Catherine Piantigini has probably seen most of Somerville’s yard shrines, but there’s one on the Medford line that’s her favorite. Our Lady of Grace stands in a blue-and-white bathtub, her arms open in welcome. The paint is chipped, and Mary’s gaze is cast down as if she’s lost in thought. Someone’s written “MPB 1975” in the concrete at her feet.
Part of the reason Piantigini loves this shrine is personal; she remembers being here in Somerville in 1975. “But it’s also very beautiful,” she says. “It’s understated, but beautiful.”
To Piantigini, the statues scattered throughout the city’s yards are more than just religious objects or lawn kitsch. They tell a story about immigration and home ownership, class and identity, that’s part of the city’s heritage.
“I don’t consider myself a very religious person, but somehow, there was something about these shrines that really drew me in,” Piantigini explains. “They have a very quiet beauty about them, a lot of them.”
Piantigini has spent most of her life here. She was born at Somerville Hospital and grew up in the city. After leaving to attend college at Fitchburg State University, she spent a couple of years in Chelsea but eventually moved back to the city in the late 1990s. Now, she supervises children’s services at the Somerville Public Library.
Despite her strong Somerville roots and her even stronger Italian last name, Piantigini grew up in a Methodist family and spent her childhood in neighborhoods that didn’t have any yard shrines.
“I never really paid attention to them before,” Piantigini says.
That changed in 2012, when a running injury forced her to slow down. She began taking long walks from the library on Highland Avenue toward Davis Square and the Minuteman Bike Path. One day, Piantigini noticed a statue of the Virgin Mary set inside a sideways bathtub in someone’s front yard. When she started spotting more of these shrines, she decided to photograph them. Eventually, that evolved into a Tumblr, Bathtub Marys of Somerville, where she began counting and recording each one she saw.
“It was the perfect thing to do, you know? You’re walking, you have Instagram, and I started taking pictures,” she explains. “It was a great incentive to walk, actually.”
Her Tumblr is home to 591 images of different Catholic yard shrines at homes around Somerville. The most popular statue is an image of Mary called Our Lady of Grace, followed by Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima.
At first, Piantigini stuck to shrines that she could photograph from the sidewalk. But before long, she says, the temptation grew too strong. She still remembers one of the first times she trespassed, sneaking behind a series of row houses near the Target on Somerville Avenue to photograph a yard shrine.
“I went in, and then there were two other ones,” Piantigini recalls. “Like, come on. It was like finding the best-kept secret.”
She got caught a couple of times, but no one was ever upset. And a few times, she even walked away with a story. “Everyone I encountered was either indifferent or nice about it,” she laughs.
Catholic yard shrines reach back to the Middle Ages. They began as public markers of important sites, boundaries or crossroads, according to Joseph Sciorra, a scholar at the City University of New York’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute and the author of a book on yard shrines, Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City.
When working-class Catholic immigrants in the U.S. began to buy their own homes and move into the suburbs, Sciorra says, they brought yard shrines with them. It was a way for people to make a connection to where they or their family came from, to mark their arrival as homeowners and to thank the saints they believed helped them get there.
“A house is a big achievement for people,” Sciorra says. “Often, people pray to the Virgin Mary or one of the other saints to accomplish this great task of getting a house of their own.”
Yard shrines are part of what Sciorra calls a “vernacular, ethnically based” Catholicism. They vary based on locale—a shrine of Mary that’s venerated in a particular town in Sicily, for instance, might not be available at the local garden store in Somerville.
That makes the shrines just as much about community and family as religion, according to Sciorra. “It also expresses … a relationship to one’s ethnic background, and the family they grew up in, the community one grew up in,” he says.
People also tend to do what their neighbors do, and yard shrines can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, or from city to city. For example, while many statues in Somerville are set in a scalloped concrete alcove, that’s rare in New York City, according to Sciorra.
While many people take pride in their yard shrines, Sciorra says they’ve developed something of a stigma. For some, they’re markers of working-class life to be left behind as people move up the social ladder. For others, they’re too superstitious, too Catholic or too publicly religious. The sentiment is so strong that Sciorra avoids terms like “bathtub Mary” or “bathtub Madonna” because they’ve been used to slur and belittle the shrines.
“The media has created a kind of negative image of the yard shrines, and people pick up on that,” he explains. “Their children might be ashamed of the yard shrines, or their local priest might tell them that this is not the proper way to practice their Catholicism.” To be fair to the “bathtub Mary” nickname, Catherine Piantigini says about 50 of the shrines she’s photographed in Somerville are literally set in repurposed claw-foot tubs. She’s spoken with some residents who, when rehabbing their homes, used the old tubs to create shrines. A priest at St. Ann’s Parish in Somerville also spoke favorably of her photo project in a sermon after he read a blurb about it in the Boston Herald, she says.
And the project has been a hit with the community as well. In early 2013, Piantigini had begun displaying her photographs at the now-closed Sherman Cafe and Market in Union Square. But her world turned upside down later that same year, when her husband suffered a life-threatening accident that landed him in a coma for three weeks. On the rare occasions when she left the hospital, she’d stop by Sherman Cafe for food. That was when she discovered that people had heard the news about her husband and were buying her photographs to show their support. The money wasn’t important, Piantigini says—it was about knowing other people cared.
“It was just so sweet,” she says. “It was a nice acknowledgement of community.”
Everyone from Mayor Joseph Curtatone to the New York Times has urged hip, young, affluent new residents to make Somerville their home. As the city gentrifies, the working-class houses that gave birth to the shrines are getting carved up into middle- and upper-class condos. But for Piantigini, yard shrines are too important to let go of so easily.
“It just seems like it’s a very special thing,” she says. “It’s a part of the fabric of what we used to be.”