THE ITALIAN FESTE: A CENTURY OF TRADITION

Part I: Establishing Identity
Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr.-Mechanicville City Historian

 

             

    Italian street festivals have all but died out in small communities, surviving in metropolises such as New York City and Boston largely as tourist attractions. But here in Mechanicville, the Feast of the Assumption has been observed for more than a century. Like many “traditions,” this one developed almost by accident.

    As Rita Festa Roman’s grandmother related the story years ago, a handful of immigrants from southern Italian villages near Naples decided in August, 1903, to observe August 15th as a feast day much as they had done at home. While designated an official “holy day” in the Roman Catholic calendar only as recently as 1950, the Feast of the Assumption had been celebrated by peasants throughout southern Italy for centuries. Within a year of that first Assumption Day holiday, the Fraternal Society organized a Feast Committee to perpetuate the celebration. They and their compatriots, often described in the local press as “birds of passage,” returned home annually with their savings to support their families in poverty-stricken Italy. Yet, they faithfully observed the customs and mores of their homeland during their temporary sojourns in America. But, it is unlikely that even those who settled here permanently ever imagined that their children and grandchildren- yes, even their great-grandchildren – would be following in their footsteps in the 21st century.

    Italian trackmen linking the Hoosac Tunnel line in Mechanicville with the D&H in Rotterdam Junction first appeared here in 1882. Local newspaper editor, Farrington Mead, whose knowledge of Italy was probably limited to the classical Latin he studied as a schoolboy, found the new visitors romantically exotic. He reported in the weekly MERCURY that these laborers “from the land of Cicero and Caesar” paraded to the local post office “after the style of the noble Roman” in search of letters from home each day. Actually, few were familiar with Cicero and most were Neapolitan rather than Roman, like the vast majority of Italians emigrating to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920. Typically, these trackmen disappeared as quickly as a passing summer shower without a hint that their fellow-countrymen who replaced them would be destined to play a dominant role in the future of our community. Even at this early date, the delight Mead noted the immigrants displaying when sharing news from home with each other at the post office demonstrated the strong sense of attachment to family that is a hallmark of Italian ethnicity.

    As immigration increased in the 1890s, the local postmaster moonlighted as a steamship ticket agent booking passage for immigrants to and from the southern provinces of Caserta, Benevento, and Campobasso. As “foreign” as such names may have sounded to long-time local residents, Coreno, Ausonia, San Marco, Cercepicolo, Cercemaggiore and other paesi from which the newcomers emigrated resembled Mechanicville in many ways. While the contadini rarely worked here as farm laborers as they had in Italy, digging clay at the Best Brick Co., laying track for the railroads, or tunneling out a new route for the Champlain Canal resembled work they had performed in Italy: it was grueling and low-paying.

    The demand for “pick and shovel” labor in America, unattractive by modern-day standards, nonetheless created opportunities for advancement unavailable in the Old Country. By 1899, the growing band of immigrants had organized a mutual aid society modeled on groups then popular in Italy, conducting their meetings in a carriage house on William St. behind St. Paul’s Church. A few months later, Village Minutes recorded the following note on July 27, 1900: “The Italians of the village asked for permission to raise the Italian flag, and it was granted to them.” The reason for this request is lost to memory, but the rapid growth of the ethnic community attracted the attention of the Italian Consul in Albany who began making regular visits to Mechanicville.

    Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of the observance of the first Feast in 1903, the Fratellenza began petitioning the Village Board to conduct a three-day feste every August. Before long, what began as a small parade and a brief fire-works display evolved into a triduum that soon was attracting over 10,000 immigrants from surrounding communities.

    Although few people can recall those early days, the Piroli family has been connected with the celebration for close to a century. John (Red) Piroli marched in the August processions for over fifty years, beginning in 1919 until he passed away in 1975. His son Leo took up where he had left off, and after more than five decades of parading himself, he passed on the legacy to his children and his son-in-law, Lou Alonzo, the fireworks expert, without whom the celebrations would have been strangely quiet. Louis was continuing a family tradition begun by his father, Julio, and his seven uncles who exploded “bombs” along the parade route while leading the feast procession. Today, Lou’s son, Jeff, carries on the tradition by concluding the annual celebration with “bombs bursting in air.”

    For many years, Angelo DeCrescente and his wife “Jake” shared a unique vantage point from which to observe the celebrations while living across the street from the Fraternal Hall on Viall Ave. There, every 14th of August, legions of DeCrescente and Cimino family members congregated in anticipation of the activities culminating the following day. By the time friends of the two extended families were added to the mix, the numbers of people flowing back and forth across the street created the effect of the waxing and waning of an ocean tide over the next two days. Today, Angelo and “Jake” are no longer around to serve as hosts, but the staunch support their son Carmie and grandson, C.J., provide enables the celebration to retain many aspects of its glory days.

