Masculinity and the Body Languages of Catholicism [transcript]

Masculinity and the Body Languages of Catholicism

Podcast with Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada (24 May 2021)

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver

Audio and transcript available at:


Masculinity, Devotion, Catholicism, material religion, lived religion, Ethnography

David McConeghy (DM)  0:03 

I’m Dave McConeghy. And today my guest is Dr. Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada, Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College, where she focuses on religion and masculinity. An ethnographer whose excellent new book we’re talking about today: Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is also the editor of Material Religion and a Young Scholar in American Religion for the IUPUI’s Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. Welcome, Dr. Maldonado-Estrada.

Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada (AME)  0:42 

Thank you so much for having me.

DM  0:45 

I loved reading your book because it felt so much like being in graduate school again, reading Karen McCarthy Brown, reading Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street. This is an important book. And you have done a great service for our field by focusing on devotion and masculinity in new and exciting ways. And I’m so thankful to have you on to talk about it today with us. One of the things that I was most struck by as I began to explore the world of Brooklyn and Italian Catholics was your parallel understanding of devotion and gender as bodily techniques. Can you say a little bit at the beginning here? Who are these Italian Catholics? And why, once you began to study them, did you see devotion and gender in similar ways, as scholarly categories that we might use to talk about them?

AME  1:53 

Yeah, so I love this way in. So, I spent around six years at a parish church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This church is called the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. So, this church was really founded in the 1880s as an Italian national parish. Today, of course, it has kind of a different composition, or the neighborhood has changed a lot. But one kind of defining thing about this community is their annual Feast for Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Paulinus, AKA San Paolino. San Paolino is the patron saint of Nola, Italy. So, the crowning moment of the entire year is this summertime feast, where many of the Italian American parishioners, they get together, there’s a street fair, there are processions. And the most spectacular thing that happens during this feast is a ritual called the Dance of the Giglio.

AME   2:57

The Dance of the Giglio is what I like to call a devotional spectacle. The giglio is this 70-foot tall, four-ton tower. It’s like a tapered tower. It’s decorated with angels and saints. Sometimes it has, like, a life-size rosary or risen Christ. This is a heavy piece of craft, right? And men get under the poles of the giglio and lift it on their shoulders, up and down the streets in front of the church. So, this is a parish where we see very typical devotional practices, like processions, visiting a shrine, lighting candles; but then maybe some of these unexpected sorts of devotions, like lifting very heavy things, and really having men as these front-stage devotional actors. So, I was always interested in Catholic devotions, especially as they take place in public. So, as I was kind of starting out research in this field, I’d visit lots of feasts, I would walk on these processions. But there’s something different about this community in Williamsburg. And I think that’s the gender dimension.

AME   4:21

Here, at this parish, we have this big, vibrant community of men. And from maybe the streets, it looks like “Okay, all these men, they’re brawny, they’re macho, muscles, sweat, they’re lifting this thing.” But actually, when you start spending time with a lot of these men, you see that they’re dedicated to planning this feast and being part of this community year-round. They sit in the parish lower hall every week for feast planning meetings. They work in the basement of the parish actually building the giglio, making saints and angels with their hands. They work on fundraising. So, there are all of these other kind of peripheral, but really important, practices of devotional production that are taking place here. So, these things—like fundraising, craft—I think are often feminized. So, early on in my research, when people would see images of the giglio or I would talk about it, I got a lot of questions. People would be like, “Okay, but behind the scenes, women must be planning this. Women must be doing the kind of logistical work, like the backstage ‘heavy lifting’ to make this happen.” And what’s so fascinating about this community is that, largely, devotion is happening in homosocial spaces. This is devotion happening between men, and men doing their devotion together. So, while in the beginning, I didn’t expect this to be a project about masculinity, once I started doing this field work, I could not ignore the way men were really achieving a certain glory, achieving a certain kind of respect, achieving important positions within their parish, and doing that through their devotional lives. So, this is a place where we really do see lay men having connections to the saints, having deep connections to the church, and kind of along the way, making deep and intimate connections with each other.

DM  6:25 

I wonder what’s different from older framings of devotion and gender that you were pushing back against with this really fabulous devotional experience?

