LAWRENCE -- After renditions of the Italian national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Royal March,” with plenty of heart-stopping cannon blasts in between, the St. Alfio Band set off from Lawrence City Hall at 3 p.m. Saturday and headed down Common Street toward Corpus Christi Parish at Holy Rosary Church on Union Street.
The 98th Feast of the Three Saints was officially underway.
The destination of their procession was the block between Newberry and Union streets, where vendors had been selling fried dough and Italian sausages since noon.
Carnival games also waited there for players, and visitors could purchase religious relics made of olive wood from the Holy Land, or submit themselves to a psychic reading.
Or they could visit Saints Alfio, Filadelfio and Cirino, who were brothers that became martyrs when they refused Roman demands to renounce their Christian faith. The three have been installed in the St. Alfio Society chapel since this February, when a fire tore through the rectory of the church.
But the pandemic has been an even greater disruption to the festival’s tradition, causing its cancellation last year, and permitting the restoration of only two days’ worth of activities this year instead of the usual three.
That is what concerned Tony Palmisano, chairman of communications for the St. Alfio Society, in the morning before the procession on Common Street had begun.
“I’m an eternally optimistic guy, but I’m also a realistic guy,” he said. “People have to do what they need to do to protect themselves. It’s a virus. But I don’t know. All I know is, that people are excited we’re having the two days and pretty much all the main activities. But I don’t know if people are going to come out.”
If the people who had turned out at the early stages of the festival were any indication, Palmisano should have been reassured by the fact that they shared both his hopeful and realistic impulses, but were also determined to find a way to reconnect with an important tradition in their lives.
Fred Riccio, who was born in Lawrence and lives in Methuen, brought his wife Tiffany and three of his four children. They were planning to meet their oldest child at the festival on Sunday.
“It’s good to see everyone out and about, and even with COVID we can still do this, and it’s wonderful to see all my family here and friends,” Riccio said.
This is the 44th year that he has attended, and Riccio’s favorite part has always been when the confetti falls at the “Moment of Glory,” which will happen on Sunday at 6:30 p.m., following a benediction by Rev. Francis Mawn.
“The loud fireworks, and everyone screaming ‘Viva St. Alfio,’ and all that good stuff,” Riccio said.
Janel D’Agata-Lynch from Haverhill, whose parents both grew up in Lawrence, has been going to the feast for more than 40 years. She was so disappointed at its cancellation last year, she and her husband recreated the feast in their back yard.
“We made our own crispellis,” D’Agata-Lynch said. “My husband made them, he’s the chef. He made the dough and fried it up, double fried it, and he grilled some sausages. We had my aunt and uncle and cousin over, put some flags up, and made our own feast.”
But on a cautious note, D’Agata-Lynch said she was glad the feast wasn't crowded yet, and looked forward to a future when she won't have to worry about COVID-19.
“I have two children under age 12 so we’re trying to be carful until they can get vaccinated,” she said. “We wanted to come and celebrate, but we wanted to be careful at the same time.”
Louise Ferris, a Lawrence native who now lives in Seabrook, N.H., but still goes to church at Holy Rosary, said that February’s fire was devastating.
“I was really afraid that this would have cinched them closing it, but thank the Lord, we’re still alive,” she said.
Ferris has been making Italian sandwiches to sell at the festival for 10 years, with proceeds going to the church, and she thought it was too early to tell whether people will turn out in strong numbers.
“Part of us thinks they will because everybody’s been locked up for a year,” Ferris said. “At least, that’s how I feel. It’s like, yay, I can see people again! But we’ll see.”
The entertainment that awaited festival goers on Saturday night included the torchlight procession at 7:30 p.m., which featured three different bands.
Along with the St. Alfio Band, which is led by Sicily native and trumpet player Sal Erna, there were The Italian-American Band and the Sons of Italy Band, which is from Haverhill, Palmisano said.
The three bands are symbolic of the three brother saints, and come from three different directions to arrive at the intersection of Common and Newbury streets.
“They’re all playing different symphonic marches, but when they get to the center, each band plays a different set of music,” Palmisano said. “But the St. Alfio band plays traditional cantatas of the feast.”
Erna, who came to America in 1961 and joined the St. Alfio band the following year, said there are three of these cantatas.
“The first one is sort of a happy tune, the second one is actually a prayer, and then the third one is like a feast tune, very happy, where everybody claps their hands,” he said.
Along with two local bands that played popular music Saturday night and two more that will play on Sunday, Acting Out Theatre Company from Lawrence is presenting “Peace, Love and Music” throughout the weekend.
The program features songs from Broadway musicals of the 1960s, which were chosen by Rachel Tenters from Methuen and Michele Phair from Atkinson, N.H. They are the mothers of cast members Isabella Phair and Maggie Tenters, who created the choreography for the show.
“Because of the past year and a half, there’s been a lot that has happened with everybody, and I feel like we need to bring the community back together again, and the show is going to show a lot of that,” Michele said.
When the feast reaches its peak during the “Moment of Glory” on Sunday, white doves will be released that symbolize souls returning to heaven, Palmisano said. While this may be true in a spiritual sense, the doves also have a destination here on earth.
“They’re homing birds,” he said. “We get them from a guy who raises them in Westford, and they fly back home.”
But regardless of how the symbols of the feast are perceived, everyone believes in something, Palmisano said, and that is what matters at the Feast of the Three Saints.
“We’re an Italian festival, there’s a lot of Catholic traditions,” he said. “But we’re a feast, a festival, a family-oriented event. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it.”