History Order Sons of Italy in America

In the nineteenth century, America saw the rapid growth of mutual aid societies throughout all sectors of society, including both the native born and immigrants. For immigrants, the mutual aid society provided a familiar setting where their dialect was spoken and old world customs recreated. They were characterized by the provincial and village ties that were present in Italy. While many of them had belonged to such organizations in their native land, in America -the mutual aid societies became more widespread as settings for social interaction, sickness and death benefits. Therefore, these societies were indispensable in assisting immigrants to adjust to urban industrial life.

Dr. Vicenzo Sellaro 
   Dr. Vincenzo Sellaro

So, the idea of uniting the Italians in one great organization, which would enable them to become authorities of their own destinies and progress, came to Dr. Vincenzo Sellaro around 1904. Despite the obstacles put in his way by the various presidents and heads of the many mutual aid societies and other associations -with the help of his trusted friends, who were rather skeptical of its success, he still proceeded to organize the Italian immigrant population.

Dr. Sellaro was aided by a pharmacist Ludovico Ferrari, a lawyer Antonio Marzullo, a sculptor Giuseppe Carlino, and two barbers Pietro Viscardi and Robert Merlo. It was on June 22, 1905 that the first act of incorporation took place and the organization became known as the "Supreme Lodge of the Sons of Italy." it was their desire to attract and exert a great impact on fellow Italian immigrants, most of whom were single and uncultured folks, in that Dr. Sellaro introduced a fraternal organization with a ritual ceremony, altar and officers. The Order from the very day of its birth was, and always has been, loyal to its non-political and non- denominational beliefs. The first official meeting took place on June 29 and on this occasion it was decided to form the first Supreme Executive Council. It was at this meeting that each member of this council obligated himself to form a lodge and in two years 14 lodges were formed.

Italian characteristics of individualism, dissolution and turbulent elements did not allow things to move smoothly. This caused Dr. Sellaro to govern the Order with internal discipline. With Dr. Sellaro's vision and leadership, the turbulent elements were eventually eliminated. It was then that several lodges broke off and established a similar competing organization of an independent OSIA. Incredible as this may seem, this did happen by the will and under the aegis of the Order's founder Dr. Vincenzo Sellaro. At the time of the split off, Dr. Sellaro resigned as Supreme Venerable.

The years that followed furnished evidence attesting to and confirming the vitality of the Order, beginning with the increasing number of lodges formed. Because of the new independent OSIA, the Supreme Lodge, out of necessity, was convinced that a new updated act of incorporation had to be filed. The original existing one, obtained by Sellaro on June 22, 1905, was legally valid only in New York State and had no legal force in any other state of the Union.

Because the Order had enlarged its program, its activities multiplied and membership grew. Therefore, the act of incorporation had to be modified according to existing laws. Supreme Orator, attorney Francis Mezzatesta, was entrusted with the task of initiating procedures for a new act of incorporation under the Insurance Department. To obtain this certificate, the Order was required to have at least 500 members, each of whom was insured for $1, 000. The long, hard and patient work to gather this insurance began, and it was in July 1914 when attorney Stefano Miele received the new act under the name of "Loggia Suprema Figli d'ltalia" and later changed to "L Ordine Figli d'ltalia."

This new act of incorporation defined its purpose in its constitution:

a) to reunite in one single family all the Italians scattered throughout the Americas, the Dominion of Canada, Territories and dependencies and wherever there are Italians who possess the requirements desired by the laws of the Order, respecting any religious and political opinion;

b) to promote moral, intellectual and material betterment among them in order to emancipate the masses from every prejudice;

c) to be a school of mutual benevolence and humanitarian foresight, ., d) to participate with all its forces in the protection of each member,

e) to continue keeping alive the flame of the culture of their native land and to keep the faith in its future intact, without thereby failing short of the respect due to the country which has accorded us welcome;
f) to spread among the brothers of the Order the conviction that their participation in American political life is a factor of social betterment;
g) to provide for the spread of the Italian language;
h) to help in welfare activities on behalf of Italians;
i) to champion all those causes that can contribute to infusing the conviction that the Italian has gifts of mind and heart which make him worthy of consideration, not only as a valuable worker, but also as an effective factor of progress and social greatness.

With these purposes, discipline restored, the prestige of the Order increased and a greater sense of trust was felt by those members who regarded the Order as “their association" or "la Societa" because it expressed their aspirations and discharged their anxieties. The number of lodges grew to 400. During Supreme Venerable Buffa's administration, the Order acquired custody over the relic most dear to the hearts of Italians in America: the Garibaldi Pantheon in Staten Island. For years it had been neglected and abandoned to such a point that urgent repairs were required to save it from complete destruction. After long negotiations it was finally ceded to the Sons of Italy. No organization in America, other than the Order, could have expressed the sense of veneration and affection that immigrants felt for the house that once sheltered the "Hero of the Two Worlds."

In the years that followed the number of grand lodges increased, many programs were established, i.e., low cost insurance programs, death benefits, funds for widows, invalids, and orphans, and citizenship classes were conducted. Some of these same programs are still in existence today.

During the 1920's the Order initiated student exchanges and annual pilgrimages to Italy, during which OSIA leaders would meet with the Pope, the King of Italy and Italian government leaders.

In 1931, a large delegation of OSIA leaders met with President Hoover on the White House lawn. In succeeding administrations the OSIA has had the pleasure of meeting later with Presidents Truman, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush. President Carter addressed the Order's 1979 National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland.

In the early 1940's Scholarships for college students were established and for the past five decades there has been a greater support for education.

In 1942 the position of OSIA National Deputy was created to lobby for the Order in Washington D.C.

The National OSIA foundation was created in 1959 as a conduit for funding charitable projects and supporting other projects of the Order.

from 1904 to 1955 the Supreme headquarters had been in New York, later moved to Philadelphia and in 1981 relocated to Washington D.C. In 1982, OSIA purchased a building in Washington that serves as the National Office with an Executive Director and staff

Early in its history ...in 1920... OSIA offered women complete parity and many of its local lodges have had either all female or co-ed membership. In 1931 the first woman was elected Supreme Trustee. Fifty years later, women began to occupy top officer positions and at the August 1993 National Convention, Joanne L. Strollo was elected as the first woman National President.

Over all these passing years, the Order has continued to both encourage the maintenance of Italian culture and language, as well as encourage assimilation into American social and political life. The Order Sons of Italy in America has sponsored a wide variety of programs over these many years ...banks, savings and loan, credit unions, social halls/lodge buildings, senior citizen housing, newspapers, citizenship classes, political action groups, CSJ, foundations, Columbus Day and Italian Heritage events. The history of the Order not only contributes to our Italian American experience but helps clarify the larger issues of ethnic, community and politics in America, as well as preserving our proud heritage.

Today, with approximately 90,000 members and a sizable social and fraternal membership in 800 local lodges, the Order Sons of Italy in America remains the largest and most geographically representative organization of Italians and Italian Americans in the United States.