AME  6:39 

I think, lots of scholars—and this is work that I build upon; I’m in conversation with—work that made my work possible. But I think for a long time, scholars have been very precious about devotionalism. So, when we think about Catholic devotion, maybe a few things come to mind. Some of these are particular objects and practices and maybe emotions. And some of these are specific spaces. So, on the one hand, we have domestic spaces and piety, right? So, devotion to the saints, especially prayers at home; praying in times of suffering, loss, illness, social upheaval. The emotions that go along with that is that devotion is sincere, its earnest, it may even be filled with certain kinds of desperation. Devotion is what Catholics do as they’re working out their place in the world, whether that be the pains and realities of immigration or the trials of motherhood and family life. These are kind of the big themes we’ve seen here. And, of course, devotion has been equated with what women do in their Catholic lives. So, Robert Orsi famously said, “Catholic devotionalism is a woman’s world” and “there’s no need to qualify any popular devotion as a woman’s devotion, because that’s just redundant.”

AME   7:58

So, I think devotion has been seen as a woman’s domain. It’s where they uniquely approach the saints. It’s where women are overseers of devotion in their homes, grandmothers and mothers that socialize their children into Catholic lives. So, I think devotion has been seen as extra-liturgical, intimate, personal practices, emotional, tender. But the last thing I’ll say is that it’s also material. So, it’s reliant on statues, prayer cards, holy water, rosaries, and how all of these objects are treated with care and affection. And this is putting it a little bit simply, but I think that there has often been a binary here. Largely men are clerical overseers, or presiders, over the real or deep devotional stuff that women are doing, or men are kind of absent and disinterested. I think if we only look at devotion through these lenses, lay men especially don’t seem to have any meaningful relationships with the saints or with devotional practices. And so many scholars have approached devotion through the lens of seriousness or heaviness or even affliction.

AME   9:08

In this community, devotion is joyful, and it’s playful, and it’s messy, and it’s raucous. People are doing their devotion, but they’re cracking jokes. They’re doing their devotion, but they’re getting drunk together. They’re building friendships. So, I think my book does a new thing in approaching the devotional lives of Catholic men and trying to see what masculinity has to do with that and how certain devotional practices are masculinized. And then I think the other thing I’m doing is… I don’t know, doing the not-so-serious study of devotion. And trying to see how certain practices come to matter to Catholics and how certain practices come to be charged as devotional or to be charged with certain meaning. So, this meant for me, I had to get rid of a lot of assumptions about what religious practice looks like in order to dwell with men in their spaces, and not only listen to what they were saying, but to see what they were doing with their hands, and to see the kind of skills they felt like they could offer to the saints, the skills they could offer to their church. And try to understand how that was devotion, too, even if it doesn’t look like seriousness and tenderness all the time.

DM  10:27 

I think this is a great opportunity to talk about how you found all of these things out. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be an ethnographer in these spaces?

AME  10:40 

Yeah, so, I love this question. I love talking about ethnographic methods. So, I mean, one of the main things that’s going on here is that I’m a woman. I’m not Italian-American; I’m Puerto Rican. And I wrote a book about Italian-American masculinity. So, obviously, to do this work, I was crossing lots of gender and ethnic boundaries. Luckily, this is a community that has been studied by other scholars, largely by Italian American men. So, there have been dissertations, there have been articles, there have been book chapters. They know what it means to be the object of the scholarly gaze, which I think made my presence in the beginning understandable and palatable. But one of the things that is so important in this community is labor and effort. Every person has to show that they are putting in the work to make the feast happen. So, if I was going to be an ethnographer, and I wanted to kind of like, sit there and be quiet, take notes, you know, have a pencil and paper, that wasn’t going to work.

AME   11:52

In my first year of fieldwork, this was kind of scene-setting, trust-building. So much about ethnography is creating deep relationships and friendships and bonds of trust. And so, in that first year, I went to all the meetings, I worked in the parish feast shrine, I walked on all of the processions. I got to see some of the inside things about the homosocial spaces and what men are really doing behind the scenes, but I didn’t get to see it all. So, it was that second year that I got interested in how men construct the giglio. Men started telling me lots of stories about their time, you know, working nights and weekends in the basement. Lots of men have giglio tattoos. And so, you know, they wouldn’t tell me about their belief in the saints or anything like that. They would tell me, “I got this tattoo to commemorate my first time working in the basement building the giglio.” So, I was like, “Okay, I have to see this space.” So, I asked around. I was like, “Hey, can I see what you guys do down here in the basement?” And they were open to it.

