Columbus Honored as Brave Beacon of Hope for Italian-Americans

Article excerpt

On the north wall of Heinz Chapel in Oakland, Christopher Columbus keeps some impressive company.

He stands in a rowboat and wields a sword, the heroic image captured in a stained-glass image near the middle of a 73-foot-tall transept window. Next to him is Florence Nightingale. Nearby are more than a dozen other historical heavyweights known for courageous deeds, including the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc and several saints.

That Columbus is honored alongside such icons surprises no one in the Italian-American community in Western Pennsylvania.

To them, he is a symbol of strength, vision and hope -- and not just for ethnic Italians.

"Christopher Columbus had the courage to come to a new land, to risk everything and come to an area that was totally unknown," said Carla Lucente, honorary consul of Italy and co-director of Duquesne University's Center for International Relations.

"He opened the door to the New World, not only for Italians, but for everyone else -- the Slovaks, the Germans, the Irish. He was the great discoverer."

As ethnic Italians today celebrate Columbus Day, commemorating the famous seaman from Genoa, many are reflecting on his legacy.

City Councilman Bill Peduto, a second-generation Italian- American, described Columbus "the same way someone who is Irish would describe St. Patty: it is as much an issue of identity as it is pride," he said.

"When we learn about American history, one of the first people we learn about is Christopher Columbus," Peduto said. "He sets the first chapter of our own shared history in this country."

Dennis Looney, chair of the French and Italian Department at the University of Pittsburgh, said all Americans celebrate Columbus Day in some fashion because it's a national holiday.

"All cultural ethnic groups create their own traditions," Looney said. "And Columbus becomes an Italian-American hero because he represents their beginnings. But in the case of Columbus, that tradition in time gets institutionalized and eventually is turned into a national holiday.

"Columbus was nationalized," he said. …