The French Connection’s Retired NYPD Detective Sonny Grosso: “Magical Memories of Easter, Mt. Carmel Church, and Italian Festivals on the Streets of Harlem”

“Buona Pasqua!” says retired French Connection detective Sonny Grosso
Det. Sonny Grosso with Gene Hackman on French Connection set

Buona Pasqua, Felices Pascuas, Chag Pesach Sameach/Happy Passover, Happy Easter! All these greetings will be cheerfully expressed this week.

New York is one of the most linguistically and religiously diverse cities in the world, with about 80% of New Yorkers affiliated to some organized religion. It’s also estimated the City has about 2000 churches, 1000 synagogues and maybe 6000 places of worship overall.

For Italian Americans, like retired NYPD Det. Sonny Grosso, attending church continues to be a focal point of life. Grosso, the highly decorated detective who made the famous French Connection drug case that was turned into a 5-time Oscar winning movie, has been around churches all his life. His family lived around the corner from Mt. Carmel Church (officially, The Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) on E. 115th Street in Italian Harlem.

Mt. Carmel Church in “Italian” Harlem

But, as he writes in his upcoming memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, Easter was always special for Sonny and his three sisters. After attending service, they would often go visit their grandfather for glorious dishes of pasta and Italian homemade gravy. He recalls:

“I used to get a new suit every Easter, and my sisters used to get a new dress from top to bottom. We looked forward to dressing up being part of the festivities. Although, later on, when our father Benny passed away, our mother Lillian had to go on financial aid, and I didn’t get a full suit, just a pair of pants, while my sweet sisters would get a blouse or a hat, only. It was still fun to get something, although we were too young to realize we weren’t getting the full load, anymore. But our mother always did her best to keep us going and continue to provide a life for us, even if we had to settle for jello and not pudding, because milk was too expensive.”

Church of the Annunciation in West Harlem

When the Grosso family moved to West Harlem, they began attending Church of the Annunciation, an area institution that had been founded in 1853, and was located at 88 Convent Avenue. Sonny recalls a funny but embarrassing story about his Confirmation at that church:

“It was mostly an all-Irish neighborhood back then. And this story would never have happened in an Italian neighborhood. My father said, ‘You’re having a godfather.’ This guy, my mother’s brother, Nunziata was about 6–4 and 275. They had three schools getting confirmed at the same time. I was the only guy who had this hulking fellow following him around the community and everybody’s head turned. Many of them chose the Priest’s name, Arthur, but my mother wasn’t having any of that. She wanted me to have my uncle’s name, Nunziata. But, the Church wasn’t going to let me use that name because it wasn’t a Saint’s name. Yet the church was called Annunciation Church. Go figure! Anyway, I didn’t want Salvatore as my middle name either. So, imagine having Nunziata on top of that. I would’ve felt like a leper. So I started moaning, ‘Ma, I don’t want the name. I’ll be laughed at by the other kids.’ She finally gave in. My father’s father was Salvatore, but my mother’s father was Anthony. So, she made me go back with Anthony as my confirmation name choice. And, they say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet — well, not if you were called Nunziata!”

Sonny Grosso (left) about to get confirmed
Sonny Grosso with his beloved mother, Lillian

But Mt. Carmel always had a soft spot with Sonny Grosso. And one annual street festival touches his heart. Every August, the Giglio Society of East Harlem holds the Giglio Feast (Ausut 9–12, 2018) an Italian festival on the streets near Mt Carmel Church. The festival includes the Society performing the “Dancing Giglio,” which has been an Italian tradition for over 125 years, and at its height, the feast was attended by over 100,000 people. Sonny recalls that people would come to the feast in buses from all over the country, and many came from Italy, and they would walk barefoot behind the Giglio in solemn procession.

An early Giglio Feast procession when up to 100,000 came
Giglio tower at the procession in Harlem

It made a big impression on him. Giglio means “lily” which was his dear mother’s name (Lillian), and growing up, Sonny remembers looking down on the street festival from an open window while his father’s favorite song, Amapola, played over and over:

“I remember watching my father down there at the street fair talking to the guys and being part of the scene, everyone loved my father and respected him. He’d be involved in the games they played with balls and prizes, people selling sausage sandwiches and the zeppoli. And, I was thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up, I want to be like my dad.’ Years, later, after being privileged to become an NYPD policeman and detective, I had the great honor of being asked to be Grand Marshall at the festival’s parade and I marched with the same priest, Fr. Peter Rofrano, who was my priest when I was a kid.”

A few years ago, Sonny was honored by the National Museum of Catholic Art and History in East Harlem, and Fr. Rofrano gave the award to him. Sonny adds, “Fr. Peter fessed up to the audience that he’d once teased my mother that I wouldn’t amount to much. And, then he gave me that special award — it was touching. I had carved out my little career.”

St. Bart’s on Park Avenue — “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

As they say: Moments. Make. Magic. As for this week’s holiday, Sonny Grosso sends out greetings and love to all — Buona Pasqua! And, since we’re in New York and baseball is underway, Go Yankees!

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.