AME   13:03

So, I get to the basement, and the basement is full of refuse. Like, all the nativity scene statues are down there, kind of old and broken statues, statues in all kind of states of disrepair and nudity. And then it’s also kind of like a workshop. So, power tools, paint cans. It’s just like messy subterranean space. And one thing I think is really cool about this space is that we see devotional objects under construction, and we see men and masculinity under construction. So, I think as men are down in the basement fabricating the giglio, they’re also building and enacting a certain sort of masculinity that’s about craft and creativity; that’s about physical, manual labor practices; and that’s about dedication to the parish and tradition above all. So, when I got to the basement, that year for some reason there had been an absence of volunteers. There were some, you know, arguments going on, and there were just not enough young men to paint the giglio. So, one of the guys asked me, he was like, “Do you know how to paint? Do you know how to mix colors?” And I told him, I was like, “Yeah, you know, I’ve taken art classes. I know my way around a palette; I know how to make some colors.” And that was kind of the beginning of me working in the basement painting the saints on the giglio for years.

AME   14:44

It was only through my own labor, through matching the devotional labor of the men, through having certain artistic skills, through learning how to demonstrate my own dedication and my own work, that I was able to get access to this behind-the-scenes space. This also opened up other behind-the-scenes spaces. So, one of the main ones I talked about in the book is the money room. What happens during the feast is like, yes, they walk on procession, they lift the giglio, but one of the main goals is to raise money for this parish. This parish is in a super gentrified, the trendiest neighborhood in Brooklyn. Lots of Catholic parishes have closed. They’ve been, you know, deconsecrated and sold as condos. And this church, OLMC (Our Lady Mount Carmel), is kind of the holdout. They are still there. And they are vibrant and surviving. And so, money really matters in this community. So, one of the things that feast is very important for is raising money. All of that money needs to be accounted for. And this happens in a kind of backstage room called the “money room.” So, my work in the basement painting saints, making certain iconographic choices, making sure things on the giglio were legible as St. Rita or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that opened up, I don’t know, my trust? Like, it opened up other people trusting me enough to also let me count tens of thousands of dollars with them. Many of these were largely all-male spaces. But I was able to access them in ways that were surprising to me, like, that there was flexibility in that. I think I was able to enact certain masculine skills and know-how that they were looking for. And in seeing what spaces were open to me, and in seeing what spaces and practices weren’t, I was able to discern kind of the workings and constructions of masculinity in its more flexible registers and in its more rigid forms.

DM  17:02 

The combination there of consumptive practices about money and the necessity, of the financial success of the entire parish are so compelling. And the handling of the money is not a small task. It has its own language; it has its own processes. And you describe that the talk of, not only the devotional spaces where the giglios were being created, but also the money room, was one of the things that really let you know—it signified—how you were participating in it. Can you speak just a little bit more about the discursive elements of these spaces?

AME  17:44 

Yeah, so, in one sense, I don’t think we can separate the discursive elements from the embodied practices. So, I’ll talk about both together. So, I think sometimes when we think about it, we have a turn towards religion and business, like religious economies, all of that, consumption practices. I don’t think, when we talk about those things, we necessarily talk about literal money, like dollar bills, getting your hands dirty, handling and accounting for all of this. The money room is the space where every mass collection and novena collection would end up. There are also all of these other arteries of the feast that have money flowing back into the church. So, the feast is a lot of fun. Obviously, they have carnival rides, they have a beer trap, you know, people are slinging Brooklyn Brewery beers and Stellas. And they have like a café, a flea market. So, there are all of these little nodes where volunteers are working to make money. At the end of the day, all this money ends up in the money room. Tens of thousands of dollars. Because over the course of these weeks, the feast raises hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re working in the money room.

AME   19:00

When I first went through training, I was told that there are two rules to working in the money room. So, one of them is “always look busy.” And the other one is “always lie.” People shouldn’t know how much money you have or what’s going on. There are certain practices of secrecy or guardedness that are going on here. Something like money is not apparent from all of the other stuff going on at the feast. So, I think it’s really interesting that everything parishioners and volunteers are doing, from selling a cold beer, to selling a paper sheet of ride tickets, selling a cannoli, selling a candle—all of that means that they’re helping the parish. So, things that might seem kind of mundane actually have this broader important meaning. So, here we see that devotion is good business in a small-scale way, not necessarily on the level of the corporation, or something. So, there are lots of ways in the money room but also at the broader feast that this kind of financial component is what masculinizes so many of the other kinds of planning practices at the feast.

