish established by Fr. Jachetti which included a religious study facility, in other words the beginning of a seminary. What that also likely means was that like in the upstate New York Custody and the Diocesan Chegary Academy established by Bishop Bayley the religious training facility would develop into a full blown seminary with attendant college facility.
This actually makes perfect 1872 sense. Trenton was the Capitol of New Jersey, it was situated in the center of the State and had get infrastructure accessibility. In addition, it had an immediate growing population of Irish, eastern and southern European Catholics form which to potentially draw vocational recruits.
Fr. Jachetti had an amazing vision for what the future of “Chambersburg” would become, a workers haven and college campus which would lift the masses of immigrants into full partnership with the American dream.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey
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