Downtown View: Summer Feasts

Have you ever been to a feast on the streets of the North End? I decided this is the summer I’m going. I knew little about them for many years. Recently, they seem to have proliferated.

It’s true, said life-long North End resident Nick Dello Russo. The reason I knew so little about them is that for awhile they were on life support. But now they’ve returned, with celebrations on at least half the weekends all summer.

The North End feasts were brought to America from Italy where each town had a patron saint, Nick said. Many were harvest feasts that provided an opportunity to get together with friends and neighbors and catch up on gossip. Most importantly, they were an opportunity to introduce single young people to one another.

Nick said wakes were also such an opportunity.

“How many times was I dragged to a wake of someone I didn’t know just to show me off?” Nick complained. But we digress.

The weekend feasts were (and still are) sponsored by local saints’ clubs. They recreate the festivals held in the fishing villages of Sicily and hill villages in the province of Avellino, from where many North Enders’ ancestors came.

They usually start on a Friday, but the big day is Sunday with a Mass and a band. Revelers march around the streets with the image of the saint and visit the other saints’ clubs. They invite the crowds to pin money on the saint’s garments.

“When I was a kid, the ladies would have a big sheet and you’d throw money into the sheet from your window,” Nick remembered. “Many old Italian ladies would make promises—if Saint Anthony would give them a certain favor they would march in St Anthony’s feast and you’d see scores of these old ladies carrying a large candle and marching barefoot. They’d have their sons or grandsons dressed up in a St. Anthony outfit with a rope around the waist. They were doing it to say thank you to the saint.”

All that stopped when the ladies died out and the North End changed after World War II. The overhead Central Artery cut off the neighborhood from the city. At the same time North Enders, along with other Bostonians, heard the call to the suburbs and were not interested in maintaining the old traditions. It was difficult to get the young people who stayed to join the religious clubs that sponsored the feasts, Nick said.

But recently, even more changes have come. The Central Artery was buried, opening up the neighborhood once more to the city. People remembered how good city life was and moved back. While less than one-third of North End residents now identify as Italian, everyone relishes the North End’s Italian flavor, and the neighborhood, with its many restaurants, has grown as a tourist destination.

This has its pluses and minuses, according to Nick. On the one hand, the weekend feasts are good for business. “The restaurants like them,” said Nick. “And it’s trying to keep a veneer of southern Italian culture.”

The feasts are money makers for the saints’ clubs. Money is pinned to the figure of the saint who is being celebrated. Big and little stands selling or promoting something pay a fee to set up along the parade route. Nick is skeptical of how much good the feasts do. “They generate a lot of money and [the clubs] do some charitable works,” Nick explained. “But no one has seen the accounting.”

The feasts draw more tourists than locals, which is one complaint. Another is that the feasts have been commercialized. While families used to set up tables in front of their houses and welcome visitors with home-made wine, now the tables are typically set up by commercial entities, so the celebrations haves lost some of their homey flavor. And the parades take over the narrow streets, making it even more difficult for cars to negotiate the North End’s challenging traffic patterns.

On the other hand, the feasts are great entertainment. In at least one feast, little girls, dressed up in finery, sail over the crowds on pulleys and drop garlands of flowers on the saint. It doesn’t get much better than that. Such entertainment is exactly what city life is all about—action and vitality. “I tell people if they want peace and quiet, move to Wellesley,” said Nick.

Street life such as this introduces non-Italians to traditional celebrations. It still enables people to meet one another and exchange gossip, and everyone patronizes the small, local businesses of which the North End still has plenty.

The biggest feasts are in August. The Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca is held from August 18 through August 21. Saint Anthony’s Feast takes place from August 26 through August 28. You can find the complete feast schedule on

Nick is a fan of the feasts despite their drawbacks. He’s also a fan of the North End. He mentioned that a food emporium from New York called Eataly is moving into the Pru shopping mall this fall, recreating an Italian experience. “Why would they want Eataly when they can go to the North End?” he asked. The North End, even though its residents are no longer all Italian, has tenements with granite countertops and is a neighborhood in Boston, is still the real Italian experience.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

17 Replies to “Downtown View: Summer Feasts

  1. Wait til you visit Eataly… The one in Rome is 4 stories and is fabulous. NY one is great also. My husband who is from Italy cannot wait til it opens… If it is like the other two… Una Bella esperienza!

  2. considering these groups are being allowed to shut public streets on weekends for half of the summer, i hope a significant amount of the raised money is actually going to charitable causes. if not, these feasts are not much different that the valet parking on hanover street.