AME   20:20

This makes me think a little bit about Gail Bederman’s work on the Men and Religion Forward Movement in 1911, where Protestants, largely Protestant men, were wringing their hands. They were like, “There’s not enough manly work for men to do in churches. We don’t need a bunch of the brightest minds to pick a rug for the vestry floor,” I think is the kind of things they were saying. So, they were like, “How can we get men to mobilize their business acumen and mobilize their skills in meaningful ways for their churches?” So, I think this parish in Brooklyn is really interesting, because men are doing both those things and all of those things. So, some men historically—like, I’m talking about when they were planning the feasts in the 1950s, 1960s—there were men on committees to pick the proper color khaki slacks, or like, the pattern of a hat, or the little gift, you know, that donors would receive whether it was a letter opener or something else. That work, if we were viewing it through other lenses, would be maybe feminized. But in this parish, because it’s always about the bottom line, keeping the parish alive, this broader sense of embattlement that, “We are a parish. We have survived. We survived urban renewal. We are surviving gentrification. We are here; let’s claim that presence.” All of that talk about the feast being the lifeblood of the parish makes any kind of labor, from something bodily like lifting the giglio to something maybe smaller like designing a t-shirt, all of that makes men’s labor of the utmost importance. So, they’re actually these physical embodied practices, but then the broader kind of discursive frameworks that those practices are put in, either by the pastor, by feast leaders, by people telling these long stories about their ancestors, or their fathers and their grandfathers and their role in this, all of those discursive moves make all of these little practices matter so much.

DM  22:42 

I think it’s really important for maybe our young scholars that might be listening to us to recognize that the way in which you can speak about money, as a devotional process and as the title of your book, The Lifeblood of the Parish, that gives it its persistence and its ability to survive it’s really only recently that we’ve been able as scholars to talk about this. What does it mean, for you, to be breaking ground, not only about how we reintroduce masculinization into how we speak about gender and devotional practices, but also being frank about the role of money without letting that attention on money be, as I think maybe the fears were before, that it was crass, right? That focusing on money here is like focusing on masculinized, devotional labor. It reveals where religious lives get worked out. What does it mean for you to be able to share those?

AME  23:49 

Yeah, so, for me, this means… I think this project is a bit irreverent, because I think it reflects the irreverence of some of my interlocutors. So, as I’d said in the beginning, that largely other scholars have seen devotion as serious and heavy. These guys, you know, they’re there in the back. They’re like eating zepolis. They’re counting money. They’re doing things and being very frank about them as practical, but then they give them this broader meaning. So, they’ll be tinkering in the basement, or they’ll be counting money, and they’ll jokingly say things like, “Oh, if I don’t get into heaven after all this, then I don’t even know” or “You know, maybe this will shave some years off of purgatory.” Or they’ll say things like, “This—building the giglio, counting money, doing fundraising for the parish—this is my calling.” And so, we see these deeply meaningful practices paired up with broader attitudes and postures of playfulness and irreverence.

AME   25:00

And so, I think if we open the door to, actually, the everyday lives of communities and the kind of institutional necessity for money—not just thinking broadly about finances or budgets, the stuff that’s in a computer or on paper or in a spreadsheet somewhere—and think about the way people have to handle things, right? And how they have to make transactions, almost, within their churches, I think we can see how the on-the-ground economics of religious life, and especially—at least in this case—of Catholic life. We can’t separate devotion from people walking up to a statue and wanting to pin money on a ribbon draped around that statue body, or, you know, dropping dollars into the candle donation boxes. These are not things that taint the devotionalism that’s happening or taint the devotion. These are things that are very devotional practices in and of themselves. So, I think if we focus on money, we become less precious about our scholarly categories. And then also, if we focus on money, maybe new actors come into view. So, as I mentioned, if I only looked at the guys that were lifting the giglio, I would have gotten only one view of what Catholicism meant to these men. Because largely, the men and people who work in the money room are invisible; they don’t even lift the giglio. Doing that kind of organizational labor is enough for them without it having to be public and bodily and almost penitential. So, I think new kinds of religious subjects come into view, which is always exciting for me, when I can present a character that’s different from what we’ve seen in religious studies.

DM  27:03 

If a young scholar is looking at, say, Erving Goffman’s work on front and back, I think you’d have a powerful example of this: the giglio in the streets and then the money room and then the basement where the giglios are being painted by you and your cohort of capos. What do you think really changes when, in your scholarship, you move from those spaces? Because you seem to move fluidly between them. Is that the case for the congregation more generally? Describe a little bit about the spatial logic, or as you say, the kinesthetics, that happen on the street and how they’re quite different than what needs to happen, say, when you’re painting an object that’s going to be viewed from 60-feet away on the ground, how that really changes your relationship with the objects that you’re working with.

