By Rev. Monsignor John C. Marine
If you have ever attended an Italian religious feast, or even an Italian festival in the Delaware Valley over the last several years, there is a good chance that the music that accompanied the festa was performed by the Verdi Band of Norristown. Pa.
Years ago, the Philadelphia area had many such bands, like the Banda Bianca, the Joseph Liuzzi South Philadelphia Italian Band, and many others. The Verdi Band is not only the sole survivor of this important piece of Italian- American history, but it is thriving and active, now in its 102nd consecutive year. Not even the recent pandemic stopped its music.
With with over 50 musicians among its membership, the Verdi Band performs at patriotic concerts and Fourth of July parades. But it is best known for its stirring Italian symphonic marches played at “La Festa.”
These marches accompany the statues of Jesus, Mary and countless patron saints through the streets of the “Little Italy” neighborhoods in Norristown, South Philly, Wilmington, Del., Hammonton, N.J., and many other towns in the tristate area.
While a procession takes place in the street, it is not a military parade. And so the distinctive music performed by the Verdi Band appropriately heralds the arrival of the sacred into our secular world. Those marches contain the beautiful melodies our ancestors brought with them from their respective regions of Italy and Sicily to their new home in America. When they heard that music and saw the statue of their patron saint from their Paese, they were somehow carried in their minds back home to Montella, Sciacca, Benevento, and many other places.
It was to provide such nostalgic memories that prompted Loreto Marsella, an extra-ordinary musician and an immigrant who settled in Norristown, to organize the Verdi Band in 1920. Now many generations later, Kenneth Laskey, himself an accomplished musician and resident of Norristown, leads the band and continues the legacy.
If you are an Italian American, you know the feeling of goosebumps that we get, the lump in our throats, when we witness the procession at the festa. It is a uniquely Italian-American religious experience, whereby we take our faith out of the church building and carry it into the world. And like everything Italian, music and food have to be a part of that experience.
The sight of the statue coming out of the church, saluted by the music of the band provides one of those moments in life when, even for a few seconds, heaven touches earth and we get a glimpse of what it will be like when we are gathered around God’s throne in heaven, singing His praises. That is the legacy our forefathers and mothers left to us, to carry on. And the Verdi Band and its members believe that is its ongoing mission.
But providing music for processions is not all the band does. When needed, the Verdi Band has a soprano and tenor soloist who sing Italian Neapolitan songs and operatic arias, as well as Broadway tunes when the band is in concert engagements at an Italian festival or community concert.
The Verdi Band welcomes interested musicians. The band rehearses weekly, May through September, at Holy Saviour Italian Club Hall, East Main Street in Norristown. If you are connected with an organization or church and are interested in engaging the Verdi Band for your festival, you are invited to contact its business manager Joanna Catanzaro-Laskey, at (484) 686-7611.
You do not have to be an Italian or Catholic to be a member of the band. You just have to love Italian music and have
an “Italian heart.” When the Verdi Band performs, it is truly a labor of love.
Rev. Monsignor John C. Marine is pastor or St. Bede the Venerable Church in Holland, Pa. He has been a member of the Verdi Band since 1968.