Somerset nativity set carries powerful immigrant story
Josephine Ferre came to Castle Garden with the hope of many Italian immigrants.
She wanted a better life in America. Tucked with her were four children and a nativity set that now belongs to her great-granddaughter Annette Isgan of Somerset.
Isgan thinks about what her relative went through when it’s put on in decoration.
“We cherish it very much. Absolutely, every year I think of that experience,” Isgan said. “I tell my children, and I will tell my grandchildren. and my nieces and nephews, I will tell them.”
The set includes animals, Joseph, Mary, the three wise men, Baby Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Ferre’s grandson Peter Ferre of Boswell said he didn’t know when it was created or by whom.
“I don’t know if it was passed from generation. But grandma got it,” Ferre said. “I’m thinking that was pretty important to her to bring it from Italy, to bring it through customs. I think it was one of her most important possessions.”
From Aug. 3, 1855 to April 18, 1890, Castle Garden was America’s first official immigration center, a collaboration of New York State and New York City. In 1890, the federal government determined to control all ports of entry and take responsibility for receiving and processing all immigrants to the U.S.
The Castle was closed and the reception center was moved to the U.S. Barge Office which was located on the eastern edge of The Battery waterfront, according to a history posted on the website for The Battery Conservancy, which maintains immigration history for that center. It operated until the U.S. Office of Immigration opened the newly built Ellis Island in 1892.
Ferre surmounted a lot of things during her trek to the United States. She came with two boys and two girls. One of her sons had a cold and immigration officials put markings on his jacket to say he needed to be quarantined. So Ferre turned the boy’s jacket inside out so she didn’t have to leave without him. Afterward, Ferre planned on meeting her husband in northern Pennsylvania somewhere.
“She said her guardian angel took her from the boat to my great-grandfather,” Isgan said. “I believe it was a traveler aid’s society at the time that helped immigrants meet up with their families. These are stories we were told for years.”
They moved to Somerset County because her husband worked in a coal mine. Ferre died in 1971. The nativity set is now in Isgan’s living room. It will be passed down to her nieces and nephews. Isgan said, “I’m very excited to have it and to be able to preserve it for future generations.”