Celebrations of Identity
All over the United States celebrations of Italian identity are being held every single month of the year. The immigrants of the Mezzogiorno of Italy are dispersed around America and they brought their customs and devotions to their patron saints with them at the turn of the 20th century. A directory of these favorite saints and festivities has been compiled by the Order Sons of Italy in America; three hundred seventy Italian festivals are held in thirty-nine states.
We have all heard of the Festa di San Gennaro, founded by Neapolitans and held in New York’s Little Italy for the last one hundred years. Did you know that it is also celebrated in places such as Seattle, California, Ohio, New Jersey and Florida? Believe it not, he is not the oldest continuously honored patron saint. That privilege goes to Our Lady of Mount Carmel thanks to the immigrants of Nola, Italy and Campania who settled in Hammonton, New Jersey. Their feast has been held for 137 years! The Nolianos are truly devoted to Our Lady who is believed to give special protection to cloistered Carmelite nuns who originated in the Holy Land. This safety is also given to those who believe in her.
The other renowned celebration is Brooklyn’s Feast of the Giglio. A fifty-foot flower-ladened steeple of wood is carried through the streets, there are masses, novenas, and all the celebratory activities of a typical Italian festival. The Nolianos of Williamsburg, Brooklyn started this feast over 100 years ago, which is also known as the Feast of St. Paolino, but the actual celebration dates back to the fifth century. The story goes that in 410 A.D. North African pirates invaded Nola. Many were killed and the young men and boys were taken away as slaves. The mothers and widows were desperate, praying constantly to Our Lady. Bishop Paolino of Nola offered himself up in exchange. When a certain Turkish sultan heard of Paolino’s altruism, he was very impressed and accepted his exchange. The captives were returned and eventually so was Bishop Paolino. Upon his return, the townsfolk greeted him with lilies and the tradition of the Gigli (lilies) began.
Festa di Tutti i Santi
St. Joseph is venerated in eight different cities, but the most popular Italian saint who is honored all over Italy and the U.S. is St. Anthony. Twenty four celebrations are held in June, mostly on the East Coast but also in California. We have festivals for Sicilian patrons, such as St. Calogero in Boston, and St. Rosalia in Alabama and Louisiana. We cannot forget St. Nicola di Bari, which the Pugliesi celebrate in Chicago. Then, of course, we have festivals having a generic name such as the Festa di Tutti Santi (Feast of all the Saints) in Chicago; that name makes sure no saint or region is left out. Celebrations in West Virginia, Minnesota and Illinois are generally called “The Italian Festival.”
La Madonna dei Martiri
There is one patron saint which is celebrated in Hoboken, New Jersey by the Italian-Americans from the city of Molfetta, Bari, Italy: La Madonna dei Martiri has been celebrated since 1928 there. This city has become gentrified in the last 40 years with many people from different states and of many ethnicities living there, therefore, recently, during festival time the heading of advertisements and banners reads The Italian Festival, but below are still the words La Madonna dei Martiri. Believe me, the Molfettesi know it’s their feast and they come in from the environs in September.
La Madonna dei Martiri is not just celebrated in Hoboken, New Jersey. Well, how about Australia and South America? My father always said that wherever in the world you go you will bump into another Molfettese!
Molfetta is a city on the Adriatic Sea with roots going back to the 9th century and was under the domain of the Sicilian monarchs. During the 12the century Norman King William II of Sicily ordered a Hospice to be built in Molfetta for the crusaders returning from the battles in the Holy Land. The soldiers were treated for their injuries there as best as 12th century medicine would allow. Some men survived but most died. On one trip to Molfetta, a ship carrying Crusaders saw something floating in the water. It was a Byzantine icon of the blessed Mother with Angels on either side. The men took this as an omen that they would survive and set up the icon in the Hospice for veneration. There it hung for a number of centuries until 1369.
In that year, the King of Napoli, Ladislao di Durazzo, in an effort to attract business to the area around Molfetta and Bari, authorized that a fair displaying the Madonna and the work of regional artisans be combined with the religious feast of La Madonna dei Martiri. The Molfettesi have celebrated this saint for the blessings bestowed on the townsfolk, who are mostly fishermen. This is the manner in which the Feast of La Madonna dei Martiri was born in Molfetta.
Each year between September 8th through the 15th people from all over Italy and Europe descend on Molfetta for the festivities. They bring their crafts and art with them as they did in the fourteenth century.
Hoboken ground zero
In Hoboken the feast began in 1928 and has been going strong for ever since. The Molfetessi of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut replicate the feast from the hometown of their ancestors. The illuminations of the streets of Molfetta are in the Byzantine style, but in Hoboken they use the Roman arch usually. The statue of the Madonna is carried through the streets of the town, novenas are said and they even have the “Blessing of the Fleet” (can’t forget the fishermen) and fireworks over Frank Sinatra Park.
The immigrants from Molfetta have been dispersed all over the United States, but prevalently live in the East, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, the mid-west, in particular Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and the west, mainly in San Francisco, California; being fishermen, they were employed on the California coast in the fishing industry there, and even Alaska.
But the Molfetessi didn’t just scatter all over the United States. They also dispersed all over Australia. Unlike the United States, where Hoboken is the ground zero of the feast, Australia has five Madonna dei Martiri celebrations. On September 8, the faithful participate in religious and cultural activities in Sydney, Turncurry, Adelaide, Port Pirie and Freemantle. All these cities have fishing fleets and therefore under the protection of La Madonna, just like Molfetta. So devoted are the Australians that each city has its own statue; no sharing here. La Madonna dei Martiri’s celebrations also exist in La Boca (Buenos Aires), Argentina and Caracas, Venezuela.
It truly is a testament to the strong beliefs and customs of the Italian immigrants who came to the shores of America and beyond over a century ago. No matter wherever they came from or where they ended up, their patron saints came with them. Though most the festivals were initiated by southern Italians, we cannot forget those who came from central and northern Italy: they had their Saint Rocco, Saint Gandolfo, St. Clare and St. Francis…