Ducklings Sculptor’s Proposed North End Project Would Tell the Story of Immigration

Nancy Schön, who  brought Robert McCloskey’s  classic children’s book, ‘Make Way for Ducklings,’ to life  in the Public Garden with her iconic sculpture, is now hoping to tell the story of immigration with another work of public art proposed for the grounds of St. Leonard Church in the North End

The project, called ‘Noble Journey Sculpture: Italy to America,’ will comprise a bronze pathway imprinted with sets of footprints leading into the entrance of St. Leonard Church – the first Italian Catholic Church in New England, and which, today, is the congregation of Sacred Heart and St. Stephen Church, St. Mary Chapel, and St. John’s parochial school.

A top view of Nancy Schön’s scale-model maquette for her proposed project, ‘Noble Journey Sculpture: Italy to America.’

Once installed, the sculpture will allow ancestors of the church’s earliest members to literally ‘walk’ in the footsteps of their immigrant forebearers. It will symbolize the trek that Italians and other immigrants took after crossing the Atlantic between the 1850s and the 1920s, including the Italian immigrants who built St. Leonard Church in 1873.

“We’re all immigrants so it’s not just Italians,” Schön, now 95, told this reporter. “[The project] represents how we’re all immigrants and how we all follow in each other’s footsteps and stand on each other’s shoulders, so it’s a way to have a continuum from one generation to another. It’s them being able to walk in their ancestors footprints so that’s what it’s all about.”

In researching the project, Schön spoke with cobblers to find out how their business had changed over the past 150 years. What she learned, she said, is that “footprints are basically the same and have been for shoemakers” throughout the entire time, with the exception of the growing prevelance of women in high heels over the years.

The sculpture’s pathway will be flanked on both sides by black, metal railings, topped with brass lanterns, while two white life-preservers emblazoned with ‘USS North End’ in black lettering would be affixed to both railings.

The ‘Noble Journey’ project was initiated by Schön, together with Fr. Michael Della Penna of St. Leonard Church, and Dr. Michael Annuziata of the Friends of the North End, an unincorporated group of around 300 current and one-time neighborhood residents. Following Dr. Annuziata’s unexpected death on Feb. 28 of last year, a project team was initiated by Schön; Fr. Della Penna; and Dr. Anthony Cortese, project coordinator for the nonprofit North End Historical Society, to shepherd the process forward.

             “When Mike Annunziata told me about this project, I knew had to find a way to represent a universal idea of people seeking a new and better life for their families and future generations,” said Schön in a statement on the project. “We represent the confluence of our cultural beliefs and our religious ethics through the footsteps of our ancestors leading directly to the church they built. We hope it gives continuity for generations to come as it symbolizes the path Italian immigrants walked as they crossed the Atlantic to the U.S.”

In the project’s nascent stages, Fr. Della Penna said Dr. Annuziata contacted him and broached the idea of creating something that would be “a positive affirmation of faith of the people who came over from Italy, especially in the early part of the [20th] century” and as a memorial to them.

“He approached me with his idea for [creating] a memorial for Italian immigrants so that we could celebrate and honor their journey, their coming over, especially given that St. Leonard was the first church built by Italian immigrants in New England,” added Fr. Della Penna.

Before Dr. Annuziata ultimately reached out to Schön to try to enlist her for the project, Fr. Della Penna and Dr. Annuziata met several times and exchanged ideas on the shape that it might take.

“I thought the project was ripe, considering at the time, we were having difficulties in Christopher Columbus Park,” said Fr. Della Penna in reference to the aftermath of an incident in June of 2020 when the statue of Columbus, installed inside the waterfront park in 1979, was beheaded in an apparent act of vandalism. “I was hoping to find a place [for the proposed project] that would be secure to perpetuate the legacy of the Italian heritage that we celebrate and felt that this could galvanize the neighborhood and be a means to bring people together.”

             Of the project, Fr. Della Penna said, “For me, this is not only a cultural and historical work of art that tells the story of the millions of people who immigrated to the Unites States, but it is also a beautiful means of affirming their faith, which was the most valuable asset that they declared at the border. It was their faith that they carried to the country, and which carried them.

“In this way, it is a testament to the power of faith inherent in all religions, which empowers us to navigate difficulties by strengthening our relationship with God. This is truly a Noble Journey. Ultimately, it is more than a historic monument, but one which I hope inspires all people to develop and deepen their relationship with God, so that their future will be fruitful and grounded in the truth,” added Fr. Della Penna.

When Fr. Della Penna and Dr. Cortese first visited Schön’s West Newton home studio in the spring of 2023, Fr. Della Penna said she showed them a scale-model maquette she had created for the project, which illustrated “her innovative way in which the people and tourists who were visiting could walk in the actual footsteps of our ancestors and the immigrants who came over.”

Fr. Della Penna added, “I could see that this was something that was a common thread in her other work, mainly this invitational, engaging means of making a work of art dynamic and educational but most importantly, experiential.”

Dr. Cortese, a former North Ender with long-standing family connections to St. Leonard Church, was initially recruited for the project by Dr. Annuziata and Victor Passacantilli, the other leader of the Friends of the North End. When a nonprofit sponsor needed to be identified for the project for fundraising purposes, Dr. Cortese reached out to Tom Damigella, president of North End Historical Society, about his group about taking the project under its auspices.

Damigella readily agreed, and NEHS is now the 501(c)(3) coordinator, a partner, and the fundraising leader for ‘The Noble Journey,’ which in turn takes its name  from a year-long project that Damigella’s daughter, Jackie, completed years ago in high school about the immigration and life of her Gaetan and Sicilian grandparents.

For his part, Damigella  reached out to Elio LoRusso of Somerville Ornamental Iron Work. LoRusso, who was baptized at St. Leonard Church (and whose parents were married there as well), in turn offered his services for the project pro bono.

“It’s a wonderful, feel-good story about how people feel about this community and how it means so much to them, like it does to Tom and me,” said Dr. Cortese of the project, which will be a gift to St. Leonard Church from the NEHS, the Friends of the North End fraternal social organization, current and former North End residents, businesses, and non-profit organizations, among other donors. 

Now targeted for installation next summer, the ‘Noble Journey’ sculpture now has a projected cost of $120,000; and since the fundraising campaign kicked off in the middle of last summer, it has to date raised over $50,000 from around 145 organizations and individuals, with commitments for an additional $10,000 in donations, towards that goal.

Visit to support ‘Noble Journey Sculpture: Italy to America,’ and to learn more about the project.

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