“People come here because they are hungry,” said Father Michael Verra, standing outside the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood in Manhattan’s Little Italy, “but they don’t know that they’re hungry for God.” He is referring to the nearly one million people who visit Little Italy every September for the Feast of San Gennaro, a festival celebrating the patron saint of Naples. In its 91st year, the feast still draws huge numbers, but organizers are worried that some visitors have forgotten its true meaning.
Father Verra is right about people coming hungry. Stands selling Italian-American fare like sausage and peppers, zeppole and cannoli—as well as Greek food, Mexican food, fried Oreos and frozen daiquiris—line Mulberry Street and spill into the intersections. Local restaurants set up temporary outdoor seating with hosts beckoning people in English and Italian to dine with them. And nestled, practically hidden, between the stands for San Gennaro T-shirts, gelato and fresh meatballs, is the courtyard of Most Precious Blood.
“People come here because they are hungry, but they don’t know that they’re hungry for God.”
The church, which has officially merged with the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral to become one parish, is the national shrine of San Gennaro. It boasts four statues of the saint with one on display in the courtyard’s small outdoor chapel. Visitors who assemble near the main performance stage several blocks away can easily miss the church. Yet, the Figli di San Gennaro, the official sponsor of the festivities, and supporting groups like Father Verra’s Society of San Gandolfo (another regional patron saint) warmly greet all guests. Many stop to take a picture of the shrine, say prayers or pin money to ribbons connected to the statue. “It’s a donation to the church and a sign of respect,” said a volunteer while handing out pins and brochures to visitors. “It’s not really an Italian thing. They only do it here in the U.S.”
Festival organizers see their role as informing and reminding guests of the original meaning of the celebration. Whenever he gets the chance, Bill Russo, director of activities for the parish, tries to tell people about the story of San Gennaro. Gennaro was a third-century bishop of Benevento during the period of Christian persecution under Emperor Diocletian. After visiting imprisoned clergy, Bishop Gennaro was also imprisoned, tortured and beheaded. Vials of the saint’s blood are still preserved in Naples. Each year on Sept. 19, San Gennaro’s feast day, the relics are shown to the public, and they often turn from solid powder to liquid (called the Miracle of Liquefaction). Neapolitans have long believed that this is a sign of blessing for the upcoming year.
“I am happy to inform you that the powdered form of the blood did turn to liquid [this year],” Mr. Russo told America. But, for Mr. Russo, the miracle is not as important as the opportunity for participants to connect with their Italian roots. “It was a big step for [Italian] immigrants in America to take a statue and bring it out into the streets,” he says recalling the first celebrations in 1926. He claims these immigrants wanted to exercise their First Amendment right to assemble and worship freely.
“It was a big step for [Italian] immigrants in America to take a statue and bring it out into the streets.”
Today, the feast lasts for 11 days, with its main religious event on Sept. 19. Bulletins advertise a Solemn High Mass at the shrine followed by a procession in the streets. This year, Mr. Russo and other organizers were excited to have Father Andrea di Genua, a representative of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of the Archdiocese of Naples, as the principal celebrant. In his homily, Father di Genua brought greetings from Naples and expressed his joy to be celebrating with the Italian-American community. Father Robert Aufieri, the director of the Italian apostolate for the Archdiocese of New York, offered closing remarks, reminding those in attendance of their immigrant ancestors. “They did not settle down as individuals but as communities,” Father Aufieri said. “We must remember our ancestors and be faithful to those arriving on our shores.”
After the Mass, men of the Figli di San Gennaro carried a large bronze bust of the saint out of the church and processed around Little Italy. The eight concelebrating priests with altar servers led the procession. Crowds gathered at food stands and restaurants along the way, as owners pinned donations to the statue. The Red Mike Festival Band, in green-white-and-red hats, played upbeat Italian music, including a tune composed specifically for San Gennaro during the procession.
Louise Acampora, the band’s leader, knows well the history and significance of the feast. Her husband first started the band in 1929, three years after the first feast. Ms. Acampora started visiting Little Italy for the festivities in 1963. While the foundation of the celebration has remained, a lot has changed, she said.
“At one time, [the people in] this area were all Italians,” Ms. Acampora reminisced, “but today it’s not like that at all.”
“At one time, [the people in] this area were all Italians, but today it’s not like that at all.”
Little Italy, which has shrunk to just a couple city blocks, is also losing its status as a cultural haven for Italian-Americans. The Feast of San Gennaro has the dual purpose of reigniting religious and cultural zeal in the community.
At first glance, it seems like the religious and cultural elements of the festival fight for attention. Few festival-goers wandered into the Mass (most were there long before Mass began), and many seemed confused when asked to vacate the street for the Tuesday night procession. New York crowds are drawn to the feast’s Italian-American performances, a dedicated opera night and two food-eating competitions.
Ferrara Bakery and Cafe, a long-standing neighborhood restaurant, provided meatballs for the second-annual meatball eating competition. The contest began in 2016 as a tribute to the late John “Cha-Cha” Ciarcia, restaurateur and “Unofficial Mayor of Little Italy.” Neighborhood heroes Tony Danza and Vincent Pastore, both actors, greeted the audience and gave tribute to Cha-Cha. Mr. Pastore reminisced about growing up attending the feast every year.
“This is about our roots,” he exhorted. Karen King, Cha-Cha’s wife, also greeted the audience, sang the national anthem and observed a moment of silence for her late husband.
Both the Mass and the meatball eating competition were about connecting to the past. One celebrated a distant fourth-century martyr, while the other celebrated the charismatic “mayor” who is still a part of Little Italy’s living memory. For the early Italian immigrants, culture and faith were interwoven. Perhaps today’s descendants have less of an explicit connection to their faith, but it still lives in cultural traditions like the Feast of San Gennaro.
In the Most Precious Blood courtyard, visitors were laughing about the meatball eating competition. As they paused to pin money to the statue of the Italian saint, I overheard one say, “Let’s pray for another good year.”