In a few weeks the Society of the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca will host the annual Fisherman’s Feast. This will be the 106th year the feast will be held and I believe this is the oldest continuous feast in the North End. It’s also my favorite feast not only because I grew up practically next door to the fishermen’s club on Lewis St. but because it epitomizes all the wonderful characteristics of the Sicilian people, their warmth, friendliness, love of family and church and devotion to tradition.
Most of the fishermen who emigrated to the North End in the late 19th century came from the small fishing town of Sciacca. Their ancestors had been fishermen for hundreds of years and they easily applied their maritime skills to the new world. At first they fished from one or two man dories. They would row out beyond the Boston light before dawn and long line for fish with tub trawls, baiting each hook separately and retrieving the lines several hours later. On a good day they would get a few hundred pounds of fish and row back to “T” wharf to offload. It was hard, backbreaking work.
We used to watch the old fishermen on Eastern Packet Pier set the hooks around the rims of their tubs getting ready for the next days trip. Later we would collect discarded hooks and lengths of twine. We tied the pieces of twine together, baited the hooks with gurry and caught crabs off one of the wharfs. A great way to spend a summer day for a ten year old.
As a group the Sicilian fishermen were the bravest and toughest men I have ever known. They would risk their lives every day to put fresh fish on the tables of Boston. Once my uncle introduced me to Tony Ponzo a massive bear of a fisherman. When I shook his hand it was like touching iron, so hard were his callouses.
I’m sharing two pictures today. The first is from 1929 and depicts North Street at the corner of Fleet St. There were no other notes on the picture but it appears to show North St. decorated for the Fishermen’s Feast. You can see the bandstand on the left and the lights strung across the street. Erecting the lights and bandstand was a special skill and for years the Matarazzo family did almost all the feast lights. The designs were spectacular and would take several days to erect.
The second picture was given to me by my friend Joe Guarino, the former president of the Society, whose family helped start the Fisherman’s Feast. It depicts the founding members of the society in 1910. Old North Enders will recognize many of the names, Bono, Catanzaro, Ciulla, Marino and many others. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those founding members are still involved in the feast and some still live in the North End.
We’re lucky to still have the North End feasts. At times they can be noisy and traffic is a problem but I think they are an important neighborhood tradition. Years ago the city was talking about moving the feasts to the Puopolo Park on Commercial Street but that plan went nowhere. There is something urban and gritty about having street festivals. You won’t find them in Hingham or Wellesley and that’s why I still live in the North End.