FRANKLIN -- St. Mary Church will celebrate its annual St. Rocco Festival of Food for the last time this August, bringing a close to the 40-year tradition due to increasing difficulty in organizing it.
Aug. 16 is the feast day of St. Rocco, the patron saint of healing, but the Franklin festival bearing his name lasts a full week, this year Aug. 5-12. In addition to food and entertainment, it has always included three Masses, including an anointing Mass and a procession with a statue of St. Rocco.
"This always attracts a large, reverent crowd," said parish administrative assistant Paula Coughlin, who has volunteered at the festival with her husband and children for many years. "There is something moving about seeing all these people attend Mass and receive an anointing for healing, even as the booth volunteers are readying their booths to serve the people coming for lunch."
The food and festivities have varied slightly over the years. While many Italian specialties are served, there are also Belgian waffles, seafood, and carnival favorites such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza. Carnival rides, games, and musical performances provide entertainment.
In recent years, a new booth was added to the fair to promote bone marrow registration in honor of Kristin Graci, a parishioner who died of leukemia in 2010 at the age of 21. Her brother Justin Graci began holding bone marrow drives in her memory at his college, UMass Amherst. In 2014, the Graci family chaired a similar booth at St. Rocco's Festival, encouraging attendees to add their names to Delete Blood Cancer's bone marrow registry.
The St. Mary community's veneration of St. Rocco goes back several decades. In 1959 parishioner Nick Verna donated to the church a statue of St. Rocco, to whose intercession he credited his recovery from a childhood illness. Father Michael Guarino came across this statue in 1978. He had been toying with the idea of a religious, social, and cultural event in the style of a traditional Italian festival. Upon finding the statue, Father Guarino decided to dedicate the event to St. Rocco, who traveled throughout Italy in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
The event is co-chaired by Peter Brunelli, Michael DeGrazia, Thomas Olsen, and Frank Fiorillo. Setting up, running, and breaking down the festival requires hundreds of volunteers, many of whom have participated for decades, and some since the festival's inception. St. Mary's Committee for the Celebration of Appreciation has maintained records of each year's volunteers in booklets.
"It's very hard to get people to take over a booth when the booth chairperson decides they can't do it any longer," Coughlin said. "Each booth has one or more chairpeople. They organize the booth, find and schedule volunteers, have some say in what is served in the booth, and are up on the field for the entire weekend making sure everything runs smoothly."
She added that supplying the food has become challenging due to changes in the local food industry. "Our suppliers are drying up. Most of them we have used for many years, and they're small family businesses, and they're either selling out to bigger businesses or they're just shutting down."
In a statement on the parish's website, St. Mary's pastor Father Brian Manning said, "As we conclude the Festival of Food portion of the Feast of St. Rocco this year, we will continue to honor in new ways the vision of faith that Father Michael (Guarino) and his many lay volunteers shared with all of us then and through all the years."
"With changes to the church, the statue of St. Rocco will be permanently housed in the addition where people can pray at any time. And while our faith and town community may not see the food booths and rides on the fairgrounds next year, new traditions will bloom that are compatible with today's lifestyle and culture," the website reads.
The weeklong festival begins with an Opening Mass, celebrating deceased friends and relatives listed in a program book. Blessed rolls are given out, alluding to a legend that a dog brought food to St. Rocco when he was ill. This year's Opening Mass will take place Sunday, Aug. 5 at 10:30 a.m. Rides and limited food will open Aug. 9, with more becoming available Aug. 10-12. The Anointing Mass will take place on Saturday, Aug. 11 at 10:00 a.m. The festivities will end on Sunday, Aug. 12 at 10:30 a.m. with a Closing Mass and a procession with the statue of St. Rocco.