PROVIDENCE – Many of the more than 4 million Italians who emigrated to the US during the Industrial Revolution to escape poverty came through Ellis Island in New York.
The other port of entry, for some, was Providence.
“Ellis Island was saturated,” said Walter Potenza, 68, of Providence, who owns the largest collection of Italian photographs in the state. “They couldn’t process the incoming fast enough.”
Some of those immigrants became farmers who obtained land in places like Barrington, Bristol, Warren, Cranston — now some of Rhode Island’s most-affluent areas. They carried little with them and craved a place to belong. So they formed hubs that Potenza called “Little Italys.”
“They needed to recreate the hub or community they left behind,” he said. “They would gather together, for sense of purpose and belonging.”
From that desire came the establishment of social clubs and associations, with some groups aligned along religious or political beliefs.
The Order of the Sons of Italy in America was established in 1905 in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City, according to its website. Its aim was “to create a support system for all Italian immigrants that would assist them with becoming US citizens, provide health death benefits and educational opportunities and offer assistance with assimilation in America.”
The Italo-American Club of Rhode Island (IAC) claims to be the oldest Italian chartered club in the US. Its website says it was established in 1896 and filed its charter in 1899.
The group states, “its purpose now, as it was then, is to foster a community where industrious Italian-Americans would honor one another and share common goals familiar to all Italian immigrants who were at that time seeking a new ‘land of opportunity.’”
Another Italian-American club, the Italo-American Citizens Club of Warren (IACC), was established in 1933 to “promote the welfare of the community” – a motto it has repeated in nearly every annual report since it was incorporated.
Potenza says he is a member of five Italian clubs, a soccer group that chats about matches, business groups, a church, and a dinner club that meets for cards and bingo. He is also an honorary member of the prestigious IAC, where dues can cost thousands of dollars.
Today, these clubs include people of all races and ethnicities.
The members-only Italian club in Warren where a fatal shooting took place Thursday filed its non-business incorporation papers on Oct. 23, 1933, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s original members were John Vitullo III, John Vitullo II, Domenico Primiano, Luigi Rossi, John Sarracino, Luigi Laurienzo, and Giuello Vitullo, all of Warren. They paid the $5 for incorporation.
A man at the club who answered a call from a Globe reporter Friday said the club had no comment about the shooting there, in which Assistant Fire Chief Brian Remy, 66, was killed and another man, 41-year-old Jason Furtado, was injured. Police say the suspect, 37-year-old Michael Ouelette, opened fire at Bristol Police on Water Street, who returned fire. Ouelette, who was the president of the social club, was found dead shortly after. Many details about the shooting, including what led up to it, have not yet been released.
The man who answered the phone at the club said it was not affiliated with the IAC in Providence, something IAC Vice President Robert Villucci also reiterated in an email to the Globe.
“It’s not like an Elk’s Club,” said Villucci, referring to the New York-based order and social club with chapters around the nation.
While it has had a lengthy existence, not much is known about the club that operates in downtown Warren. Its 2021 annual report described it as a social club with limited membership that sells alcohol and donates money to different Warren organizations.
Public documents on file with the Secretary of State indicate the club has had its certificate of incorporation revoked at least five times for failure to file its annual report on time. But it was quickly reinstated each time.