The sun took a while to peek through the clouds on Sunday, Oct. 6, but nothing could cloak the light in the hearts of parishioners and guests at St. Paul Parish and St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish, both in South Philadelphia, for a day of festivities.
The former saw the dedication of a long-desired church hall and a well-received feast, while the latter staged its annual Italian Festival with nine hours of revelry marking the occasion. (See a photo gallery of more scenes from the festival here.)
Parishioners had long needed a suitable social gathering space, a need made more acute in 2000 when St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Parish merged into St. Paul’s in South Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood.
Through a transaction that included the sale of St. Mary’s rectory, the vision for a new hall gained traction, modification of St. Mary’s lower church was soon completed and it has been in use since late August.
“Through God’s grace, we can say our dream has become matched with reality,” said Father John J. Large, pastor of St. Paul Parish, shortly after blessing the hall. “This moment, then, is a reflection of his love for us and provides us with an opportunity to give thanks whenever we come here.”
Since St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi is an active worship site of St. Paul’s with regularly scheduled Sunday Masses — as the parish bulletin proclaims, “Two Beautiful Churches, One Great Parish” — the upper church continues to host liturgies. St. Mary’s is said to be the first national parish for Italian Americans in the United States, founded in 1852.
“Since our first big event that came with our St. Augustine feast day celebration (Aug. 28), the excitement has been building, and here we are, ready to see what God has in store,” Father Large said. “It’s a grand day.”
A crowd composed of many of the parish’s 800 families enjoyed a variety of foods and laugh-heavy conversations at Sunday’s dedication.
Father Large said the new hall has hosted a crab feast and will become quite popular as 2019 gives way to 2020, with Santa Claus set to visit for a breakfast with the community’s youngsters and senior citizens eager to continue their levity through their Leisure Times group.
“We’re very grateful for the chance to socialize and have fun, and we’re going to keep enjoying the hall now that it’s ours,” said lifelong parishioner Rita Punzo, who heads the seniors’ group.
Lou Affannato, 97, and a member of Leisure Times, beamed as he looked upon the multiple generations of smiling faces at the celebration.
“I see everyone here and I feel blessed to be among them,” said the World War II veteran who is also looking forward to the parish’s annual gala on Oct. 20. “I’m definitely one happy individual.”
Meanwhile blocks away, hundreds of likewise ecstatic people took their excitement long into the evening at the St. Nicholas Parish’s Italian Festival.
Occurring every year on the first Sunday in October, the festival customarily leaves stomachs content and hearts ablaze with cultural and religious pride, with Augustinian Father Nicholas Martorano ensuring the latter by leading a nearly hour-long procession of the saints through his parish’s East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood.
After the procession Father Martorano celebrated benediction of the Blessed Sacrament before handing over the afternoon to the festival-goers to give praise to God for their blessings.
“This is a great cause, and I love helping each time I come,” said Russell Shoemaker, who beamed as he ran a pork sandwich station at the festival, participating for his fourth year. “Everyone is so welcoming and excited that I can’t refuse the chance to give back to the community by taking part today.”
He commended Father Martorano for his leadership as the day’s music component began shortly after 1 p.m., noting that the Augustinian priest is assisting with his initiation into the Catholic Church. Shoemaker hopes to complete his preparation before the new year arrives.
He is also eager to support the neighborhood’s St. Anthony of Padua Regional Catholic School, which benefits from proceeds from the festival. But instead of concentrating too much on the future, he took in all the moments of Sunday’s festivities, which includes the selling of religious items and the traditional pinning of money on the statues that comprised the procession.
So too did Christina Stamato, a lector at the church who always enjoys engrossing herself in the scenery.
“I like the sense of belonging to something and including other people as we do that,” the perennial attendee said. “Everyone is Italian for the day.”
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