Lawrence's Feast of the Three Saints marks 100th year

LAWRENCE -- Nine-year-old Hunter MacQuarrie is used to being in front of crowds when he plays his guitar.

Parading in front of hundreds of faithful while dressed as a saint, however, is new to him.

"I felt a little scared at first," said Hunter, a saint with braces and Nike glasses, "but once I actually got the costume on, it felt a little better."

Hunter donned green robes, a red cape, and a cardboard halo to play St. Alfio, who was martyred in third-century Italy with his brothers Filadelfo (portrayed by eight-year-old Joseph Guilmette) and Cirino (portrayed by four-year-old Cornelius Nardulli).

The young saints' sandals crunched the confetti that choked the streets of Lawrence on Sept. 3, the final day of the 100th annual Feast of the Three Saints. The weekend-long feast, which ends with a grand procession in front of the Shrine of the Holy Rosary, is a celebration of Lawrence's Italian Catholic heritage hosted by the St. Alfio Society.

"The mission of the society is to preserve and continue the tradition of the feast," said St. Alfio Society Secretary Alfred LaSpina. "But more than that, we have become a community that prays, laughs, cooks, and celebrates in Christ together."

The society was founded by immigrants from Sicily, particularly the town of Trecastagni, of which Alfio, Filadelfo, and Cirino are patron saints. LaSpina's father and grandfather were members of the society, as are his brothers.

"It's in my heart," he said.

If not for the Three Saints, he said, he wouldn't have lived to see the 100th feast. Earlier in the year, he had a subdural hematoma, a mass of blood in the space between the brain and the skull. While he was hospitalized, "prayers to the Three Saints were constant." Many of his "brothers" in the society have experienced similar miracles.

"I believe and I know the intercession of the Three Saints through Christ," he said.

In honor of the 100th anniversary, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley celebrated Mass at the Holy Rosary Shrine. The Mass included Italian-language hymns praising the Three Saints, as well as performances by two Sicilian music groups: The Vulcanica String Ensemble and the Orchestra di Fiati I Tre Santi Siciliani.

"It was a wonderful gift to have His Eminence here celebrating with us and recognizing the importance of... 100 years," LaSpina said, "giving us his blessing and encouraging us to continue his effort. It's not easy in a secular world."

In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley said that, in a culture that idolizes famous people regardless of virtue, "the Church doesn't have celebrities -- it has saints."

"Their shelf life is for eternity," he said. "These three brothers died almost 2,000 years ago, and yet their lives, their witness, their faith is still touching our lives. They are still our heroes."

He said that to honor saints like Alfio, Filadelfo, and Cirino, Catholics must not only honor their images during feasts but imitate their forgiveness and piety.

"The saints give us an example," he said. "They are signposts, they are a compass that leads us... We venerate their memory. We praise their virtues and strive to be worthy of their friendship, so that our lives may also be their witness."

Cardinal O'Malley was joined by Archbishop Luigi Renna of Catania in Sicily, and Father Orazio Greco, rector of the Santuario Sant'Alfio in Trecastagni.

"It is a joy to see the Catholic Church, whether it be in Sicily or America, grow," Bishop Renna said. "Our grandparents and great grandparents brought in their suitcases their traditions, and also the love of Christ Jesus and the love of the saints, here."

Bishop Renna and Father Greco brought with them a silver reliquary containing three bone fragments, each belonging to one of the Three Saints. These were displayed alongside a golden reliquary containing a bone fragment of St. Alfio, uniting the relics for the first time in history. Cardinal O'Malley used the reliquaries to bless those at the Mass.

Members of the St. Alfio Society then placed the reliquaries onto the ceremonial float which carries statues of the Three Saints.

"Why it's even sitting here unguarded, I don't know," said society member John Terranova, who has attended the feast for all 69 years of his life. "It's an honor to have that in America. Diamonds and gold don't compare to what is there right now."

A crowd then gathered in front of the shrine to watch the St. Alfio Society, as one observer put it, "take the saints out." The statues, which were made in Sicily and have been paraded at every feast since 1923, were loaded onto the float with great care. The float itself was decorated with flowers and ex-voto offerings made to the Three Saints over the last century.

The thunderous strains of marching bands filled the air. A chain of dollar bills stretched from the shrine all the way to the statues. Ribbons shot out by cannons clung to the trees and were grabbed by hundreds of outstretched hands. Hunter, Joseph, and Cornelius, portraying the saints holding the golden palms of martyrdom, joined the crowd, which roared with chants of "Viva Sant'Alfio!" Women handed their babies to past presidents of the St. Alfio Society, so that the infants could look into the faces of the saints. Sixty-nine years ago, Terranova was one of those babies.

"You're never gonna see this again in a hundred years," he said.