By Paul Tennant
---- — LAWRENCE — When Saints Alfio, Filadelfo and Cirino were tortured to death because they refused to renounce their Christian faith, they could not have imagined that their martyrdom would continue to be honored in a huge way nearly 1,800 years later.
The 90th annual Feast of the Three Saints literally went off with a big bang — actually many big bangs — yesterday, with thousands of people drawn to the food, music and camaraderie near Holy Rosary Church of Corpus Christi Parish. Common Street, closed to traffic between Jackson and Union streets, was thronged with food vendors, games and people of all ages.
Union Street, which runs in front of the church, was jammed with revelers, many of them shouting “Viva Sant’ Alfio!” as the statues of the Three Saints were brought out from the church at 3 p.m. and positioned on a float, which then slowly processed through the neighborhoods where Italian immigrants lived many years ago.
Tony Pannisi’s arms must have been fatigued from ringing the bell of Holy Rosary hundreds of times. While the rain clouds held off — they say it almost never rains on the Feast of the Three Saints — it was raining confetti in front of the church.
Following the time-honored custom, people handed money up to members of the Saints Alfio, Filadelfo and Cirino Society, who in turn attached the currency to the statues.
“All of the money goes to charity,” said Tony DiFruscia, 58, a longtime member of the society, which organizes the feast.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, celebrated the 10 a.m. Mass at Holy Rosary. He pointed out that Alfio, Filadelfo and Cirino — three brothers martyred at the ages of 22, 21 and 19 respectively — have “touched lives for centuries.”
O’Malley, an accomplished linguist who earned a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature, spoke in Italian for several minutes about the virtues of the Three Saints.
The three brothers, who lived in Sicily, were tortured at the order of Tertullo, the governor of the island, according to a booklet distributed by the St. Alfio Society. When they still refused to reject Jesus Christ, Alfio had his tongue torn out; Filadelfo was burned on a gridiron; and Cirino was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil.
Domenic Messina, past president of the St. Alfio Society, said the brothers were martyred in Lentini on May 10, 253. Many years later, he said, in the 1300s, their remains were discovered, as well as manuscripts which told the story of their martyrdom.
While the feast honors three young men who gave their lives for their faith many centuries ago, yesterday a young man who gave his life for his country was honored. Army Sgt. Pierre Raymond, who was killed in Iraq on Sept. 20, 2005 at the age of 28, was inducted posthumously into the St. Alfio Society near the end of the Mass. His brother, Alfio Raymond, John Sciuto and Shane Battle were also inducted into the society, which provides scholarships to college-bound seniors and donates to charities throughout the Merrimack Valley.
Many years after the Three Saints were martyred, thousands of people from their region of Sicily emigrated to Lawrence. They brought the tradition of honoring the Three Saints with them, Messina explained. Many of those immigrants worked at what used to be the Everett Mill, which is right across Union Street from Holy Rosary Church.
Back in Sicily, three massive feasts honor the saints every May, Messina said.
The Feast of the Three Saints is all about family and tradition. People who left Lawrence many years ago still come back to the city every Labor Day weekend for this event.
“I’ve been coming to the feast for 68 years!” said Connie Abbott, who grew up in Lawrence, graduated from Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen in 1963 and now lives in East Waterboro, Maine.
“It still gives me goose bumps,” she added. Abbott attended yesterday’s feast with her grandchildren.
“We come for this every year,” said Frank Scanlon, who was brought up in South Lawrence and now lives in Manchester, N.H. “Rain or shine.” Scanlon, now 77, said he attended the feast for the first time when he was 13 or 14.
His daughter, Clair, came to the feast from Leominster with her daughter, Amari, 5.
“Tradition,” Clair said, is what brings her back to the feast each year. The food, crispelli and other Italian pastries, is also an attraction, she said.
Jacqueline Scanlon, Frank’s wife, said she has been going to the feast ever since she can remember. Her grandmother, she said, was among the many immigrants who came to Lawrence from Sicily at the beginning of the 20th century.