North End St. Anthony Feast marks centennial

BOSTON -- The St. Anthony Society held its annual celebration of St. Anthony's Feast Aug. 23-25, marking 100 years since its inception.

Since 1919, the North End community has observed St. Anthony's Feast during the last weekend of August. The custom was brought over by immigrants from Montefalcione, a small town east of Naples, Italy.

Christian Guarino grew up in the North End and often traveled with his family to Montefalcione for the feast.

"Since I was born, that was a very important weekend to me, but I never knew the reason behind it," he told the Pilot Aug. 20.

In 2013 Guarino produced a documentary about the connection between the feasts in the two cities. In his research, he learned that there was an earthquake in Italy in 1688. While many nearby towns were destroyed, Montefalcione was saved, which the people attributed to St. Anthony's intercession.

Guarino said there is a belief that the people looked up at the sky and saw an image of St. Anthony. Every year since, the town has held a celebration in his honor.

Jason Aluia, a "native North Ender," said that the St. Anthony Society, founded in 1919, was one of several religious societies begun by Italian immigrants as more of them came to live in the North End.

"Like a lot of Italians, they were new, they needed something of their own, they were in a land with a different language," Aluia said Aug. 19.

The organization's sister society, the St. Lucy Society, was founded two years later. Both organizations donate to local charities and fund their respective saints' coinciding feasts.

Aluia, who is a member of the St. Anthony Society, said he has friends who are third- or fourth-generation participants in St. Anthony's Feast.

"Practically every member of my club has gone through the same thing," he said, explaining that as children they would carry the banner, then the flag, and then, when they were old enough, they would become members and get to carry the saint's statue in the grand procession.

Aluia said St. Anthony's Feast is a kind of homecoming for people who grew up in the North End but have since moved away.

"There's always been that social aspect of the festivals, it's not just a religious celebration, it's a social celebration where we all come together," Aluia said.

Guarino said the beauty of the festival is that it stays traditional.

"You don't want to change too much because you want to keep it authentic and you want to hold onto our traditions as they are," he said.

On the other hand, Aluia acknowledged that the feast is somewhat different from how it was in the beginning. It has grown in size and shifted slightly in demographics.

"As much as it's an Italian festival, it's an Italian-American festival. It's somewhat Americanized," Aluia said.

In its early years, he said, it was observed by just a few families. Only people who had immigrated from Montefalcione or married into a family from the town could join the society. They later changed the rules to allow all devotees.

"We welcome everyone to the festival. You don't have to be Italian, you don't have to be Catholic," Aluia said.

He said people would take the week off from work and celebrate with music, food, family and friends.

"That still happens. There just happens to be tens of thousands of other people, as well," Aluia said.

Simultaneous processions of St. Anthony statues begin in Boston and Montefalcione on the Sunday of the feast weekend.

"In that moment, we're connected across the sea," Guarino said.

The Boston procession is 10 hours long. Participants carry the statue in shifts, and many marching bands provide music. The statue is carried to homes and businesses throughout the North End, making stops so people can offer the bearers refreshments and attach donations, which go toward the society's funding of the feast and its charitable work throughout the year.

Aluia said people at certain houses or streets will request to hear particular songs from the bands.

"That's probably the best part of the feast, because you get to visit people who wait hours for the saint to come to their home," he said.

St. Anthony's Feast has received national recognition and even papal blessings. In 1988 the Smithsonian Institution invited the St. Anthony Society to hold the feast on the Washington Mall for the Festival of American Folk Life.

"It's very unique to have something that has maintained its vibrancy for 100 years," Aluia said.

The opening ceremonies for St. Anthony's Feast took place in the evening on Aug. 23. Boston police commissioner William Gross was present and spoke briefly to the attendees.

"I was raised by the people in Boston, every neighborhood, and I am so proud of everyone here, because you are keeping tradition going," he said, encouraging them to continue it for another 100 years.

Throughout the weekend, Endicott Street was full of vendors selling food, clothes, and souvenirs. There were several musical performances by Italian-American singers and bands.

The feast schedule included Masses on Aug. 24 and 25.

Father Antonio Nardioanni, OFM, the pastor of St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish, said that the Masses during the feast usually draw many people, but this year the number was higher than usual. He attributed this not only to the fact that it was the event's centennial, but also to the presence of St. Anthony's relics.

Father Alessandro Rotti, OFM, brought to the parish two relics from the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, where the saint is buried. The relics -- a rib in a reliquary and some skin tissue in a gilded bust of St. Anthony -- were carried through the streets of the North End in the Aug. 23 procession marking the end of St. Lucy's Feast and the start of St. Anthony's Feast.

The relics were displayed for veneration at St. Leonard's throughout the weekend of the feast. Cards were available for venerators to write down prayer intentions, which were to be brought to the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua.