Weaving the palm

Watch videos of the palm weaving
(Video 1) (Video 2) (Video 3) (Video 4)

Video by Sarah Webb

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

It’s a parish tradition that traces all the way back to the Great Depression.

Our Lady of Consolation Parish in the Tacony section of the city was still very young in the 1930s and filled with young, immigrant Italian families. Times were hard, money was scarce and some were worried – how would they be able to buy the delicacies for the great Easter feast?

Back in the old country one tradition was the weaving of palm into crosses and other intricate designs for Palm Sunday. They approached the pastor: could they weave palms which could be distributed for a donation so they could raise the Easter money? The pastor kindly agreed, and palm weaving began.

It fizzled out temporarily during World War II, explained Anthony Gatti, whose family spearheaded the annual custom as it is today. His father, Michael Gatti, was the sexton, and he went to Father James Rosica and suggested palm weaving be reinstated. Along with parishioners, the parish Girl Scout troop and the Sisters of St. Francis at the school became involved. The biggest difference was that now any donations received for the woven palms were for the benefit of the parish not inspanidual families. “My father passed away in 1987, that’s when I took charge,” Anthony Gatti said.

Typically, weaving doesn’t start until the week before Palm Sunday, shortly after the fronds are delivered to the church. It has to be done while the stalks are still fresh and supple. Most of the crew is from the parish, but some come from other areas. On any given year there could be between 30 and 50 weavers and helpers involved. Then, on Palm Sunday, there will be people coming from many parishes to obtain a palm cross because, according to Anthony Gatti, Our Lady of Consolation is the only parish in the Archdiocese to do this on a large scale.

Some of the palm is woven into large grave pieces or ornamental sprays suitable for decorating the church, but most is fashioned into smaller crosses suitable for the home, usually mounted on a decorated card and finished with a Miraculous Medal, an image of the Sacred Heart or one of the saints. One of the grave pieces will be placed on the grave of Father Rosica, and Gatti will also place palms at his own parents’ and brother’s gravesite.

Italian culture is all about tradition and family, and while many families are involved in the group effort, in a demonstration of the art on March 28 prior to the main weaving sessions, everyone present was part of the extended Gatti family. In addition to Anthony were his wife Joann; his brothers, Joe and Dan; his sister, Maryann; his aunt, Pat; his cousin, Louisa Gatti-Russell and her husband Jim Russell. Most of them live within a block or so of the church.

While men are involved, it is mostly for the grunt work; the ladies do the weaving.

“I’ve probably been doing this for 38 years and I’m 40,” said Gatti-Russell. “You are born into it. My father taught me how to do it, and Anthony’s father taught him. I’ll probably be here every night.”

“I’ve been weaving palm since 1987 and learned before that. It was part of the contract when my husband married me. I enjoy being with the people and it helps the church,” Joann Gatti commented.

Pat Gatti, the senior member of the group, has been working at the palm weaving session for 40 years.

Back when she started as a young bride, she would just do cutting.

“They don’t let you weave when you first come, you work up to it,” she said. “I do the crosses. I can’t do the fancy pieces and I’m not as fast as most of the women, but I enjoy it.

“It’s mostly an Italian tradition, but I’m Irish,” she explained.

Does she ever slip in a shamrock or two?

“No, but we put St. Patrick on some,” she laughed.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.