Wednesday, September 19, 2012

San Gennaro

In the traditional Roman Calendar, September 19 was long observed as the feast of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro, in Italian), Bishop of Benevento, martyred c. 305 along with six others  - the deacon Festus, the lector Desiderius, the deacons Sosius and Proculus, and the laymen Eutyches and Acutius - during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian. In the current calendar, only Januarius is commemorated, and all mention of his companions seems to have evaporated. For centuries, San Gennaro's body has reposed in the Cathedral of Naples; and, as patron of that city, he continues to be invoked for protection from fire, earthquakes, and the ever-present threat from Mount Vesuvius. In Naples on this day, a silver bust containing the head of the saint and a glass reliquary containing a solidified sample of the saint's blood are exposed for veneration. Led by a group of women, called zie di San Gennaro,  the people pray for the famous miracle of the liquefying of his blood. When that happens, the ritual announcement is made, Il miracolo e fatto. The Te Deum is then sung, and the reliquary is made available to be kissed by the people.

In the early 20th century, the massive wave of Neapolitan immigrants to America made devotion to San Gennaro a popular part of immigrant Italian life in New York City's Little Italy.   The still popular street festival originated on Mulberry street on September 19, 1926. The one-day festa eventually expanded to today's 11-day street fair and a major tourist attraction - New York's biggest and most famous street festival and a great place to go for sausage and zeppole - a combination carnival and charity fundraiser. Operated by a not-for profit community organization, the contemporary festa distributes donations to various charitable organizations. Today's money-spending, sausage and zeppole consuming tourists may know little and care less about San Gennaro and miraculous protection from volcanic eruptions, but  even now the festa still features a religious procession on the actual feast day,  an authentic expression of an immigrant community's heart and the spiritual strength that sustained the struggle of the Italian immigrant experience.

In 1850, there were 1039 Italian-born New Yorkers. That number peaked in 1930 at 440,250 - including all my grandparents and several of my aunts and uncles. As strangers in a foreign land, Italian migrants faced all the challenges - and opportunities - inherent in immigration. As Catholics, they faced the added challenge of being perceived primarily as a problem by the predominantly Irish ecclesiastical establishment. As much as anything else, the New York Italian street festivals - not just San Gennaro, but Sant' Antonio, San Rocco, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel - celebrated an alternative quality of community experience. While the establishment lamented what the immigrants didn't do, the festa demonstrated who they were.

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