In Hammonton, a procession honors the saints

David DiStefano, treasurer of the St. Mary of Mount Carmel Society, pins money to the statue at the group's yearly parade. The society calls it the oldest Italian festival in the U.S.
David DiStefano, treasurer of the St. Mary of Mount Carmel Society, pins money to the statue at the group's yearly parade. The society calls it the oldest Italian festival in the U.S. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 18, 2014

HAMMONTON Chewing on an unlit cigar, Morris Vivona watched the procession of saints and the devout begin their two-hour walk through the town.

"Hah!" the members of the the Hammonton Blue Devil Marching Band roared, punctuating the bass drums and snare drums playing in the procession of several hundred participants who marched alongside figures such as Saint Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Joseph, St. Anthony, and St. Lucy.

Behind Vivona, a Ferris wheel turned, and the lights of amusement rides blinked. Vivona owns a carnival company in North Jersey, and that carnival company has been providing entertainment for the annual St. Mary of Mount Carmel Society feast and celebration for 55 of the 139 years the event has been held. It is the oldest continually operating Italian festival in the United States, according to members of the society.

The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a weeklong event that began Monday with the highlight the 2.5-mile parade to honor the appearance of the Blessed Mother to the Carmelite prior general, St. Simon Stock, in 1251, offering him a brown cloak. In Hammonton, the parade began as a way for the new immigrants to give thanks for safe passage to the United States and a new beginning.

"It's great, There's not a lot of tradition left in life," Vivona said in between joking and shaking hands with men he knew and fielding work calls from employees wondering if the carnival was doing hand stamps that day. "There's only a few left. This thing keeps going."

"Blue Devils!" the high school band roared in front of him, and the horns joined in with the drummers. They quit marching in place and moved forward.

The celebration is organized by the St. Mary of Mount Carmel Society in Hammonton, and the organizers still believe in the original message of thanks and prayer. The men that run the society are mostly in the family: The traditions are passed from father to son.

"I've been involved since I was born," said Louis J. Pantalone, president of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society. "The bishop said a Mass again this morning. . . . and he put it so correctly: It's all about family."

The procession begins with, literally, a bang.

Someone in the parish lights a firecracker - a low-pitched thud in the sky - a tradition originally meant to tell farmers everyone else that the figures of the saints were coming out of the church.

Early processions saw barefoot Italian immigrants holding candles in their hands, wax dripping onto their clasped fingers. Shoes stayed on this Wednesday, and fingers stayed wax-free. People seemed more inclined to stain their lips blue with snow cones than scorch their feet on the asphalt that had been baking in the hot sun.

Those in the procession pray, and prayed, in a gesture of thanks for the good that had happened to them and for the good health of their family. During the World War I and II, some of the biggest crowds came out to pray for their soldiers overseas, according to society members.

"We are very fortunate. We're always asking for stuff, this is a time to say thanks," said Barbara Pagano, who grew up in Atco and Florida but now lives in Hammonton and has participated in the procession with her husband every year since her mother-in-law died 16 years ago.

In her fingers she clutched ruby-colored rosary beads. The chain, she said, started silver, but has since then turned golden. To her, the change was a sign that God was watching over her.

Like with other days of thanks, though, food was on a lot of minds.

"We always come down for the carnival. It's the first sunny night," Mary Gallagher, of Berlin, said, sitting at a plastic picnic table eating clams next to her husband, Bill Hardy, who was eating ear of corn. He takes his with plenty of salt, butter, and pepper.

On another side of the festival, the St. Mary of Mount Carmel kitchens got ready for the crowds that would be sure to come when the procession returned to the church.

"This is the war room," David DiStefano, the treasurer for the society, said, motioning to the kitchen that has expanded from what DiStefano said was more or less a residential kitchen set up to a facility with three deep fryers, a grill, and a variety of stainless steel pots and pans hanging from the ceiling.

As the procession snaked back and the saints were put back in the church, more people came to the festival, which will end Saturday. Funnel cake batter sizzled, children played and the Ferris wheel kept turning.

856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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