Orsi, Robert A. 1936-
ORSI, Robert A. 1936-
PERSONAL: Born 1936. Education: Trinity College, B.A.; Yale University, Ph.D., 1982.
ADDRESSES: Office—Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.
CAREER: Theologian, writer, and educator. Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, 2001–. Formerly held posts at Fordham University, assistant professor of religious studies; Indiana University, professor of religious studies; writer.
MEMBER: American Academy of Religion (president, 2003).
The Feathered Serpent and the Cross, HJB Press (New York, NY), 1980.
Thank You, St. Jude: Women's Devotions to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1996.
(Editor) Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (catalog), Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1999.
Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert A. Orsi is best known for his devotion to religious studies and in-depth exploration into urban religious practice, including gender roles, religious freedom, and historical perspectives on religion. Orsi's 1985 book The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 envelopes the reader in the dramatic theater-like atmosphere of the annual Mount Carmel festival. For well over a hundred years Italian Catholics have gathered together on July 16 in what once was a thriv-ing Italian enclave of Harlem to celebrate the deeply personal immigrant experience, and specifically to honor Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The festival is examined from many perspectives, as religious pilgrimage, holiday parade celebration, and social secular gathering. The author has exposed the personal entanglements and concerns many celebrants share by delving deep into details of the symbolism surrounding the historical ceremonies comprising the event. A contributor writing in the New Republic commented, "Orsi writes in telling detail about the history of the community, the overwhelming importance of family and household—the 'domus'—in Italian life, the problems that beset those small moral worlds, and the place of popular religion in the lives of newcomers trying to cope with the angularities of an unfamiliar land." The festival is looked at as much more than a simple celebration, but as emblematic of the Italian community's own values and collective faith. The same reviewer also wrote, "At its best,… Italian Harlem seems to have been a true community—the kind of urban village in which people share troubles as well as celebrations, and in which one can count on others to care."
Following The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi published Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotions to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. This piece also focuses its attention on religious practices in America. Specifically Orsi looks at the Mission of Our Lady of Guadeloupe chapel and the National Shrine of Saint Jude housed within the confines of the revolutionary, south Chicago parish. Where in The Madonna of 115th Street Orsi chose to direct his inquiry at the Italian-American immigrant communities of Harlem, here he explores the world of Mexican-American women and their devotion to Saint Jude. Originally a part of the Catholic Archdiocese's patriarchal organization, the National Shrine of Saint Jude has since become almost exclusively run by and for women. Orsi presents accounts of innumerable women reaching out to Saint Jude in the face of both emotional and physical abuse and neglect, usually at the hands of men. The multitudes of testimonials within the book empower their female authors and aid in the elevation of their condition to a more positive spiritual plane. Orsi also includes an in-depth historical survey on the sole topic of prayer in Catholicism. Leo Luke Marcello, writing in America, wrote of Thank You, Saint Jude, "This book will be interesting to anyone looking at women's issues, particularly its passages dealing with women in the healing process and the dialectics of gender and hope in American Catholic devotionalism."
Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, edited by Orsi, is a collection of work that probes into the effects physical environments may have on the practice of religion within them. Several authors present studies on topics from the successful adaptation of Haitian Voodoo worship into the urban New York City environment, as well as challenges faced while opening a Japanese Presbyterian Church in the Pacific Northwest, and concerns surrounding the creation of a Hindu Temple in Maryland. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, "Fascinating insights into modern urban religious practice make Orsi's collection a must-read." Writing in the Christian Century, James W. Lewis noted that in the introduction Orsi writes that "place is important both for the questions asked of religious faiths and the answers they propose." Lewis added, "Those who wish to understand … diversity and its implications for American religious life should consult Orsi's book." Lee Canipe, writing in the Journal of Church and State, noted that the volume's essays provide "revealing snapshots of a diverse religious landscape" and added that the book "breaks new ground in its insightful treatment" of this aspect of religious experience.
In Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts, Orsi and Melissa R. Katz serve as editors and contributors of essays in a catalog focusing on an exhibit featuring portrayals of the Virgin Mary that was held at the Davis Art Museum at Wellesley College. The artistic works depicted the Virgin Mary in a variety of ways and settings, including at the Annunciation and the Nativity. "As much sociological as art historical, this scholarly book attempts to bridge the sacred imagery with secular culture," noted Ellen Bates in Library Journal.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, May 24, 1986; February 22, 1997, Leo Luke Marcello, review of Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotions to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, p. 26.
Christian Century, September 10, 1997; January 20, 2001, James W. Lewis, review of Gods of the City: Religion and American Urban Landscape, p. 20.
Commonweal, November 8, 1996, John T. Fisher, review or Thank You, Saint Jude, p. 14; March 11, 2005, John T. McGreevy, review of Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, p. 29.
Journal of Church and State, spring, 2002, Lee Canipe, review of Gods of the City, p. 375.
Library Journal, August 1, 1999; December 1, 2001, Ellen Bates, review of Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts, p. 174.
New Republic, May 5, 1986, review of The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950.
New York Times Book Review, July 6, 1986.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1996, p. 85; May 31, 1999, review of Gods of the City, p. S21; June 11, 2001, review of Divine Mirrors, p. 78.
Sociology of Religion, spring, 1998, p. 92.
U.S. Catholics, November, 1989.
Harvard Divinity School Web site, http://www.hds.harvard.edu/ (August 28, 2005), faculty profile of author.