AME  28:03 

Yeah, I really love this question. And I think it gets at socialization and how that happens in this community. And I think it also gets at religious identity and religious embodiment as a developmental process. I think what Lifeblood of the Parish illuminates is that being Catholic here in this community, it has a certain feel to the skin, right? It is kinesthetic. So, some of this is knowing how to move your body under the poles of the giglio, how to bear that weight, how to lock and unlock your knees, how to have the rhythm to lift this thing in concert with a whole group of men, right? So, there’s that kind of kinesthetic stuff that’s happening. But in the basement, I think there’s also embodied training happening. So, it’s knowing the grooves of these old concrete molds of the saints that men use. They put papier-mâché and these old concrete molds, and they create legible figures of St. Paulinus or St. Rita. It’s having a certain skill and facility or openness to learning how to use a table saw or learning how to wield a paintbrush in a certain way.

AME   25:29

And so, if Catholicism has the kind of developmental process of the sacraments, I think what looking at all of these other spaces shows is that there are other ways in which Catholic bodies and Catholic know-how is developed. And those things might be happening in parishes, kind of under our noses. So, I think so often recently, scholars have looked outside of church spaces, especially in Catholicism, looking to homes looking to women’s basketball teams, backyard spaces, lay organizations that meet outside of churches. But actually, there are places in parishes and their rooms that we haven’t yet explored or doors that we haven’t yet opened to see how Catholics are bound to their churches in ways that are not necessarily the sacraments, or not necessarily liturgical. So, I think if I’m saying that Catholicism has a certain feel to the skin, it’s kinesthetic, it’s about certain feelings of touch or certain bodily skills, masculinity is all of that, too.

AME   30:39

And in this parish, in particular, we see that it’s not just muscles, but facility with a spreadsheet. It’s like the ability to count bills really fast or know exactly how to dip them into a money counter, or how to unpin bills from a ribbon. These are all things we wouldn’t necessarily think of as skills, but then you get there, and you see these matter to people, and you have to actually go through body training to learn them. All of that stuff is backstage. And I love Erving Goffman; I would say that his [The] Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is the most dog-eared book in my entire library. His theory of front stage and backstage in different regions is so key to understanding this. So, what we see on the front stage is this finished product: the giglio, the decor of the feast. And what we don’t see there is how this is all made or how it comes to be. And I’m so interested in that process. The unfinishedness of masculinity, the unfinishedness and messiness of devotional objects and how people handle them with their hands, especially when they when they break or when something goes wrong.

AME   31:55

One last thing I’ll say on this: I’ll bring in an example from the book. There are lots of different Joes in this book. So, if you read Lifeblood of the Parish, there are a lot of characters named Joe. So, there’s a particular Joe, that I’ll mention here. Joe was Jewish but grew up in the feast community. He said he had been going to the feast since he was in the carriage. His grandmother used to take him to the feast. Even though Joe only officially became Catholic a few years ago, Joe had the bodily know-how of the feast. He lifted the giglio. He knew how to do motions during mass. He knew what it meant to walk on a procession. He was devoted to this community even without that kind of official sacramental process. And so, he had all of that skill. And through that process, officially became Catholic because he was so drawn to this community and his own kind of family ties to it.

AME   33:02

If we look elsewhere, I think of course, the sacraments are really interesting as embodied processes as well, but there are other bodily practices that make people Catholic and bind them to communities with other Catholics or to more global Catholic communities. This tradition originates in Nola, Italy, a small town outside of Naples, and a lot of them will travel back. So, maybe they don’t have the language skills to speak Italian, or they’ve never been there before. But they get there, and that place feels like home because they have giglios there too. And they know how to lift over there and speak that body language of Catholicism, even if they don’t necessarily attend mass there or speak the actual language.

DM  33:58 

I’m delighted that we were able to pull back the curtain and move so seamlessly from front of the stage to back of the house. Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Maldonado-Estrada. It’s been a joy to talk to you and I really enjoyed reading your work. And if I were doing introductory theory courses, this would be top of my list to really talk about some of the challenges that we face as ethnographers and the rewards of really doing that kind of work. It’s a beautiful text, and I’m happy that we got the chance to share it with our audience today.

AME  34:35 

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. And thank you for all your kind words.

Citation Info:

Maldonado-Estrada, Alyssa and David McConeghy. 2021. “Masculinity and the Body Languages of Catholicism”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 24 May 2021. Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver. Version 1.0, 24 May 2021. Available at:

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