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Summer feasts adapt to pandemic conditions


  • A procession marks the centennial of the St. Anthony feast in the North End in 2019. St. Anthony Society member Jason Aluia said organizers are “going full speed ahead,” planning this year’s feast, albeit with some extra precautions. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault
  • Confetti flies during the celebration of the feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence in 2019. This year’s feast will be one day shorter than usual but will include the traditional torchlight parade, Mass, procession, and fireworks. Pilot photo/courtesy St. Alfio Society

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BOSTON -- Summer is a time when many communities -- parishes, religious societies, neighborhoods, or entire cities -- hold events that are staples of their local culture. In areas with deep Catholic immigrant roots, honoring a patron saint is often intertwined with celebrating cultural heritage. But in the age of the coronavirus, communities have had to reconsider whether to hold their annual celebrations.

In the summer of 2020, most community events were postponed or cancelled altogether due to restrictions on large public gatherings. This year, with many people vaccinated and restrictions largely lifted, parishes and charitable organizations have had to face the decision of whether to hold their usual events -- and if so, how to hold them safely, and whether to have them on the same or a smaller scale.

In Lowell, the annual Franco-American Week was not entirely cancelled, but significantly downsized. Taking place each June, this weeklong celebration of the city's Canadian heritage usually includes events such as folk concerts, a movie night, a flag-raising ceremony, a prayer service in French outside the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto and a bilingual Mass on the feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Quebec. Last year would have marked the Franco-American Committee's 50th year of holding the Franco-American Week.

Father Kenneth Healey, parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lowell, said Franco-American Week is "a continuing celebration of their identity, where they came from, that they are Franco and American, but that their roots are in Canada."

"They're celebrating their French Catholic heritage that has developed here in the United States as American citizens," Father Healey said Aug. 8.

This year, the celebrations were limited to just two events: a flag-raising ceremony on June 24 and a special Mass at Immaculate Conception Church on June 27.

Franco-American singer Josee Vachon sang hymns for half an hour preceding the bilingual Mass, which was celebrated by Father Healey and Bishop Robert Hennessey. The Mass drew between 150 and 200 attendees, according to parishioner Suzanne Beebe.

Father Healey noted that the Mass would usually be followed by sharing food in the fellowship hall, but they cancelled that element this year.

Franco-American Committee President Kevin Roy said the attendance at the Mass surpassed expectations, considering "the times we live in."

"I think it's because we had not had a gathering of our Franco-American group for almost a year and a half. People were excited to come together and worship and attend Mass on our patronal feast day of St. Jean Baptiste," Roy said in an email to The Pilot.

Some communities decided against holding their usual summer festivities. In Gloucester, St. Peter's Fiesta, held around St. Peter's June 29 feast day, was cancelled for 2021. This feast held in honor of the patron saint of fishermen has been observed since 1927 after Sicilian immigrants brought the tradition to Gloucester. The fiesta usually involves a four-day carnival, a procession with a statue of St. Peter, and a blessing of the fishing fleet.

But in Lawrence and Boston, other feasts are still due to take place, aiming for the same scale as usual, with some minor changes.

The St. Alfio Society in Lawrence hosts the feast of the Three Saints every year. Originating from Trecastagni in Sicily, it has been celebrated in Lawrence since 1921 -- this year will be its centennial. The three saints for which the feast is named -- brothers named Alfio, Filadelfo, and Cirino -- were martyred in the year 253 and many miracles were attributed to their intercession.

Last year, with the permission of the archdiocese and the city, the St. Alfio Society organized a "drive-by" in lieu of the festival. Instead of holding a procession of statues of the three saints, they set up the saints' statues in the parking lot, and people drove by in their cars to see the statues and make donations.

"It was incredible the way it all happened. People were very generous. They were just happy knowing that everybody was trying to be very cautious because of the pandemic," Michael Morley, president of the St. Alfio Society, told The Pilot.

This year, there will be a two-day feast of the Three Saints on the weekend of Sept. 4-5. This will be shorter than the usual three-day celebration, but they will try to fit everything into the modified timeframe, including a torchlight parade, Sunday Mass at Corpus Christi Parish, a procession, and fireworks.

There will be handwashing stations along the street and tables under tents will be spaced. They will not continue the usual custom of lifting children up to the statues, cognizant of the fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible for coronavirus vaccines.

Morley said they will be mindful to follow all city and state regulations, and that they are "thankful to be able to celebrate this year."

"Members of St. Alfio's Society have really risen to the task to put together what we hope to be a great feast this year," he said.

In Boston, the North End is home to a host of Italian religious societies that honor different patron saints. Last year, 12 of these groups joined together to raise money for people suffering food insecurity during the pandemic. They made and sold T-shirts depicting all their respective patron saints, which raised thousands of dollars for local food programs.

The St. Anthony Society derives most of its income from the two back-to-back celebrations it organizes, the feast of St. Anthony and the feast of St. Lucy, both of which originate from Montefalcione, Italy. Despite not being able to hold those events last year, the society continued its charitable work where they could. They donated masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies to places such as churches, police departments, and nursing homes.

St. Anthony's feast was held for the 100th time in 2019, and St. Lucy's is marking its centennial this year. St. Anthony Society member Jason Aluia said they had originally envisioned holding "a pared-down event" this year, but since restrictions have been lifted, they are "going full speed ahead," planning as grand a celebration as usual, albeit with some extra precautions.

Hand sanitizer will be available throughout the area, and masks bearing the St. Anthony logo will be available in the chapel and for sale at a souvenir stand. The society is also arranging for a mobile vaccination clinic to be present during the feast.

In honor of the 100th feast of St. Lucy, the society is receiving a relic of St. Lucy from her resting place in Venice. Additionally, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley is scheduled to celebrate a Mass at St. Leonard of Port Maurice Church in honor of St. Lucy on Aug. 22.

There will also be an overnight vigil before St. Lucy's statue from Aug. 26-27.

St. Anthony's feast will then be observed Aug. 27-29 with food, music, and a 10-hour procession. A full schedule of the festivities can be found at stanthonysfeast.com/schedule.html.

Aluia said they are "excited to celebrate St. Lucy more this year," and "so happy the cardinal is coming to celebrate."

"We're cautiously optimistic that we'll have a safe celebration for everyone," Aluia said.

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