It appears we have a new feast to celebrate in the North End. On September 13th, 14th, and 15th, the second annual feast of San Gennaro will be held on Hanover Street. When I first heard about this I thought that the last thing we needed was another feast. More noise, more tourists, more trash, and more congested streets. But the more I thought about this, the more I liked it. I think San Gennaro, in many ways, is the perfect saint to become the patron of the North End.
The feasts in the North End during the 1950s, when I was a boy, were much simpler affairs. Families set up food stands in front of their houses to host friends and neighbors. The food and wine were homemade and everyone knew everyone else. Even then there were some grumblings about the feasts losing their religious connections, and there was concern that the feasts wouldn’t last into the next generation with so many young North Enders leaving the area and moving to the suburbs. Fast forward to 2018 when three prominent local restauranteurs, Frank DePasquale, Nick Varano and Pasquale Trotta, collaborated to start a new North End feast in honor of San Gennaro.
When Southern Italians emigrated to Boston at the end of the 19th century they brought with them their love for and fervent devotion to their favorite saints. The Southern Italian interpretation of Roman Catholicism consisted of a smidgen of orthodox dogma and a large dose of mysticism and magical thinking that verged on paganism. Every small town, indeed even individual families, had their favorite patron saints to whom they prayed and to whom they offered gifts and ex votos.
Every North End church, except Old North, had many statues of saints lining the walls and in small grottos. In front of every statue were banks of votive candles that the faithful would light as offerings for special favors. On the feast day of Saint Anthony, June 13th, scores of old North End ladies would process through the streets barefoot and carrying tall candles. They were accompanied by young boys dressed in brown Franciscan robes. This fulfilled a promise to Anthony, that if the child was spared an illness or recovered from one, the mother and grandmother would thank St. Anthony by marching in his honor.
Most North End Italians came from the small hill towns surrounding Naples and its neighbor city, Avellino. Naples had scores of patron Saints, but San Gennaro was the most loved and revered.
Gennaro was a fourth century martyred bishop who saved the city from devastation on at least two occasions. The first was in 1527 when, through his intercession, a terrible plague epidemic ended. But the miracle he is most remembered for occurred in 1631 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted with the worst explosion since AD 79 when it buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. When the lava reached the eastern boundaries of Naples the archbishop brought Gennaro’s head and a vial of his blood out of the cathedral and processed with these relics through the streets of Naples.
Miraculously, Gennaro’s dried blood liquified, the clouds of ash that had obliterated the sky for several days parted, and the sun shone through. The lava suddenly changed its course away from Naples and the city was saved. The miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood continues to occur every year on his feast day, September 19th, and on other propitious days. Very rarely his blood will turn black and that is an ominous sign. It means that a terrible calamity will befall the city and the inhabitants must repent and seek forgiveness.
In a few days, when we celebrate San Gennaro’s feast, we have to consider that a terrible disaster is happening right now in the North End. It’s not a natural disaster like the plague or a volcanic eruption. No, it is a manmade disaster, one born of the internet and nurtured by avarice and greed. The disaster I am referring to is the rise of the algorithmic-based short term rental websites. These sites are the real estate’s equivalent to weapons of mass destruction for neighborhoods. They drive up rents and deny working families access to affordable apartments. They will destroy our neighborhood as surely as the ash from Vesuvius almost destroyed Naples.
So, when the head of San Gennaro is paraded through the North End next weekend, offer up a prayer to the patron saint of Naples and ask him to intercede on our behalf and save our small neighborhood as he saved Naples almost four hundred years ago.
Viva San Gennaro!
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.