Some 147 years ago, Italian immigrants settling in Hammonton, N.J., founded Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society, an independent nonprofit Catholic organization, as an expression of unity and gratitude for their new lives in the legendary land of opportunity: America.
Driving through this southern New Jersey town – dubbed the blueberry capital of the world, and nestled in between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J. – the names of everything from the butchers, bakers and wine makers to the hospitals and produce stands echo the Italian roots that took so firmly back in 1875. Many of those names and vendors were present July 16 at what Alison Brita, CEO of Mama Bella Cello (crafting artisanal limoncello from lemons, grapefruit and yes, those aforementioned prolific blueberries), tells me is the longest-running Italian festival in the nation, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s Italian Festival.
Originating from the days and weeks-long “feriae” (instituted for the sake of the gods) of Ancient Rome, festivals are celebrations of thanks, ritual, religion, culture and community. Romans took the “feriae” so seriously that business, lawsuits, and quarrels were to be suspended in favor of celebrations. Exceptions were permitted only with an expiation (expungement of guilt) and the sacrifice of perhaps a small animal.
As centuries went on the ritual was infused with religion, and those who “inadvertently” worked could pay a fine or offer up a gift instead.
Our modern-day festivals have evolved, yet the roots of sacrifice and reverence amongst the celebration are still palpable when you listen to tales like 80-years-young Joe Mazza tells. As Joe walked, he shared how he, his father and his grandfather have been part of this procession for nearly all of his 80 years. He remembers as a boy the women offered their walk in the miles long procession barefoot in sacrifice, praying for families, loved ones and community, and carrying enormous candles that trailed thick rivers of wax behind them. As enduring as the heritage and tradition he honors with each step, Joe did not disappoint this year, serving instead as an example of determined inspiration as he marched this year’s procession with a neck brace and two canes.
Afterwards, dedication like Joe’s reverberates on in our brief stop at the third-generation Marinella funeral home, started 60 years ago, to wish founder John (Jack) a very happy 90th birthday. Like the culmination of the festival – the Feast of Mount Carmel – Jack’s birthday is July 16. Jack’s nephew and lifetime resident Michael Perrotta shares that he has many favorite things about this typically week-long festival tradition, but the most meaningful are the memories and the ritual of walking in the procession every year since 1998.
“People came from all over; on tours and buses from New York, Pennsylvania, Chicago, St. Louis, up and down the East Coast.” The community showed up in solidarity to celebrate. “In the ’80s you would need to arrive early, there would be lines up to six rows wide, of people waiting to pin donations to the saints and receive their prayer cards and blessings.” Michael, too, recalled the spectacle of the women dressed in black walking barefoot despite rain or blistering pavement in a show of thanks and dedication to the Blessed Mother and the long line of saints on leave from their churches for the day. Post-procession there are rides, vendors, and of course, the food. But what lifetime resident Annie Byers says means the most is how “the festival brings the entire town together. It brings families back home. My Capelli family, all my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who live out of state come back to Hammonton for festival week and reunite. It’s like a gigantic high school/family reunion! It’s something we all look forward to every single summer. I love introducing my out-of-town friends to it, and then they return every year, too!”