  3. I’m offended and saddened that the writer and the contributor to this article really has no idea as to what the North End Feasts are truly all about.
    The Feasts have been ongoing in the North End for over 100 years. The Feasts are celebrations of our ancestor’s religious beliefs of our Patron Saints and an opportunity to display our Heritage and our Culture. Yes, the Feasts have changed in some ways but this is a result of a change to what was a deeply rooted Italian community. Many Little Italy’s have changed across the country but the North End and the Feast traditions have survived everything from World Wars to an ever changing landscape. Thousands of people do visit the North End each year to see the Feasts. It’s to experience a feel of the Old World and maybe try some of the different cuisine that is offered. This is part of what has made the North End the world class destination place that it has become. This is also what makes a community stronger, it is not just an inconvenience.
    The Feasts are self funded and rely on the dollars that folks see on the statues. The dollars are not only used to pay for the extreme costs that are associated with such an event but in most cases, the Feasts Society’s which are 501(c)3 Charities, in turn donate thousands of dollars to the local churches and charities along with some major charities.
    I truly feel this was not an accurate portrayal of what the Feasts are and what they mean and I would suggest that in the future, the writer might try going to the actual sources before printing inaccurate assumptions and comments. You may be surprised as to what a special tradition the North End Feasts truly are!

    Thank You
    Joe DiGirolamo
    Feast Chairman
    St. Anthony Society

    1. Well said Joe. The article didn’t even touch the true meaning of our societies or our feast.

    2. I love attending your festivals. I have been going for a number of years and travel from RI. Even though it is not far, I can appreciate the meaning behind the religious festivals as I myself was raised in a Portuguese household and remember going to our religious feasts.

  4. We should define a little more of the saints clubs, as there called in this story. The feast are very important to the North End. More then people know or in some cases even care. But they are always important to the members, who carry on the tradition in a neighborhood that is changing. The business love the money that they make, boasting, they are in the Italian North End. But very few , very few show their support of the societies, and those few show their support to all the societies. The rest, don’t even know who their saints are. That is a fact. Business that make hundreds a night on tourist, could care less to support the societies. And you must remember, the Italian feast are not only the larger societies, who have the three or four day celebration, but the smaller ones who only have the processions on the Sunday. No matter the size of the society, all the members are equally loyal to their catholic faith. It also should be noted, that two of these feast will not hold processions this year, for what ever their reasons are. Saint Rocco and Saint Joseph society’s. At one time, very big and popular feast. The feast to many of us, are the last stand, the strong hold of the old North End. The days when everyone was a member to one of the societies. Its not the size of the feast that matters to the members, it’s the feast. We are a loyal group, we support each other, the societies are friends with each other. If we had to rely on a large portion of these so call Italian business, we would not survive. The feast are the flavor of the North End, the past of the North End, it’s our connection to our relatives who came from Italy, settled to help make America great and kept the values and tradition of their culture and faith. When people come into the North End to live, the feast come with the package. It doesn’t matter what people think of the feast. What important, is that it’s important to the members and their followers. The business should thank the societies for bringing in their dollars. For us, it faith and tradition.

    1. St Rocco and St Joseph are having no processions this year ? and good point, the writer should stop by and check them out !!!!

  5. Let’s cut some slack here……Karen and Nick offered a great commentary. I wondered who would find fault with it, and I found out !

  6. The North End’s private saints’ societies and their festivals were subject of a recent anthropological study by BU scholar, Prof. Augusto Ferraiuolo, entitled Religious Festive Practices in Boston’s North End. Ephemeral Identities in an Italian American Community (SUNY, 2009). If you read the entire work, as I did to review it in the Journal of the North End Historical Society 1 (2013), you will find that the comments made by my father, Dr. Dello Russo, to journalist Karen Cord Taylor are valid observations based on contact with the festivals and their organizers for nearly seven decades. Mr. DiGirolamo’s accusation that a lifelong and multi-generational Italian-American North Ender recruited to carry plenty of saints’ statues on his shoulders as a young man, provides “inaccurate assumptions and comments” is in itself an inaccurate assumption – but hey, everybody has the right to comment.

  7. After being in the West End for 5 years, I have always wondered about the feasts. Thank you for sharing some of the history. It will make going this year all the more rewarding to understand more about them.

  8. Truth, there are only 4 Feasts during the summer months & St Lucy on the Monday following the St. Anthony Feast weekend.The societies pay for the lighting, security, the assembly of the lights & the bandstand, the chapel plus I know for a fact the amount that is paid for the entertainment which is all free.The Feasts as someone posted are the last stand and an opportunity for people to see friends & acquaintances that they haven’t seen for years.The City of Boston does not contribute a penny to the societies.

  9. St. Anthony’s Feast Opening Night
    North End
    Italian Feasts & Processions
    Summer 2016

    June 5, 2016 – Santa Maria Di Anzano Procession
    *Rescheduled to June 19, 2016 due to rain*
    1:00 pm Procession only – Starts at St. Leonard Church, Hanover & Prince Streets
    (First Sunday of June)

    June 12, 2016 – Saint Anthony of Padua Procession
    2:00 pm Procession only – Starts at St. Leonard Church, Hanover & Prince Streets
    (Hanover & Prince Streets)
    5:00pm Blessing of the Children at Saint Leonard Church

    June 26, 2016 – Saint Padre Pio Procession
    2:00 Procession only – Starts at St. Leonard Church, Hanover & Prince Streets

    July 10, 2016 – Madonna delle Grazie Procession
    2:00 pm Procession only – Starts at St. Leonard Church, Hanover & Prince Streets

    July 24, 2016 – St. Joseph Procession – Canceled
    Starts at 467 Hanover St. – Saint Joseph’s Society of Riesi, Sicily
    Facebook page

