HOBOKEN — Tucked away on a residential street in this city across the Hudson River from Manhattan is a tiny building with a cross-topped bell tower.
Santa Febronia Chapel is not a parish church, but a 101-year-old sanctuary to St. Febronia, patron of the Sicilian town of Patti. It also honors the black Madonna who is venerated in Tindari, a suburb of Patti.
The Santa Febronia Catholic Society formed in 1922 to maintain the little structure on 5th Street between Madison and Monroe.
Current members explained that the devotions to patron and Madonna brought miracles for immigrants and their descendants.
Society member Dan Murphy described how his grandfather on his mother’s side, while still a boy in Sicily, became very ill, so his mother took him to the shrines for the patron and Madonna.
“And he quickly recovered,” Murphy said. “He told me about how, on the road to the sanctuary, all the sick people were there trying to get a miracle.
“That always stuck in my heart.”
The chapel is open to the public each July 26, when nearby St. Ann Parish celebrates the feast of its patron saint. The annual procession to the chapel went off without a hitch this year, despite sweltering summer heat.
Murphy and his young son, Charles, rang the chapel’s bell to welcome the processors into the air-conditioned interior. There, visitors venerated Italian-made statues of St. Febronia and Madonna di Tindari.
“I want to never forget, and to continue that devotion,” Murphy said. “I’m passing it on to my son, absolutely.”
St. Febronia was from a well-to-do family in Patti during the third century. The young woman, reportedly very beautiful, became a Christian, which angered her parents.
“They wanted her to get married and not devote her life to Christ,” Murphy said.
Febronia became a martyr when her father had her tied up and thrown into the Mediterranean Sea. Murphy said her body floated north to Minori along the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Now, he added, Minori and Patti are “sister cities.”
“They recognized how devoted she was,” Murphy said. “They prayed for her intercession. Miracles occurred and then she soon became the patron saint of the town.”
The Madonna of Tindari, and her baby Jesus, appear to have black skin because the statue’s original version was sculpted from dark-colored wood, Murphy said.
The statue was on a ship offshore from Patti when a storm appeared. The crew members tried to sail, but the ship would not move until they offloaded the statue.
“They said ‘Well, this is where this must be where the Virgin Mother wants to be venerated,’” Murphy said. “Now there’s a huge sanctuary there.”
Murphy explained that free-standing structures like Santa Febronia Chapel were common in the U.S., but few of them still exist.
“There were many religious societies in Hoboken,” Murphy said, “because there were people from different towns in Italy and they wanted to retain their devotions to their patron saints.”
Murphy said many societies rented storefronts, but Santa Febronia Chapel is unique because it’s a free-standing chapel. All of them served as venues for social gatherings, plus the planning of patron feasts and benevolent causes.
“When these societies were established years ago, there was no Social Security,” Murphy said. “So these were also mutual aid societies. Members paid dues, but if a family lost a loved one, and they had no money, they would get help from the society to bury that person.
“It’s all about family. You might not be a blood relative, but if you’re from the same town, you share the same blood.”
The society completed massive renovations from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, plus another round of flooding a few years ago, said Al Arezzo, who leads the society.
Still, continuing the devotion and the chapel are labors of love, Arezzo said.
“My whole family was involved,” he said. “Now, I’m the president. Most of the old timers have died off. About 23 guys are still members — not a lot.”
During the July 26 procession, participants hand carried the float for St. Ann — Mary’s mother and the grandmother of Jesus.
They paused at the storefronts where the societies had their headquarters. There, the marchers received handouts of bottled water and watermelon slices. Family members and longtime friends joyfully greeted each other with hugs and kisses.
Processors arrived at Santa Febronia chapel in the late afternoon, dripping in sweat, but eager to see the interior.
Meanwhile, members of the society and other devotees reflected on what the chapel has meant to them and their families.
Brendan Young, a native of Buffalo, said he learned of the devotion through his family. His great grandparents came from a small town near Patti.
“I moved to New Jersey a few months ago,” he said, “and I heard about the chapel from a friend. I came here today because I knew it would be open. And right away, I felt this kinship and this feeling at home — this spiritual sense of peace. I’m very, very happy.”
Lifelong Hoboken resident Constance Caiezza said she came to the chapel as a child with her mother and two sisters.
“It’s a very personal connection,” she said. “The response that you get is very spiritual. You know when it happens, because whatever God gives you is given with a great deal of peace.”
Father George McBride, is a Syrian Orthodox priest, but his family also came from Patti. He said a chapel like Santa Febronia binds families and friends.
“And that’s what we want to do here,” he said. “We want to keep the families together. We want to keep the closeness, the joy, the happiness, and, most of all, the faith in God and our patron.”
All agreed that miracles from God still flow from the chapel.
“About 20 years ago, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Murphy said. “So I turned to Mother di Tindari, and I begged her for a miracle. And, you know, to this day, my mom is still alive.
“She beat the cancer. I truly attribute that as a miracle that we received.”