Monday, July 20, 2009

Italian Street Festival: Tradition Lives

The Italian Street Festival is only a month away. The weeks preceding this annual Jersey City event—a three-day fund raiser for Holy Rosary Church held on 6th Street between Monmouth and Brunswick—are always hectic ones for Carmine Colassurdo, owner of the Gold Coast Fitness Gym on Newark Avenue. Booths, vendors, entertainment—there’s a list as long as your arm of people and things to coordinate. As usual, he’s on the organizing committee and takes an active role in making sure everything and everyone is ready. The Italian Street Festival is Jersey City’s longest continuously running street fair. The “Feast” is in Carmine's blood. He tells me, “It’s about keeping tradition alive.”

This year the 97th Festival takes place. A neighborhood block part attended by residents city-wide as well as returning former residents, the festival features an enticing array of Italian food favorites—sausage & peppers, zeppole, pizza, rice balls. Beer, wine, and mixed drinks are available. Bands play on the portable stage. There are games of skill and chance with stuffed toys and other objects for prizes. There are 50/50 raffles. There are rides and activities for children. Vendors sell religious items, t-shirts, toys, jewelry. Special masses, novenas, processions and other spiritual activities are held for the faithful. Red, green and white—the colors of the Italian flag—are seen everywhere. The tradition is alive and well and celebrated by thousands of residents, regardless of ethnicity.

The Colassurdo family—with the help of many friends—gave Jersey City the Feast, a local event embodying Italian-American Culture, the Immigrant Experience, Catholic Theology and the History of the United States. Carmine is third generation Jersey City. His family—basically his Great Uncle Mike and Great Grandfather Modesto—organized the first Festival—known then and still called by many, the “Feast”—in 1912. The Feast was the American version of an annual festival held in their home village in Italy for centuries.

Great Uncle Mike came to the U.S. in the late 1890s, one of millions of immigrants to be processed through Ellis Island. He settled in the first place he arrived at on the mainland of the United States, Jersey City. Great Uncle Mike came from Morrone Del Sannio, a small village in the Province of Camobasso, located in the mountainous Molise region of southern Italy. Like the majority of Italian immigrants during this period in U.S. History, he was a descendent of rural peasants—generations of whom endured poverty, oppression, famine, natural disasters and war. American cities were more often than not, the first cities these individuals ever saw, much less called home.

Immigrants from one area of their home country often clustered together in the New World. Italian Village was the neighborhood located on the blocks between Coles & Brunswick Street and from Christopher Columbus to 8th Street (give or take a few blocks). Holy Rosary, founded in 1885 and believed to be New Jersey’s oldest Italian Parish, was the church these new immigrant families attended. Alongside immigrants from Sicily and Naples, Italian Village contained a colony of piasanos (Italian for ‘countrymen’) from the small Camobasso village of Morrone Del Sannio. Like other newly arrived Italians, they found jobs as stone masons, construction laborers, and line-workers in the dozens of factories popping up on the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River. Great Uncle Mike, who passed away in 1940, was a small businessman servicing the community. He operated grocery stores and cafes and eventually, the Colassurdo Tavern, on 3rd and Colgate, which lasted through the late 1940s.

Life may have been better in America, but it still meant long hours of hard work and for a while at least, being strangers in a strange land. But, the newly arrived were determined to keep some aspects of their past, like family, faith and community, an integral part of their present. In 1902, Great Uncle Mike convinced his fellow piasanos from Morrone Del Sannio to join him in forming the Maria S.S. (“santissima”) Dell'Assunta Society, which means Mary Most Holy of the Assumption Society. The Society was based on a similar organization in Morrone that was centuries old. The purpose of the fraternity—membership was exclusively male—was to promote Devotion to the Blessed Mother of Jesus Christ in the incarnation of Her Assumption and perform charitable work for the community. They sent money back to the impoverished hometown of its members.

Catholic Devotions, although generally sanctioned and recognized by Roman Catholic authorities, consist of prayers that are outside official liturgy. Unlike attending Sunday Mass, Devotions are not a mandatory part of the catechism. They are an outgrowth, and personal expression, of deeply felt faith. The Assumption of Mary is a corner stone of Roman Catholic belief in the ultimate sacredness of Mary. This highly mystical concept dates back to the earliest years of Christianity. Mary, the Blessed Mother, was born without sin, meaning Original Sin, which is the sin of Adam & Eve that everyone has and is wiped away by Baptism. The Assumption of Mary is the belief that Mary was assumed into Heaven, body and soul. The mystical core of this tenet of faith is that God, the creator of all, has complete power over the physical and the non-physical, earth and heaven.

