Not all of the pre-recorded music that came out the speakers at La Festa Italiana were Frank Sinatra songs, but so many were that he might have been considered among the saints being honored.
The La Festa Italiana, which ran from Aug. 13 to 17, is held every year near Holy Rosary Church in downtown Jersey City on Sixth Street between Brunswick and Monmouth streets. The feast honors the church’s patron saints, Our Lady of Assumption and St. Rocco. Although most people know the event for the music and food, there is a holy side, in which parishioners hold a novena – a nine day cycle of prayer – and a mass.
The street festival that accompanies the honoring of saints featured everything in the way of traditional Italian cuisine, but because of the changing nature of the neighborhood (and the Polish church around the corner) the feast offered many other kinds of food.
“This used to be an Italian feast,” said Carmine Colasurdo. “But over the years it has changed more to reflect the changing population in the neighborhood. Sometimes I miss the old ways, but this is good, too.”
Carmine has a booth near the center of the block long-feast – actually it’s more than a block with rides for children around the corner – and her booth is distinctive because it is filled with photographs which give a visual history of the festival all the way back to the first festival 111 years ago.
She is not selling the photographs, but telling the story of her family. Her grandfather Modesto came to America bringing many pictures from his village to Jersey City. Holy Rosary has the distinction of being the oldest Italian-American church in the state of New Jersey. The church was established in 1885. The feasts started in 1903. The original families came from Morrone Del Sannio in Italy.
Many people paused to step inside the stand to look at the photos, including one six-foot long photo that showed most if not all the first parishioners at the feast and the original church.
Carmine’s grand uncle, Bernardo, is still alive, and in fact, showed up for the kick off this year. He’s 94 years old.
Carmine remembers being involved with the feast and its ceremonial march from when she was a child.
“I remember once as a little girl, my grandfather stopped the parade because my shoe had a hole in it,” she said. “He went over to one of the shoes stores on Newark Avenue to get me a new set of shoes.”
The procession – which has a huge part in kicking off the festival – has volunteers carrying a statute of Our Lady of Grace. The Red Mike Festival Band, which is a throwback to similar bands that played festivals throughout Italy, followed behind.
Old and new
This year, Cheryl Flaherty is in charge of the organizing the event along with a core committee. This is her first year at the church, but not her first feast. She hails from Connecticut, where she and her family attended a Holy Rosary Church there.
“My parents went to their festival last week,” she said, noting that it was partly the name and the traditions that drew her to the church in Jersey City.
For Nicky Grillo, this was his 21st festival.
“I started out making pizza and now I’m co-chair,” he said.
The vendors came from far and wide. Many come from Newark or nearby Bergen County, but some of the offerings are very much a local tradition.
Louisa DeBella has been making zeppoles at the festival for 40 years, something that takes a couple of hours preparation before the event actually starts.
“You have to wait for the dough to rise and the temperature of the oil to be just right,” she said. Zeppoles are fried dough covered with powdered sugar, and usually a big hit at the event.
The event is not just about food. There were rides and other features and plenty of live music, featuring a Bruce Springsteen cover band, as well as comedian Uncle Floyd. The band “Everybody’s Everything,” was comprised of four women and four men and performed nearly any type of music you could imagine.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.