Diocesan News

Crowds Jam Little Italy for Heritage, Food & Hopefully Evangelization

John Fratta, a key organizer of this annual “Feast of all Feasts,” said this statue of St. Gennaro is the same one his great grandfather hoisted (photo below) when the event first began in 1926. Fratta said this large bust is solid wood and very heavy. (Photo: Bill Miller)

Feast of San Gennaro celebrating its 96th year

LITTLE ITALY — The opening of the annual Feast of San Gennaro in this historic neighborhood Thursday night was so crowded that pedestrians couldn’t walk — only shuffle — down Mulberry Street.

But the slower pace reinvigorated their senses — from the aroma of sizzling grilled sausage and peppers to the melding of a brass band’s traditional Italian music with piped-in 1970s disco classics.

The crowd added its own soundtrack of laughter, banter, hugs, and kisses as former neighborhood residents reunited with restaurateurs and shop owners.

A diverse collection of revelers — Hispanic, Caribbean, and Asian people among them — joined in the dancing and the sampling of the savory and the sweet, from pizza and calzones to cannoli and gelato.

“This is nothing. Wait until Saturday,” said John Fratta, one of the feast’s organizers. “You can’t get a room in our hotels around here — they’re all booked for the feast. We get people from Italy, people from all over Europe, and all over the country. We generate over a million people during the 11 days of this feast.”

The start of the 96th annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy began with the traditional “blessing of the booths,” with Msgr. David Cassato of the Diocese of Brooklyn sprinkling holy water. Organizers of the Manhattan event say they are delighted to welcome back Msgr. Cassato each year for the traditional task. (Photo: Courtesy of John Fratta)

Children of St. Gennaro

Fratta is vice president of Figli di San Gennaro (Children of St. Gennaro) — the group that organizes this annual “Feast of All Feasts.”  

His great grandfather Luigi Vitale, an immigrant and businessman, first organized the event in 1926 for the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood Parish on nearby Baxter Street. The parish has since become the National Shrine Church.

This celebration marks the 96th year the San Gennaro feast has been held in Little Italy. COVID-19 forced its cancellation in 2020, but it returned with gusto in 2021.

Thursday’s kickoff began with the “blessing of the booths” with Msgr. David Cassato of the Diocese of Brooklyn sprinkling holy water on everything and everyone. Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello also attended.

The feast celebrates the life of Saint Gennaro, also known as St. Januarius, who was murdered in 305 A.D. This tradition began in Naples, Italy, and immigrants from there brought it to the U.S. in the early 1900s.


He Protects Us

St. Gennaro was the Bishop of Benevento, a city about 30 miles northeast of Naples. The bishop, during the persecution of Christians ordered by Emperor Diocletian, was tortured and tossed into a furnace, but the flames miraculously did not burn him.

Through his ordeal, He steadfastly stayed loyal to Jesus. Finally, St. Gennaro’s persecutors beheaded him. An elderly Neapolitan woman collected his blood with a sponge and squeezed the fluid into bottles.

Cristina Fontanelli (center) enjoys cannoli at the Feast of San Gennaro during a visit with longtime family friends Adeline Lepore and her son, Ernest — owners of Ferrara Bakery & Café. Joining the reunion was Dan Joyce (far right). (Photo: Bill Miller)

The body of Saint Gennaro is preserved in Naples, where he is honored as the city’s principal patron.

Legend has it that his dried blood, kept in tiny containers, liquefies on his feast day, Sept. 19. People there pray to him for protection from natural disasters, including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

“He protects us,” said Cristina Fontanelli, a singer and PBS-TV host. “I mean, he’s on our side! The miracle of San Gennaro and his blood liquefying every year, within five days of the feast day, if not on the feast day — that’s it!  That’s why this is still going.”

Fontanelli shared her feast memories while stopping to say hello to the owners of Ferrara Bakery & Café, on Grand Street — Ernest Lepore and his mother, Adeline, affectionately known as “Mama” to some people outside the family. Their fifth-generation bakery has been a Little Italy institution since 1892.

“I love to be standing here at Ferrara’s booth, with my friends, Ernie and darling Mama,” Fontanelli said. “This is a perfect example of entrepreneurship. But what’s special about being Italian is the joy that goes with being Italian. Because we have a lot of fun.” 

Luigi Vitale in 1926 first organized the Feast of San Gennaro for the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood Parish in Little Italy. Today, his great-grandson, John Fratta, is vice president of Figli di San Gennaro (Children of St. Gennaro) — the group that organizes this annual event. (Photo: Courtesy of John Fratta)

Industrious, But Faithful

Fratta and fellow organizer Mike Verra said they were excited to see the post-pandemic crowds, especially in light of how many longtime Italian families have moved from the neighborhood. They described their ancestors as very industrious but reliant on faith.

“My great grandfather came over from Italy in 1905 from Avellino, Italy,” Fratta said of the feast’s first organizer. “He came here with a skill — he was a florist, and then he opened a  flower shop and funeral parlor.”

The ancestors lived in the infamously crowded tenements. Most men found work as manual laborers or in the trades. Women managed their tiny households as best they could on their husbands’ meager wages.

“The people were great,” Fratta said. “Everyone was poor, but they didn’t know it because everybody was the same.”

These days the neighborhood hosts only two feasts: Saint Rocco and San Gennaro. They’re confident San Gennaro’s reputation will keep drawing crowds well into the future. “It’s a big party,” Fratta said.



Fratta lamented, however, that many modern-day feast-goers don’t seem to grasp the spiritual value that it held for their ancestors. He asserted that is because fewer people are religious, as demonstrated in shrinking attendance at Mass and the closings of Catholic schools.

He said the worldwide shortage of priests is played out in his parish, where the pastor, Father Brian Graebe, is stretched thin as he also works to oversee the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.

Fratta said the Feast of San Gennaro could be a conduit for evangelization.

“Kids these days aren’t that religious,” he said. “That’s the scary part of religion right now. There’s going to come a time when we’re not going to have priests. What does the Church do at that point? So you’ve got to get people that evangelize.”

The opening of the 96th Annual Feast of San Gennaro, Thursday in Little Italy was so packed patrons could barely shuffle through down Mulberry Street in Little Italy. (Photo: Bill Miller)

The Feast of San Gennaro continues through Sunday, Sept. 25. This year’s theme is “Celebrating America and Our Armed Forces.” The grand marshal is former NASA Astronaut Michael Massimino. For a complete schedule, visit sangennaronyc.org.