The Feast of the Assumption was declared a Holy Day of Obligation by Pope Pius XII. There is a great misunderstanding, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, about papal declarations—they are not all “Infallible.” The Infallibility Doctrine, which was declared possible by Vatican I in 1870, means that when the Pope declares something Infallible “ex Cathedra”—from the seat or throne of the Church—he cannot be in error. Since 1870, a Pope has only used his Infallibility option once—on November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII issued the Munificentissimus Deus, which recognized that the Blessed Mother "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” It is the only declaration by a Pope—any Pope, Encyclicals included—accepted by Catholics as Infallible.

Although Catholic theologians point to several passages in the Old and New Testaments from which the idea of Assumption is derived, it is the only Holy Day of Obligation (the days other than the Sabbath when Roman Catholics are obligated to attend Mass) not specifically found in the Gospels, but based solely on Church teachings and Dogma. The Assumption is recognized and celebrated by Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, Lutherans, some Anglican ministries and a few other Protestant denominations. It is also a National Holiday in dozens of countries throughout Europe and South America, as well as the Philippines and Russia. Why it falls on August 15th is unclear, but likely the actual date corresponds to pre-Christian, summer celebrations in Pagan Europe.

Many in the rank and file of the church celebrated the Feast of the Assumption centuries before Pope Pius XII elevated August 15th to a Holy Day. The Devotion was not a mandate from the clergical authorities, but a populous movement. Jersey City’s Assumption Society began nearly half a century before the Pope’s Infallible declaration and had been a Society among the devout peasants of Morrone del Sannio for more than 400 years.

Father Mario Colavita, pastor of S. Maria Maggiore (Mary Magdalene) in present day Morrone del Sannio, wrote to Carmine, “The Mother of God Mary most holy so venerated in Morrone in the image of Our Lady of the Assumption is a wood carved statue from the year 1600. She is the protector of our people who as always accompanied them in all situations most especially in the new social and physical environment that your great grand father found in America.”

“Our Lady of the Assumption was the patroness of that town,” says Carmine. “They prayed to her for centuries. The villagers believed she protected them against earth quakes and famines.”

The Society was always affiliated with Holy Rosary Parish, but acted as a separate entity. When the Society initiated the street festival honoring the Assumption—five years before the U.S. entered World War I—they were carrying on another tradition from Morrone Del Sannio. The Feast raised funds for the Society, but more importantly, it was a community-wide celebration in honor of the Devotion to Our Lady of the Assumption. Originally, the festival ran for nine days, the 9th day always being August 15th. This is called Novena—the number nine in Latin—which is often part of a Devotion. The faithful participate in nine days of prayer, and usually daily mass attendance, when they are fulfilling a Novena. The food, the music, the games—they were all part of the celebration—but the culmination of the Novena was the procession on the 9th day. A life-sized statute of Mary, like the one in Morrone Del Sannio, was held aloft by men of the parish. Followed by hundreds of Holy Rosary Parishioners, the Statue was carried up and down the streets of Italian Village where families would give donations and/or drape ribbons on the icon, paying tribute and giving thanks to their sacred Patroness.

Carmine’s Grandfather, Modesto, a stone mason, immigrated to Jersey City in 1910 and of course, became a member of the Society and helped his older brother organize the first Festival two years later. Every August since, the Festival has been held. World War I, World II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, 911, Afghanistan, the Iraq War; the roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the conformist 50s, the psychedelic 60s, the urban decay of the 70s & 80s, Clinton-era revitalization, the dawn of the 21st Century. Ten decades of Italian Americans celebrating their culture and sharing it with all their friends and neighbors.

Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, keeping this Tradition alive was the Colassurdo family, including Carmine’s Father, Michael (named of course after Great Uncle Mike), who was born in 1922 and of course Carmine, who is 47 years old. “I was always there as a kid,” says Carmine. “I remember just having fun and having a good time and when it was closing, grabbing a broom and sweeping the sidewalk, helping my father clean up. It was just what our family did.”

A mutual friend of ours, Mary Anne, also Italian-American, also born and bred in Jersey City, tells me, “being at the Feast are some of my earliest memories. I was probably still in diapers when I went to my first one. I go every year.”

By the 60s, the Maria S.S. Dell'Assunta Society essentially became a Society in name only and with the passing of Modesto in 1973, its activities gradually faded away. The festival was still popular but had been taken over by Holy Rosary. The second generation of Italian Immigrants, whose parents originated from places in Italy other than Morrone Del Sannio, increased their influence on the annual event. In addition to honoring Our Lady of the Assumption, they made the festival a dual Devotional affair, also honoring Saint Rocco, whose feast day, conveniently, is August 16th. Saint Rocco, who lived in the 14th century, is venerated by Catholics as the protector against contagious diseases. He is usually depicted with an open sore on his left leg—few images of saints expose any afflictions—and with a dog.

