A Brief History of the Festa
The Feast of the Madonna SS. Del Monte
The annual feast of the Madonna del Monte is one of the most important religious festivities in southcentral Sicily. The feast commemorates the discovery of the statue of the Virgin Mary in North Africa and its relocation to the Sicilian town of Racalmuto in 1503. According to legend, a party of hunters led by the Count of Castronovo were caught in a violent storm on the northern coast of Africa. Seeking shelter from the tempest, they hid in a nearby cave. As the hunters were praying for the storm to subside, the count caught sight of "an ancient wall" within the cave. Ordering it dismantled, he uncovered a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child. No sooner had the discovery been made than the storm ended. Placing the statue on the ship, they immediately set sail for
Sicily. Upon arriving at the port of Girgenti, the statue was put on a cart and the party began its trek north to Castronovo. All went well until the cart and attendants reached Racalmuto. Here, the cart sank into a pool of mud and nothing could move it. The Count of Racalmuto was impressed by this turn of events and asked that the statue remain in the town. At first, the Castronovi refused, but when nothing could move the cart, an agreement was reached and the statue remained.
This story is commemorated and re-enacted by Racalmutesi on both sides of the Atlantic. In North America, the feast is celebrated chiefly in Buffalo and in Hamilton. It is with the celebration in Hamilton that I am concerned. As the Racalmutesi comprise the largest number of Sicilian immigrants to Hamilton, the celebration of the feast has, until recently, been the most prominent paese- based festivity in the northwest Sicilian quarter of the city. Since the incorporation of the Racalmutese Mutual Aid Society in 1918, the feast has been organized and run by a special committee of the society. In its early years, the feast consisted of a local procession with music provided by the Italian Marine Band and the celebration of High Mass at the newly constructed All Souls Church (the Italian national parish on Barton Street West). In 1931 under the direction of Doctor Vincent Agro, the society decided to extend the celebration into a three-day fete, commencing Friday July 24. Though the central locus of activity remained the area surrounding All Souls Church, the festivities that year were organized in such a way as to involve as many Italians as possible. The executive committee, for instance, consisted of the local pro-minenti from both the western (Sicilian) and eastern (Central Italian) quarters of Hamilton. Though loosely connected, the two sectors had developed independently of each other. In 1931, however, as a part of the Saturday celebrations of the feast, Father J.F. Bonomi, rector at All Souls, and the executive committee paraded to St. Anthony's Church on Clinton Street in the eastern sector. That same evening, a "spectacular display of fireworks" was presented.at Eastwood Park.3 The non-local aspect of the celebrations is further illustrated by the presence of Sicilians from outside the city. The executive committee numbered at least five members from the Niagara peninsula and two from Buffalo. The reporter for the Hamilton Herald was astonished at the number of people attending the three-day celebration. The weekend celebration, he reported, "kept Barton Street west from James to Bay filled with throngs of worshippers many of whom came from Welland, Port Colborne, Thorold and other towns of the Niagara peninsula." (27 July 1931) The kinship andpaesani links that attracted many of the worshippers obviously transcended international borders and local urban associations. Evidently, the committee had intended the feast as an occasion for the festive congregation of Italians throughout the city and for the gathering of the Racalmutesi dispersed throughout southern Ontario and New York State. Notwithstanding the hard economic times, the committee was able to secure sufficient funds through canvassing to pay for the band, the organization of the fireworks, the purchase of prizes for a lottery, the church fee for the procession of the statue of the Virgin, the preparation of the floats and the fitting of a number of men in costume for the re-enactment of the discovery and relocation of the statue. The colour and pageantry of the celebrations were especially noted by the city newspapers. In its Monday edition, the Herald depicted one of the central floats of the Sunday parade, "showing naval cadets, beautifully costumed girls and men wearing costumes of old Italy on gaily caparisoned horses. The celebration was in honour of one of Italy's patron saints and was one of the most colourful ever seen here." The three-day celebration was a singular success. The festive spirit of the occasion would never again attain the height reached in 1931. Certainly the fervour and omnipresence of Doctor Agro as representative of the Racalmutese community, and the commitment of the central committee behind him had much to do with the feast's success. (To some extent, the mutual aid society may have also been influenced by the popularity of the Feast of St. Anthony in the eastern sector.) Two other factors were essential to the success of the feast. First of all, the recent consolidation of the Italian colonie in the city allowed the local prominenti to determine and direct the social and cultural activities of the community.4 By 1928 the ratio of if? = *** ' Italian men to women had reached an approximate balance;5 the confines of the two neighbourhoods were clearly defined and the institutional completeness of the communities well established. Of equal importance to the feast was the unprecedented — albeit guarded — esteem held for Italians in North America and the respectability of Italian fascism at that time. The North American acceptance of fascism ("Italy Resurgent") and the moulded consciousness of Italianita on the part of the colonie instilled a sense of pride in the culture and traditions of the ethnic communities. The display of British and Italian flags and the singing of British and Italian anthems were not seen at all as contradictory. The situation, however, would soon begin to change. The Ethiopian war, the Axis Pact and, finally, the Italian declaration of war in 1940 put an end to the alacrity and self-confidence evident in the celebrations of 1931. Not until long after the war would the feast again be celebrated. By then, however, the cultural and social priorities in the communities had changed.
1. A detailed account of the legend and its cultural significance may be found in Nicolo Tinebra Martorana, Racalmuto: Memorie e Tradi-zioni (Comune di Racalmuto, 1897 (reprinted)), pp. 96ff.
2. Interviews with Mr. C. C. and Mr. C. B., May 1983.
3. Father Bonomi was actually the founder of St. Anthony's Church (1912). Subsequent to the construction of All Souls Church, however, he spent most of his time at All Souls, only occasionally tending to the eastern parish. In the course of the 1930s, St. Anthony's became a chapel of St. Anne's Church at the corner of Barton and Sherman Streets.
4. It is no coincidence that within a year of the feast, a Racalmutese Recreation Club was founded under the auspices of the Racalmutese Mutual Aid Society. 5. John C. Weaver, Hamilton, An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer&Co., 1982), p. 140. il ' I DIM 85