If Yale students are in the mood for good pizza, they make the trip to Pepe’s or Sally’s. If they feel like some first-rate cannolis, many find their way to Libby’s. But beyond the occasional pilgrimage for these much-lauded New Haven foods, most students do not consider making the half-dozen block trek down Chapel Street. But four blocks past the New Haven Green — past the point where stores stop selling brand-name tee-shirts for $50 a pop and start putting bars on their windows — is a place where people from as far away as Hamden come not to eat, but to worship.
Just down the road from the birthplace of the American pizza, St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church has been a religious and architectural attraction in the Wooster neighborhood for over a hundred years. Located on Wooster Place, across the street from Wooster Square Park, the church has been emblematic of the Italian American community that the area is known for.
An enormous brick building, the church’s yellowish stucco exterior is not usually found in climates like New Haven’s, but has held up well through the cold and blustery winters. The chapel’s rounded edges, meanwhile, are more typical of Protestant churches than those of the Roman Catholic Church. The facility was remodeled three years ago, its interior refurbished so it now features a marble altar and two intricate stone mosaics, in addition to other spiritual touches. Its redesign seems fitting in a neighborhood where many of the houses, over a century old, have been remodeled at least once.
Rev. Michael Tarro, the priest at St. Michael’s, said his congregation boasts 450-some families from all over the New Haven area. Tarro said that number has shrunk over the years, but he still draws a good crowd every Sunday, with many parishioners remaining loyal even as they move further away.
“We have a good number of people coming from a distance to come to church here,” Tarro said. “But because they grew up here, this is where they can hold their sacraments, they probably got married here and so forth, so there’s always an attachment to it. I think for all of us, it’s something about where you were born and brought up that never leaves us, and that place will always be special to us.”
St. Michael’s is particularly special for the Italian Americans that comprise the majority of its parish, for whom many aspects of the church — from its programs to its interior — were designed. Until just a few years ago, the church still offered mass in Italian once a week. Many of the statues inside the chapel depict figures in the Christian faith that are particularly important to Italians, and one of the church’s two mosaics depicts Italian immigrants leaving their home country with the Latin phrase “Cibus Viae” — “Bread of the way” in English.
The church benefits from its prime location next to Wooster Square Park. A place some nearby residents called the heart of the neighborhood, the park is large, with Victorian lampposts and benches similar to those on the New Haven Green. Its walking paths, which jut off in various directions around a central path that runs the length of the park, are also reminiscent of the New Haven Green, and for that matter the Old Campus Green.
Three monuments dot the park’s landscape. Two of these are memorials for New Haven’s fallen soldiers, the other a statue of Christopher Columbus that was built in 1892.
The monuments allude to a storied neighborhood history that is an essential part of New Haven lore. Wooster Square first took form as a neighborhood in 1824, when its park was named in honor of New Haven native and Revolutionary War hero David Wooster. Once dominated by blue-collar Irish workers, the area saw an influx of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century.
Today, Wooster Square Park is a popular place for area residents, who have any number of reasons for frequenting it. Some come to walk their dogs; others come to throw a Frisbee or feed the squirrels.
When they lived close to the park, New Haven residents Freddie Faulkner and Sharon Findley used to come regularly to sit and relax on the benches. They live farther away now, but said they still find time to visit every now and then.
“The park is beautiful, especially in the summertime,” Faulkner said. “When the cherry blossoms bloom this whole entire park is just pure white. And you see the squirrels come up to you, it’s just a beautiful place to be.”
Lina Wilder GRD ’05 moved to the Wooster Square neighborhood from the “Grad Ghetto,” a neighborhood on Orange Street. Wilder said she was attracted to Wooster by both the restaurants and the park, and has found it a pleasant place to live, though not quite as safe as her previous area.
“I sort of gauge the niceness of the neighborhood by the number of times my car gets broken into,” she said. “[On Orange Street] they broke windows, here they actually tried to steal the car — so it’s a little dicey as far as I’m concerned, but not too bad.”
With a cluster of popular Italian restaurants and pizza places, Wooster Square has found commercial success as New Haven’s “Little Italy.”
Architecture professor Alexander Garvin, who teaches “Introduction to Study of the City,” described the area as a unique example of urban revitalization.
“It’s become one of the choice neighborhoods of New Haven,” Garvin said. “I don’t think there are many [similar] success stories of a revived neighborhood in a declining American city.”