The St. Rocco Festival at St. Mary Parish in Franklin, started with a walk. Twenty-five years ago, a young parochial vicar was checking out the field behind the empty convent, next to the closed St. Mary School, and across the street on the corner opposite the church. The convent building, called Oakwall, was the built in 1921, and was the mansion home of Henry Taft Haywood, a Franklin mill owner and relative of President William Howard Taft. After Haywood’s death, the family donated Oakwall to St. Mary’s Parish, and it became an orphanage and then a convent for the sisters who taught as the parish school.
That vicar, Father R. Michael Guarino, is now the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in Revere. A native of Ashland, his family would take him to the Italian religious festivals in the North End of Boston. It became his dream to bring a similar event to the suburbs, he said.
Guarino said, as he walked the grounds that day, he noticed obscured by branches and overgrown bushes a forgotten statue of St. Rocco. Clearing away the brush, he found the inspiration to bring the Italian tradition to Franklin. Considering Franklin’s large Italian community, it wasn’t a hard sell.
Of course, it was also a nice that the “R.” in his name stands for Rocco, he said.
The first year, despite horrendous rain, was a great success, Guarino said. “I remember that Saturday night, we had a dance and there were thousands of people dancing in the rain,” he said.
The disk jockey, Jack McCoy, told me that the closest he ever got to Broadway was working that night at the St. Rocco Festival, he said.
"Each year, the festival is the peak moment in the life of the parish," said Father Thomas Walsh, the pastor of St. Mary.
Hidden from the crowds by a row of trees, is Oakwood’s carriage house. In its center space, is a 15-foot wide turntable built into the floor that the Haywoods used to reverse the direction of their automobiles before driving out. Just past the turntable is a small office where two 25-year veterans of the festival, two of the four co-chairmen, Vincent DeBaggis Sr. and Peter Brunelli, hold court. On the wall is an old print of St. Mary Church and framed photograph of Pope John Paul I.
Families plan reunions and vacations to coincide with the festival. If the weather is good, the festival will draw around 50,000 visitors, said DeBaggis.
“Everyone knows that it is on the second full weekend of August said Peter Brunelli, who supervises the festival’s 15 food booths.
"We sell a lot of lemonade," Brunelli said. The committee bought 2,375 lemons this year, he said.
This year there were three Masses associated with the festival. The opening Memorial Mass for members of the parish was held on Aug. 3. After the Solemn Closing Mass of the Feast, a statue of St. Rocco was carried in procession out of the church, and across the street to the festival grounds.
Father David Goodrow was the principal celebrant for the Mass of the Sick and Communal Anointing held on the festival grounds on Saturday Aug. 2. Father Goodrow has been at St. Mary’s for three years, he said.
He said that he has been blown away by the sense of community and excitement the event brings. Father Goodrow said that this year he was reminded of the feast’s greater meaning and the power of prayer.
In July, a woman from Brockton approached Father Goodrow after a Mass. She asked him if he had any information on St. Rocco. Father Goodrow apologized that the programs were not ready yet. When he asked if there was anything he could help her, she told him her story.
Recently, the woman was diagnosed with breast cancer. After she told a friend about her diagnosis and that after her operation, she was going to go through chemotherapy regimen. At her friend’s advice, she prayed for the intercession of St. Rocco, he said.
When the woman had her operation as scheduled, the doctors could not find any cancer to remove. She told Father Goodrow that she has a complete clean bill of health and was coming to the festival for the first time to thank St. Rocco for his help, he said.
It is fitting that an Italian celebration is held on the grounds of the Haywood estate, said Timothy Pulling, the current owner of the property. Pulling bought Oakwall 10 years ago and lives there with his wife, Mary Ann and their daughter, he said.
"Haywood was instrumental in bringing Italian workers to Franklin to work in his mills," Pulling said.
Although the property no longer belongs to the parish, there is a clause in the deed that allows St. Mary’s to hold the feast on the land every August, Pulling said.
"When we moved in we knew that the festival would be held in our backyard. But, there is a difference between knowing something and living it," he said.
"We bought the house to save and protect it," said Mary Ann Pulling. After the house was sold by the Church, it became a prep school, called Leyland Academy. When the school fell onto hard times and there were rumors that a new owner was going to tear the mansion down, she said.
Sitting at the large oval table in the formal dining room, the Pullings acknowledged it has been difficult having 50,000 visitors in their backyard every August. “We are members of St. Mary’s and I take my daughter on the rides every year,” Mary Ann Pulling said.
"Everyone thinks that we get to ride for free, but it isn't true--we pay like everybody else," she said.
After 10 years at Oakwall, the Pullings are at an emotional transition, having decided to put the house on the market and move out, she said.
There are no hard feelings, Pulling said. “Father [Walsh] is a wonderful man and we have an excellent relationship with him and the parish,” he said.
After they move out, they would have no problem coming back to really enjoy the St. Rocco Festival, Pulling said. “Then we will be the ones looking in the windows and asking if we can park in the driveway.”