    Centennarian Barbara Michele Devito, whose family permanently settled on Saratoga Ave. after emigrating to the U. S. in 1916, recalls the early days when heads of families would bid for the honor of serving as grand marshal of the parade. The highest bidder also assumed responsibility for feeding the marching band that provided the music during the procession around town, an honor the head of the Michele clan earned just once. Following days of preparing enough food to feed a small army, family members discovered that the collective appetite of hungry street musicians rivaled that of a plague of locusts mowing its way through an Iowa cornfield. Even today, Barbara speaks in awe of the event. Enduring memories continue to capture the imaginations of successive generations of Micheles and their Saratoga Ave. neighbors who hosted relatives arriving from far and wide to share three-day family reunions every August, capped off with the sights and sounds of explosions up on Marshall Heights atop Viall Avenue.

    For many long-time residents, August 15th and “The Hill” are forever linked in memory. However, the Fratellenza did not purchase land there until 1939, the same year it erected the Fraternal Hall at the lower end of Viall Ave. For the next half century, each year’s “feste” culminated with thousands of people climbing “The Hill,” parading past legions of vendors offering candy, food, trinkets, and gee-gaws for sale to the revelers. Actually, the effects of immigrant restriction laws passed by Congress after World War I had so limited the recruitment of new members that the Fratellenza considered disbanding. However, the society rejuvenated itself by hitting upon the then-novel idea of enrolling “young American-born Italians” in the Society. Originally, membership had been limited to immigrants only. The innovation created expansion of the society while generating the resources to perpetuate the group and expand the celebration.

    A unique perspective on the Feast of the Assumption was offered by Mike Sullivan before he passed away. Growing up on Chestnut St. in the 1940s, Mike retained vivid memories of the celebrations that he always associated with his grandmother, Mary Jordan. As a youngster, Mike never ceased to be amazed by the fact that his neighbors, the Pirolis and Festas, hired a band with fireworks to celebrate his Grandmother Mary’s birthday every 15th of August. Only much later in life, after having lost the innocence of youth, did his parents have the courage to finally tell Mike that it was a different Mary being honored every year.

    Phil DiBello and her sister Catherine fondly recall the tireless energy their father, Peter Clements, displayed while helping to organize celebrations and marching in parades every year until he passed away at age 95 in 1986. Pete, along with other family members, prepared sausage and peppers to be sold all three nights of the triduum each year. Members of the Clements, Festa, Piroli and other families purchased bushels of peppers from local farmers, and then spent days peeling and cooking them with sausage at Perrotta’s store on the West Side in anticipation of feeding each night’s hungry crowd. Today, while the sausage-making is left to others, fourth generation members of these same families continue their participation by providing a small feast for marchers when the parade pauses for refreshment at the family homestead on Round Lake Avenue.

    Antoinette Forte lived for almost ninety years across the street from the Church of the Assumption on William St. where she continued a tradition begun by her mother of providing breakfast for the street band and young girls who carry the Marian banner through the streets following celebration of the annual feast-day Mass. Among her many memories, one of the most enduring is that of “Antonio,” a street vendor from New York City who befriended her while selling Italian candy and cookies here each August 15th. But, the most indelible impression in her mind remains the image of black-clad “Gold Star Mothers” (including her own) processing barefoot on the 15th while reciting the Rosary the day the Japanese surrendered in 1945, thus ending World War II. Coincidentally, fireworks’ displays that had been put on hold for five years because of wartime “blackouts” were re-instituted that year. Two New Jersey companies competed for a prize given for the best aerial display that year, making up somewhat for their absence during the war years.

    Fireworks of another kind might have marked the return of the celebration at war’s end, according to former resident, Anthony Fragomeni, whose father, Girolamo, was the long-time president of the Fratellenza in the 1930s and 1940s. Traditionally, the festival parade was led by two flag bearers, one carrying the Stars and Stripes, the other bearing the Italian flag. But, according to the younger Fragomeni, [now living in Timonium, MD], the Mechanicville Mayor asked his father to scuttle the Italian flag for the 1945 celebration. He expressed fears that some local residents, sensitive to the fact that Italy had opposed the Allies before switching sides later in the war, might disrupt the procession by stoning the Italian flag. Discretion being the better part of valor, only the “Red, White and Blue” was flown that year. But, nearly a half a century following its initiation, the August 15th celebration had become an accepted part of the community’s calendar. Since then, both the Italian and the American flags have been displayed together without incident.