A single note from a trumpet followed by a “Silenzio,” was enough to silence the crowd that had been growing steadily for the past hour. A now hushed crowd listens as the first of three angels begin speaking, in Italian, to the saint that has just arrived. Unfortunately for me, the retuning of the saint to North Street also means the return of family members who are out to snatch my prime window seat. Now seat less, I run down the three flights of stairs to the ground floor, perch myself on a small ledge, and listen as the angels recount the story of the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca.
In Catholicism various occupations and life situations have saints, who support and protect those who offer prayers to them. For example Saint Christopher is patron saint of safe travel, Saint Matthew is the patron saint of bankers, and for fishermen from Sciacca, a small Sicilian village, the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca is their patron.
Families from Italy began arriving in Boston and settling in the North End, a neighborhood that had previously been home to Irish and Jewish immigrants, as early as 1860. It wasn’t however until the early 1900s that the North End became a predominately Italian neighborhood, more commonly known as “Little Italy.” Italian families arriving in the North End formed clusters based on the region of Italy they left behind, and Sicilians followed suit settling along North Street, making it easy for them to gain employment in the fishing industry due to its proximity to Boston Harbor. My family was no different. Once married my grandmother Rose DeLeo and grandfather Ignacio Dasaro settled in a small tenement house near the corner of Fleet and North Streets (a residence that remained inhabited by our family until 2006). Rose reared 5 children while Ignacio, in a family owned commercial fishing boat, made repeated trips to the Grand Banks.
In 1910, about 70 Sicilian fisherman and their families, including Michele di Ignazio my great-grandfather and Vincenzo di Ignazio Dasaro my great-great uncle, established the Madonna del Soccorso society, to serve as a community hub and shrine to the saint that guards their lives while out to sea. The society is housed in a two-story brick building on the corner of Lewis and North Streets in Boston’s North End. The upper floor is a chapel and houses the statue of the Madonna del Soccorso, whose tiny face and gold embellishments can be seen from the street. The lower floor is home to a member’s only social club. The social club can only be accessed through a narrow doorway on the side of the building. A few steps down and you’re inside a dimly lit room with walls covered in photographs that recount the history of this community. Portraits of families, groups of men proudly posing in front of fishing boats, and 100 years of festival photos cover the walls. Each photo capturing a moment in time from a neighborhood that in just 100 years has changed from immigrant slums to one of the city’s most sought after zip codes.
Every August since 1910, in continuance of a Sicilian tradition, the Madonna del Soccorso society has hosted the “Fisherman’s Feast,” a four-day celebration and street festival to honor the saint who has protected the fishermen and their families throughout the years. Food stalls, artisans, and carnival games begin to line North and Fleet Streets on Wednesday evening and serve as a compliment to the lights and decorations that have been awaiting their arrival for the past few days. Food vendors and families alike begin the extensive but treasured process of cooking. Onions, parsley, and of course garlic, are chopped and simmered, meatballs are baked, the manicotti is stuffed, and the perfect amount of sugar is added to ricotta cheese creating a cannoli like nothing you’ve tasted before. Years of tradition allow the food preparation process to wrap-up just in time for the opening procession. Society members along with the community and the North End band march in a solemn procession to Boston Harbor in order to bless the fishing boats, a ceremony that marks the opening of the festival.
Music, food and festivities fill the narrow cobble stone streets for the next three days as a community offers up its traditions to the visitors and family members that pass through. Sunday, the festival’s final day, begins with a seven-hour procession. Member of the society carry the statue of the Madonna del Soccorso around the North End making stops at the homes of various families. Each family makes a contribution to the society by lower down money from their window, which his then wrapped around the saint. From my family’s kitchen the loudness of the band helps you determine where in the North End the procession is, and the closer the band is, the closer you are to the flight of the angel.
The entire festival concludes with what is known as the flight of the angel. Three young North End girls are chosen to enact the legend of the Madonna del Soccorso. They tell us how she appeared in a vision to a Sicilian monk, and later her statue was found floating in the sea by several fisherman. This is why she has remained their protector ever since. The story concludes with a blessing, a blessing of life for the community and for the Madonna, “VIA, VIA Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca,” and with these words the band chimes in to play celebratory songs, confetti is dropped from the tops of buildings. Children run and jump in confetti, and adult dance to the music.
Article by Jeanne Dasaro
Procession of the Madonna del Soccorso photo courtsey of the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca. All other photos by Jeanne Dasaro.