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Telling Milwaukee's Italian history through collections of family photos

The craze of Summerfest has settled and Milwaukee’s cultural festivals are starting to take over. This weekend, the festival grounds hosted Festa Italiana. From The Rat Pack cover bands to your choice of pastas, the festival continues to serve the city an intimate weekend in Italy.

Christine Conley, whose grandparents are from Italy, has been a festival-goer and volunteer from just about the beginning. She currently manages the Italian Heritage Photo Exhibit, which has a lifespan as long as the festival. It’s made up of religious artifacts and photos from Milwaukee’s Italian community dating back to the late 1800s.

Listen to the audio story below to learn more about the Italian Heritage Photo and Pompeii Church Exhibit.

Festa Italiana is one of Milwaukee’s first ethnic festivals of the summer. This year, they're celebrating 41 years. Conley says volunteering and giving back to the community has always been a priority in her big Italian family.

“All of my family is down here,” said Conley. “Every single one of them, down to my four-year-old granddaughter, is down here doing something.”

While her family works on running other parts of the festival, Conley’s main focus growing the photo exhibit. The display lives in the red Summerfest store near the Miller Stage. This year, religious statues from Milwaukee’s first Italian churches (St. Rita’s and the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii church) were displayed on a pedestal filled with flowers.

On partitions surrounding the walls of the store are black and white photos of generations of Italians. One wall displays yearbook photos from the early 1900s. Another shows the early immigrant experience for Italians arriving in Milwaukee. One wall is dedicated to large Italian weddings, family portraits and the early athletes and entertainers of Milwaukee’s Italian community.

Each year, parents, their children and their grandchildren stop by to pay homage to their great-grandparents. The older generation uses it as a moment to teach the younger generation about the journey their families took to get here today. For many families, walking into the exhibit is like opening up a family photo album.

If you’re interested in contributing photos for the exhibit, visit the festival’s website for submission requirements here.