Posts Tagged ‘Sicilian tradition’

Gloucester’s Saints

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

 

The older women, dressed in nice jewelry, holding heavy pocketbooks, begin arriving at the front door as early as 11:30 in the morning.  They take the first seats in the large room, built intentionally for this day, to honor St. Anthony, off the center hall of John and Angela Sanfilippo’s Gloucester home.  The room is lined with folding chairs all facing the broad far wall which is tiered with candles, fresh flowers and shiny vessels arranged to honor St. Anthony, the saint of lost things.

The women’s lined structured faces still bear the lees of being pretty young Italian girls.  The pretty young Italian girls arrive a little later, equally dressed-up, but late because they were at their jobs, and had to wait until noon to leave, or they had to put a baby down for a nap before the sitter arrived. The arriving men – young and old –  go right to the back yard, where the other men are grilling whiting, and already gathered in circled lawn chairs after having set up the tents, tables and chairs.  

In the formal parlor across the front hall, the priest is arranging his robes.  He is extremely tall and thin with dark trimmed hair and beard.  Reaching to fit the robes over his head, he fills the room like a long-limbed El Greco subject fills a canvas, reaching for the skies.  The priest’s expression is kindly and gentle.  He speaks Italian with melodic, fluidity, not the choppy Southern Italian dialect of the gathering crowd.  

Downstairs, Angela, her friends and family are finishing preparing the twenty or so dishes for the feast that will follow the mass.  Sixteen feet of table are completely covered in platters, pots, and bowls, each covered loosely in foil to keep the food warm through the mass.  

 

Angela’s husband and brother are fishermen, as was her father and all her family members back in Porticello, Sicily.  On this table there is freshly caught whiting, monkfish, haddock, scallops, and squid – breaded and baked, grilled, deep fried, barbecued, chilled in a salad, hot in a chowder.

This is Gloucester, where saints are prayed to, talked to, begged to for everything from lost keys to lost loved ones every single day.  Saints are taken as seriously in this city – heavily made up of Sicilians who came here to fish – as politics and the weather.     

Even if you don’t understand Italian, you know by his affectionate cadence that Father Andrea is not preaching today, but telling the St. Anthony stories, how the saint advised a young prince with paralyzed legs to marry the poor young girl who came alone to church every day and cried at the altar.  The prince married the girl, and walked on his wedding day.   Father Andrea is telling the story of how St. Anthony  raised a murdered friend from the dead to testify against the wrongly accused, and then repositioned the victim in Paradise on his return.  

Angela Sanfilippo has her own St. Anthony miracle.  At nineteen, her father was captured by the German Army in World War II.  Angela’s grandmother didn’t know where her son was or even that he was a prisoner, but she prayed every day to St. Anthony for his return.  Two years later, her son walked into the Sicilian village, and the mother’s lifelong vow to St. Anthony began.    For the rest of her life, although she was a comfortable woman, she went door-to-door in Porticello begging for donations to her St. Anthony’s feast.  At every year’s feast, she laid out her finest linen, china, and crystal.  Her first guests were always thirteen orphans selected from the local orphanage and a monk, allowing the poorest from the community to enjoy the riches of a king for a day.  

Angela came to America as a child with her family, first to Milwaukee and then they settled in Gloucester for fishing.  Angela’s grandmother stayed in Porticello, continuing her famous St. Anthony tradition.  When Angela had her own home she started the St. Anthony tribue on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

St. Anthony, St. Joseph and St. Peter are Gloucester’s saints.  Each saint’s feast day (the day they died, meaning the day they left their humanity behind and became a saint) is almost more important than Christmas and Easter.  The feasts days are like a birthday and a major holiday all wrapped up in one.  Like Angela, the Sicilian people have personal attachments to these saints; they ask them for favors large and small. Their pictures hang on walls and watch over the families like a beloved uncle.  St. Anthony, to this adoring crowd, is right there with them hearing their stories and prayers, laughing and crying, serving himself some antipasti.  At the same time his June death is as big as Christmas.  People in Gloucester travel around to each others homes saying novenas to him, sharing cookies and coffee afterward – for 13 days in advance.  On the actual feast day people take time off from work; they dress in their best; they go to mass, and they cook.   Friends, relatives, local dignitiaries skip breakfast that day knowing that fish from the Gloucester waters will be prepared fifteen different ways for lunch, and not one dish is to be passed over.

Most people imagine that St. Peter, the fishermen’s saint, the saint celebrated at fiesta with greasy pole walking, seine boat races, and amusement park rides, is Gloucester’s headliner saint, but there was a time when the entire city shut down on March 19th for the feast of St. Joseph.  Today, buses take crowds from altar to altar all over the city celebrating St. Joseph.  At Angela’s that day, St. Anthony drew a standing-room-only crowd.

At each saint’s feast, the bread is taken to the altar and blessed.