    August 4, 5, 6 & 7, 2016 – St. Agrippina di Mineo Feast
    Feast opens at 7:00 pm on Thursday; 12pm-11pm Fri., Sat. & Sun. (First weekend in August)
    Hanover & Battery Streets (12:00pm Sunday Procession)

    August 12, 13 & 14, 2016 – Madonna Della Cava Feast
    Feast opens at 7:00 pm on Friday; 12pm-11pm Sat. & Sun.
    Hanover & Battery Streets (1:00pm Sunday Procession)

    August 18, 19, 20 & 21, 2016
    Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca
    Thursday, 6pm, Blessing of the Fishing Waters at Christopher Columbus Park
    Feast opens at 6:00 pm on Friday; 12pm-11pm Sat. & Sun.
    Sunday 1:00 pm Grand Procession starts; 8:00 pm Flight of the Angel
    Fleet, Lewis & North Streets

    August 26, 27 & 28, 2016 – Saint Anthony’s Feast
    Endicott, Thacher & N. Margin Streets (Last weekend in August)
    Feast opens at 7:00 pm on Friday; 12pm-11pm Sat. & Sun.
    Sunday: 12:00 pm Grand Procession starts

    August 29, 2016 – St. Lucy’s Feast
    Thacher & Endicott Streets (5:00 pm Monday Procession)

    September 11, 2016 – Santa Rosalia di Palermo
    1:00 pm – Procession only – North Square
    Facebook page

  10. I have no huge issue with the overall tone of the article; it’s the annual article about how the feasts have changed in our ever evolving neighborhood. It’s true. The primary mission of many of these societies and clubs is to organize the annual festival in the saint’s honor. It has become increasingly costly to do this. Festivals are required to obtain insurance, police and fire detail, permitting and licensure, cleaning and electrical services, all of which can add up in the tens of thousands of dollars before even a band plays a note or a piece of confetti falls. Because of changes to the neighborhood, rising costs and government regulations, the festival organizers have come to rely on support from local businesses and corporate sponsors to pay the bills.

    For those who are still involved and for those who attend each year, the foundation of the festivals remains the same: family, friends, faith and community. You see it when walking in a saint’s procession. The joy on people’s faces when the saint comes to their door, the deep faith when one visits the saint’s chapel to honor a past loved one or when a baby is lifted to kiss the their family’s patron saint for the first time. The ladies may not carry candles anymore, but you may find their children, grandchildren and even great children marching in a procession. In times of joy and sorrow, changes and all, the feasts remain an important part of the lives of many North Enders and their families.

    The secondary mission of our societies is to support our neighborhood. Many of us donate thousands of dollars to our local churches, schools, senior groups, little league, drug prevention programs and music programs, as well as charities such as the American Cancer Society, Autism Speaks and veterans organizations and orphaned children.

    Just this past Saturday all the feasts got together for a charity bocce tournament, we raised $1000.00 for “Stephen’s Run” benefitting the New England Veteran Shelter in memory of Stephen Perez. The Madonna Della Cava Society has hosted their annual Halloween Parade for nearly 50 years, Saint Anthony’s has sponsored a little league team for just as long, and funds a scholarship for students at St. John School. St. Lucy Society sponsors an annual Easter egg hunt for visually impaired children at the Perkin’s School. Saint Agrippina Society hosts an annual toy drive for North End children and the Fisherman’s Club donates to many charities each year.

    As an organizer of Saint Anthony’s Feast and supporter of all the feats, I write to give our point of view, to explain our collective mission and to show that we are not the equivalent of valet parking companies. As a North End resident, my members and I understand not everyone is going to enjoy the feasts, that they may cause disruption to an already precarious parking situation, block traffic on Sundays, and create noise and other issues. But we are honest and dedicated men and woman who try our best to continue our traditions and do right by our neighborhood.

    I enjoy Nick Dello Russo’s frequent commentary on “Life in the North End” – many of his stories are shared with members of my family. I also feel compelled to address DelloRusso’s assertions in the story about “how much good the feasts do” – I guess that is debatable depending on a person’s point of view. However, I must address the insinuation that there may be something nefarious going on when it comes to finances. Dello Russo is quoted: “They generate a lot of money and [the clubs] do some charitable works………But no one has seen the accounting.” I can assure readers, that as federally recognized 510(c)3 non-profits, the IRS annually reviews our accounting. Intentional or not, the comments seem to question our integrity. That I do not accept.

    I look forward to this year’s Feast season and invite all my neighbors to do the same.

    1. As one can read. Us members of the various societies are very protective of our tradition, values, our faith, our love of God and the Saints and our friendship with each other. Something that is fading away and we are firm in holding. We are a special group, that unite all year long to protect those values. From the first feast of the Madonna Di Anzano in June to the last feast of Saint Rosalie in September. We are all proud, that we hold these traditions to this day, in spite of the changing North End and people’s belief. That is something to be very proud of. It’s a lot of work and sacrifice to hold on these traditions and it’s worth all of it.

  11. Joe, why is the St. Joseph Feast no more? I remember the Feast was moved to October but now it seems the Feast has been eliminated. Very sad.

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