Background: He was born in Albany and graduated from the University at Albany and went on to earn a master’s in business administration. He taught that subject for 32 years at SUNY’s Morrisville College. He and his wife Mary live in Albany. He’s the founder and president of the American Italian Heritage Association and Museum in Colonie and was knighted by the Italian government in 1994 for his longstanding work in the Italian-American community.
What inspired you to create an organization for Italian Americans?
My father’s father, Philip DiNovo, came to the United States in 1901. Later, his wife, my grandmother, came to this country later as did my maternal grandparents, all of them from the same town in Sicily. They had a great influence on my life, but like most young people it was only later that I fully understood that my Italian heritage and culture were a treasure. In 1978, after reading “Blood of my Blood” by Richard Gambino, who is considered the father of Italian-American studies, I put into action a desire to preserve my Italian heritage. I called some fellow professors and we formed the American Italian Heritage Association. As time went on, I saw the need for a museum and we opened ours in Utica, which had a large Italian-American population. The mission is to honor Italian immigrants throughout history and tell the story of the contributions of Italian Americans. The first Italians came to Albany in 1624, and Italian Americans have had a prominent place in local history. In 1998 our association was looking for a new home in the Capital Region. We found the old and beautiful Our Lady of Mercy Church in Colonie. It was built in 1922 and had been an office building since 1975. It needed a lot of work and it took us five years to raise the money and meet the requirements to open to the public in 2009. Since then, we have had visitors from 32 countries. We are important resource for the community. We have a dedicated group of volunteers. This year marks my 39th as a volunteer.
What role does Columbus play in Italian-Americans’ understanding of their heritage?
Millions of Italian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century were the target of prejudice and discrimination. In some places they were not considered white but a mixed race. In 1891, 11 immigrants in New Orleans were taken out of a jail and lynched. That same year, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday. Americans agreed that Columbus was worthy of the honor. Italian immigrants back then could point to Columbus who made the New World known to the old and changed the world in such a way as has rarely happened in human history. Italian Americans today take pride in Columbus’ momentous accomplishment. Like all our heroes he felt short, but what he did for the world far outweighed his faults. We acknowledge the suffering of indigenous people after European exploration, but Columbus is not guilty of genocide, which is an attempt to kill a whole people as happened in the 20th century in the Armenian and Ukrainian genocides and the Nazi Holocaust. There is so much good about the man that most people do not know. We will honor him at our museum on Monday at 11 a.m. and we would be happy to honor native Americans on another day.
What’s religion’s role in your life?
God is the most important person in my life. Prayer and the reading of the scriptures remind me daily of the purpose of my life. Any gifts and talents we have are gifts from God to be used in the church and the community. I often had to convince my students they had talents they did not recognize. My Catholic faith and the role of lay ministry are important to me to be present and active in the world. The laity have a distinct role in bringing the divine message to every aspect of life. I have also been influenced by the Christopher Movement, a Catholic organization that stresses the strength of people to do good in the community. Its motto is a Chinese proverb: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” My wife Mary and I are active members of a wonderful parish, All Saints Catholic Church in Albany where I am a eucharistic minister, lector and altar server.
I have a great interest in the ecumenical movement and am so happy to see people of faith talking and working together. The American Italian Heritage Organization has members from many different traditions. When I was in college I was asked by Methodist landlady to go to her a supper at her church, I said, “I am Catholic.” She said, “You can eat, can’t you?” In those days we did not to go to other faiths’ places of worship. Thank God things have changed. Several weeks ago I was invited to a Jewish Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Israel in Schenectady, which was honoring a young member who was going to spend a year in Israel.
How did growing up in Albany shape your view of history?
I was raised in Arbor Hill in Albany. It was a mixed ethnic and racial neighborhood, and being there was just wonderful. No matter how old I am or where I’ve lived, I will always have great memories of the place where my grandparents and their many children lived. I keep reminding our members to learn more about their history and heritage, to appreciate and pass it on to future generations.
— Rob Brill