Christopher Columbus statue defaced right before Columbus Day celebration
November 2, 2017

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
Rev. Richard Fragomeni, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, speaks before the Columbus Day contingent at Victor Arrigo Park. The statue of explorer Christopher Columbus, defaced twice before the holiday celebration, had been cleaned up by the Chicago Park District before the event.

By Sheila Elliott

The annual Columbus Day celebration honoring the Taylor Street area’s Italian-American heritage drew a sympathetic crowd on Oct. 9 after vandals tagged a neighborhood park’s statue of explorer Christopher Columbus twice in three days, including the morning of Columbus Day.

Chicago Park District maintenance workers were removing the last remnants of red spray paint from Victor Arrigo Park’s statue of Christopher Columbus at 801 S. Loomis Street on Columbus Day morning as worshipers gathered at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington St., for the Roman Catholic services that traditionally have kicked off the neighborhood Columbus Day festivities.

A spokesperson for Chicago Police Department’s department of news affairs said an off-duty police officer observed three individuals defacing the Columbus statue in the early morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 7. He confronted the vandals, who then attempted to flee the scene on bicycles, according to police. One fell from his bike, and the off-duty officer detained him until officers from the Chicago Police Department’s 12th District responded.  Kyle Miskell, of the 2200 block of West 23rd Place in Chicago, faces allegations of criminal damage to government property.

The graffiti on the statue’s pedestal said “f*** Columbus,” “all colonies are burning,” and “muerte el estado” (death to the state).

Then early in the morning of Monday, Oct. 9, a person or persons unknown splashed red paint on the statue and wrote “mass murderer” and “decolonize” on the pedestal. Park District workers cleaned off the graffiti that morning.

After the morning’s celebrations had concluded, Dominic DiFrisco of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA), organizers of the Columbus Day festivities, spoke to Gazette Chicago. He said the JCCIA had been contacted at its suburban headquarters a few days before the holiday with a warning that “something might occur” this year, although the caller gave  no specifics and no identifying information. The JCCIA then contacted the Chicago Police Department.

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
After the Columbus Day Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, members of the Order of the Sons of Italy joined in the procession to Arrigo Park for remarks and a wreath laying ceremony at the Columbus statue.

No retaliation

DiFrisco expressed regret that the vandalism had occurred but said retaliation was to be avoided.

The religious services at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii have for many years preceded a brief parade from the shrine to the statue for a wreath laying, followed by a reception at the parish hall. Many guests then make their way to downtown Chicago for parade along State Street. Those events went on as planned this year without incident.

News about the vandalism appeared in the media on Sunday and Monday, yet some in the holiday crowd said they were surprised when they learned about the damage to the statue.  Lisa Roti, a Libertyville resident, said she had heard something about what had happened, but she wanted to attend the service to focus on her Italian heritage. She was there with her ten year old daughter because her area no longer celebrates the traditional Columbus Day holiday. Participating in events such as the Columbus Day Mass and parade were one way of demonstrating “our right to be who we are,” she said.

She was part of the large inter-generational crowd attending the Mass along with strong contingents from many religious-based organizations. In his homily at the service, the Rev. Richard Fragomeni, rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, spoke of the universality of love and the faith Columbus exhibited when he embarked on his journeys as reasons to celebrate the day. He urged everyone to resist any impulse to seek revenge for the defacement and advised worshipers to pray for the perpetrators so that “God may touch their hearts.”

Local and international dignitaries also attended, including the Consul General of Italy in Chicago, Giuseppe Finocchario; representatives of Chicago’s Mexican American community; and delegations from Calabria and Sicily and the Dominican Republic. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christopher Kennedy, Alderman Jason Ervin of the 28th Ward, and other elected officials also attended. The Marist High School band led the procession from the church down Lexington Street to the statue of Columbus at the park’s west edge.

Although located there since 1966, the statue debuted more than 70 years before at an exhibition at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.

A day of Italian heritage

In remarks at the wreath laying, Sergio DeGrande, Columbus Day Parade chair, commended the person who noticed the recent vandalism as it occurred and contacted authorities. Other speakers drew upon Fr. Fragomeni’s ideas, emphasizing that the day remained a source of pride for everyone of Italian heritage and that Columbus’s status in world history must include mention of qualities like personal bravery and the influx of arts, ambitions, and talents he brought to a wider world. 

Many attendees later relaxed at a mid-morning reception in the parish hall before the rest of the day’s events began. Some were willing to talk about the events of the previous few days, though the significance of the day to Italian Americans remained their primary focus. 

“I’m not really all that taken aback” by it, said Joe Episcopo, a LaGrange Park resident  active in Italian American cultural events in that area. Attacks on public memorials and statues have made the news many times in recent months, and he theorized that damage to the Columbus statue might be part of the same general attitude.

Nevertheless, Episcopo stressed, “we have the right to stand up for ourselves as Italians.”

The Grand Lodge of the Illinois/Wisconsin Order of the Sons of Italy in America, one of the nation’s oldest groups of Italian Americans, organized this year’s commemorative wreath laying. The JCCIA organized the Taylor Street neighborhood events.