The Changing Role of the Italian-American Religious Festival

The Saint Anthony Society
participating in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Procession, West Philadelphia, c. 1931.

The form of Italian saint's-day processions has changed little since the period of immigration. Every June 13th, in the early morning, firecrackers at 62nd and Grays Ferry Road open the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. A band plays the American and Italian anthems, as the flagbearers come out, and proceeds to the door of John Pace, president of the St. Anthony Society. The standardbearers of six other societies are then collected, and the procession begins.

Statues of the saints, finishing with St. Anthony, are carried out of Our Lady of Loreto Church and placed on carts. Little girls carry flowers or hold ribbons dangling from the statues where the faithful pin money.

As a house is passed its inhabitants join the procession, following their favorite saint. Neighbors put out lemonade to ease people's thirst during the three-and-a- half hour march. Detours are made to the houses of the very old and the shops of merchants whose support of the festival has been especially generous. For the last block St. Anthony is lifted from his pedestal and carried, a custom revived by Mr. Pace to show how it was in the old days. The walkers stop in front of the church where the priest blesses the statues and offerings. Then the saints and the people go in for Mass.

This marks the end of a week of celebration, including a carnival, nightly band concerts, feasting and fireworks. For the St. Anthony Society it is also the culmination of a year of work: fundraising through spaghetti dinners and visits to local businessmen, and the booking of bands and entertainments. The festival is completely supported by the Society, and its proceeds go entirely to the parish; past processions built the church and later the school of Our Lady of Loreto.

Such feste were the center of Southern Italian religious life. For the immigrant, whose loyalty was not to the abstraction of Italy but to the village of his birth, the festa became an important symbolic link In the early years money was sent home to be pinned on the town patron saint as a matter of family pride, as well as continuing identification.

As more people from a village emigrated a few families would form a society to procure a statue, solicit contributions from paesani for a band and fireworks, and recreate the procession in America. The reputation of the home village depended on a good turnout and a strong sense of rivalry persisted even when the village ceased to be the unit of procession participants. For thirty years in Southwest Philadelphia the regionally mixed devotees of St. Anthony vied with the Neapolitan followers of Our Lady of Mt Carmel for the most magnificent and profitable procession. Often, as in the St. Anthony Society, the religious confraternity was also a mutual aid group, paying death and disability benefits. This continuation of village reciprocity strengthened the community-bound character of the festa.

The independence of the procession, and observance belonging to and stemming from the people, was accentuated as Italian-Americans came into contact with the Irish-dominated Catholic hierarchy. The Irish had endured years of enforced acculturation to Protestant norms both in Ireland and in America, and to them the parading of statues seemed like pagan image-worship. They resented intensely the paucity of Italian offerings at mass, given the huge sums raised for festival fireworks. The Italians, in turn, were traditionally anticlerical and accustomed to a state-supported church of seemingly limitless wealth and influence and felt that the Irish were making them buy the sacraments.

As the Italian population increased, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States instituted national parishes with Italian priests. It became necessary to tolerate the processions and other forms of folk piety, for the people continued to sanction them, and there was a danger of losing the Italians to organized religion.

The priests of national parishes soon realized that such practices were a valuable resource. If Italians did not fill the collection plate they made up for it by lighting candies in the saints' chapels, and the church which sponsored processions could reap their harvest of donations and enthusiasm. To bind the congregation to the parish, Italian priests promoted the feste of the church's dedicatory saint and of widely venerated saints like Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. In the 1920's Father Antonio Garritano put notices in L'Opinione for weeks in advance of the procession of St. Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi describing the attractions of the festival and urging wide participation.

At the same time that the priests encouraged unification of their flock under one saint's banner, the Italians themselves were relaxing their village ties. Years of living in America and a new generation produced an Italian-American identity. As the immigrants aged and the Americanborn came to fear ridicule, most of the village processions disbanded. The more flourishing processions attracted a parish-wide following, and their regional origins were forgotten. The festa now belonged to the neighborhood.

