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George La Piana (1878–1971)

Folder 12: Italian Immigrants in America. La Piana, George, 1879-1971. Papers, 1878-1972 (inclusive). Manuscripts bMS 104/11. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass.
Folder 12: Italian Immigrants in America. La Piana, George, 1879–1971. Papers, 1878–1972 (inclusive). Manuscripts bMS 104/11, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass.

George (Giorgio) La Piana, Roman Catholic priest, scholar, and, for almost 30 years, a member of the Harvard Divinity School faculty, was born in 1878 in the village of Piana degli Albanesi, outside Palermo, Sicily. One of eight children, La Piana was sent to the lyceum in nearby Monreale for his education. He received a licentiate (master's degree) in theology from the Theological School of Monreale in 1900, and he was ordained the same year. After teaching history and Latin at the lyceum, he studied at the University of Geneva and later became rector of the small College of San Rocco in Monreale. He earned his PhD from the University of Palermo in 1912.

During these years, La Piana also became involved in the controversial modernist movement, a school of thought later denounced by Pope Pius X, which attempted to incorporate Biblical scholarship, new philosophical ideas, and current social science into traditional Roman Catholic theology.

La Piana emigrated to the United States in 1913, settling, like many newcomers, where he had family. Two of his brothers, one a druggist and one a medical student, lived in Milwaukee, a city with a large population of German, Irish, Polish, and Italian Catholics. La Piana hoped to obtain an academic position there, but when his efforts failed, he began offering classes and lectures to the city's German and Yankee elites. These contacts led to a volunteer position with the local Associated Charities, where he served as a "friendly visitor" to the poor and conducted studies of the city's immigrant Italians.

In 1915, a Harvard-trained Unitarian minister in Milwaukee arranged a teaching fellowship for La Piana at the Harvard Divinity School. Appointed an instructor in church history in 1919, he was the first Roman Catholic to hold a position at the Divinity School. La Piana was promoted to assistant professor in 1923 and to professor in 1926, and the University named him the John H. Morison Professor of Church History in 1932. Over his academic career, La Piana taught in both the Divinity School and Harvard College, and he published widely in English and Italian. A naturalized citizen since 1918, La Piana remained a nominal but non-practicing Roman Catholic, and he considered himself loyal to his familial and cultural heritage if not to traditional dogma.

Throughout his time in the Boston area, La Piana continued the social service work that he had undertaken in Milwaukee. As an official of the Family Service League (formerly the Associated Charities), he was the organization's director for Boston's heavily Italian North End, and his studies of the Italian community combined scientific investigation with cultural interpretation of his fellow countrymen.

After his retirement in 1947, La Piana continued his research and writing. In his later years, he lived in Wellesley with his sister, Angelina, who had taught Italian at Wellesley College. After her death, he moved to a nursing home in South Natick, where he died on his 93rd birthday, February 28, 1971.

Immigration to the US Resources

Manuscripts

George La Piana Papers, bMS 104; Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School. Included here:

Full Collection Citation

George La Piana Papers, bMS 104; Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

Electronic Finding Aid

La Piana, George, 1879–1971. Papers, 1878–1972: A Finding Aid. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

Publications

La Piana, George. The Italians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: General Survey / Prepared Under the Direction of the Associated Charities. Milwaukee: s.n., 1915.

La Piana, George. Within Our Gates. Boston: Family Welfare Society of Boston, 1923.

Other Resources