Born in France, Saint Rocco went on a pilgrimage to Rome while the plague was ravaging Italy. He devoted himself to caring for the plague victims, curing them with prayer and the sign of the cross in numerous cities and villages of Italy. He soon contracted the plague—one symptom was an open sore. He took refuge in a cave, where he slept on leaves and drank water from a stream. Miraculously, a dog owned by a lord in a nearby castle, brought Saint Rocco food. Eventually, the lord of this castle followed his dog into the woods and discovered Saint Rocco and brought him to his castle where the saint gradually recuperated. More than other Catholics, Italians, especially those from Southern Italy, venerated this saint. They brought that Devotion to the United States.

“Villages tended to have their own patron saint, and there were some Italians who venerated Saint Rocco in Jersey City and their Devotion became part of the Feast,” says Carmine. No one is sure of the year, but there seems to have been no objection to adding the beloved Saint Rocco to Jersey City’s annual summer street fair.

The Statue of Saint Rocco, like the Statue of Our Lady—which was donated by Modesto and the Society in the 40s and recently restored—has a procession during the Feast. Both statues can be viewed year-round in Holy Rosary church.

When he was in his 30s, and a father himself, Carmine, a practicing Catholic and parishioner of Holy Rosary all his life, and with his thriving downtown Fitness Center, also now a successful businessmen in Jersey City, decided to get more involved with the Feast. He joined the festival organization committee. Putting on a street festival requires arranging food and other vendors and entertainment, making sure signs and banners are printed in time. There is promotion to be done—convincing store owners to hang the signs in their windows and the local media to publicize the event. It’s a collaborative endeavor; everyone involved in making the Feast happen is a volunteer. They spend countless hours of their free time doing this work. In addition to all the food and fun for the non-parishioners, special masses, novenas—still an integral part of the overall celebration—must also be organized. The procession traverses only a few blocks, not every street in the old Italian Village neighborhood. The festival only runs three days, not the Novena nine of yore. Nonetheless, arranging the secular and the sacred components of the Feast is a strenuous enterprise.

Carmine joined in the work with gusto, some summers taking more of a leadership role than other summers. While he is too modest to admit it, since his first adult involvement about a decade ago, a new energy has been injected into the Feast. He initiated the recruitment of select outside vendors as well as more professional entertainers. Compared to the 80s and 90s, the Italian Street Festival is now more lively and enjoyable and for the parish, more profitable. A large part of the credit is due to Carmine’s enthusiastic participation.

As his involvement increased, Carmine began to think about the other facets of the history behind the Feast. He fondly remembered stories his relatives traded about the old days of the Society. Carmine desired to pass the traditions down to his children and keep them alive for his vast extended family. An Aunt told him he had a distant cousin in Jersey City he might want to contact, Phil Fuscillio. They had only met a few times, but now when they talked, they had a kindred notion: reviving tradition. The two of them decided to resurrect the Maria S.S. Dell'Assunta Society, this time as a 21st Century-styled, non-profit corporation.

For the last several years, Feast attendees, whether or not they are aware of it, visit two Maria S.S. Dell'Assunta Society Booths, “The Wines of Camobasso Tasting Booth,” and “the Vintage Photo Gallery.” In addition to going to Holy Rosary, a portion of the proceeds from the two booths are used to maintain the Society. And, besides some local charitable work and support of Parish activities—they paid for the restoration of the Assumption statue in Holy Rosary—the 21st century Society has revived another activity first began by Great Uncle Mike, sending money back to the village of Morrone Del Sannio. In 2003, there was an earthquake in the Mountains of Camobasso that severely damaged the Morrone church. Society-raised funds aided reconstruction. In a letter thanking Carmine, Father Colvatia wrote: “I thank you from the heart for the collection you have taken and will use it to bring the church of the Magdalene up to date. I thank you also from the heart for the many initiatives you have taken up, in honor of Our Lady of the Assumption.”

The circle is complete. That circle continues today. The bond between the people of Jersey City and the people of Morrone Del Sannio is once again tangible. Tradition may be about acknowledging the past, but to endure the passage of time, tradition must be renewed and made relevant. Carmine has a saying about the Feast, “Tradition lives...”

Next month, all of Jersey City again joins this living Tradition.

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