As the years passed even those processions weakened. When other ethnic groups moved into the area the processions often died out entirely. In all-Italian enclaves routes were curtailed and the statues were put on carts for want of men outbidding each other for the honor of carrying them. Responsibility for the procession frequently fell on the parish. From being a dangerously energetic alternative to organized Catholicism, the festival had become a valued sign of religious fervor.

Greater affluence contributed to the decline of processions. John Pace said that, after Our Lady of Loreto's school was dedicated in 1960, "people got lax" and the festivals dwindled. The two processions began to alternate in years, and finally the Mount Carmel Society was subsumed in its former rival.

Many processions still continue in a diminished state. A recent visitor to the festa> at Holy Savior in Norristown commented on how many people he missed and was told, "The old people are getting tired, and the young people don't want to do it."

But there are signs of a revival in a new form. The religious feast has become an ethnic festival. The process began with the festival carnivals, which waxed as the processions waned, keeping hold of the young and maintaining the profitability of the event. In the 1970's, particularly in urban churches, ethnic elements came to dominate. Italian folk-music and dance groups were introduced alongside the bands. Other groups were included in their capacity as ethnics: one year Mr. Pace brought in a Scottish troupe in Highland dress to play the bagpipes. The Hammonton, N.J., procession has incorporated a Puerto Rican confraternity with its own saint and statue.

In some cases this change reflects strategy. Father Calabro of Our Lady of Consolation Church in Northeast Philadelphia realized two years ago that their Feast of the Saints was "terminally ill." The parish committee merged it with their carnival and renamed it the "Italian Festival". They arranged a week of entertainments geared to all ages, emphasizing Italian food and music. A public-relations person advertised in the newspapers and put notices in the bulletins of other Italian parishes, to great effect. Father Calabro estimates that this year over a thousand people came on each day of the weekend. The procession itself made only a slight recovery in numbers, and he does not expect it to regain its importance. But he knew that the festival needed outsiders to succeed, and its reshaping has brought them.

Many festivals benefit by attracting outsiders, notably in Hammonton, N.J., where crowds of metropolitan Italians come to celebrate italianita' in a pleasant small-town context. However, the element of local community remains primary. John Pace stresses the honoring of the saint and the pride of ethnicity in his procession, saying, "We're here to keep our heritage up," but it is also grounded in strong neighborhood ties.

Mr. Pace has made a point of recruiting young members to the St. Anthony Society, picking them with caution because of the heavy workload that will fall on them. He has carefully cultivated neighborhood businesses. His own family and the children of the neighborhood are drawn into the last-minute preparations. When the original headquarters of the society went up for sale in 1979 he and his wife moved into them; the original St. Anthony statue is in their basement, and Mrs. Pace is frequently called by neighbors in trouble to say a prayer or lay flowers in front of the shrine. There is a deep devotion to St. Anthony in the community.

Equally important to this procession is Mr. Pace's force of character. Young men who have moved away not only return for the festival, but remain active members of the Society, coming in regularly from Frankford or Cherry Hill to do its work out of loyalty to Mr. Pace. More than one local businessman will not make his usual donation unless Mr. Pace comes for it in person. The energy of an individual seems here to sustain what, left to itself, might die out.

In Roseto, Pennsylvania, the weekend of the Our Lady. of Mount Carmel festival is still called the "Big Time". Always the occasion for visits from relatives, it is now the time when children come home from larger towns. Participation in the procession has waned as individualistic American values intrude. Dr. Stewart Wolf, who hopes the frustrations of getting and spending will rekindle an appreciation of the Rosetan way of life, felt that this years increase in the procession's numbers was a "good sign". The procession is a measure of the community's strength, and in more ways than one: John Pace can judge the extent of unemployment in his neighborhood by the weight of the statues' ribbons.

Rarely is the festa still the high point of the year, as in Roseto or for the St Anthony Society. Other dates-the summer vacation, the start of the school year-have superseded the harvest and the saint' s day as markers in the lives of ethnic Americans. But the impulse to a visible affirmation of loyalty to a group is alive and well, and it is brought home in the red, white, and green caps from the Italian Festival.

Dorothy Noyes
Research Assistant

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