WILLIAMSBURG — Hundreds of enthusiastic spectators crowded onto Havemeyer Street in front of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Sunday, July 9, to witness a Catholic tradition that dates back to 1887 Italy: the hoisting of the seven-story Giglio.
Part of the 12-day Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Dancing of the Giglio featured over 100 “lifters” carrying the towering, four-ton metal monument and its platform. The Giglio was adorned with papier-mache angels, small statues, giglio flowers, and was topped by a statue of St. Paulinus, the patron saint of Nova, Italy.
The Dancing of the Giglio and of the Boat from above. (Photo: Alicia Venter)
Standing on the platform of the Giglio was a 12-piece brass band, a booming singer, and Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, pastor of the church. Together, music — both classic Italian ballads and such contemporary tunes as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” — and prayer filled the blocks in front of the church throughout the early afternoon.
Frank Cairo, a lifter since early 1990, said he returns to participate in the festivities every year, even though he now lives in Whitestone and attends church closer to home. He said his mother grew up approximately three blocks away from the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and his children were baptized there.
“A lot of people do [come back],” he said. “From coming here every year, you walk and you may not know them but you say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen them here before.’ ”
Cairo’s Italian heritage is part of what brings him back every year — he recalled the number of feasts that filled the streets when he was a child and how that was a crucial part of his adolescence.
“If you’re an Italian American and you grew up in New York … it was just a part of that religious-social fabric of everything,” he said.
Alongside the Giglio, a boat commanded by Matt Salmon dressed as “The Turk,” was lifted; this year it was dedicated to Salmon’s son Vincenzo, who died in childbirth about three years prior.
Feasts serve as a crucial tool of invitation for the Catholic faith, as seen in Sam Sampogna and his grandson Kayden Sampogna, who both participated in the lifting this year.
Sam, a Maspeth resident, started coming to the feast with his grandparents about 60 years ago, and continued the tradition with his own children, and now with Kayden. Sam began as a lifter in 2016, after encouragement from Kayden who had been lifting the kid’s statue.
“It’s nice to know that the traditions keep going. This is the 136th year this is going on,” Sam said, turning to his grandson and adding, “He’ll take over where I leave off.”
The spirit of evangelization could be seen in more than just the lifters on Sunday. The Shine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s youth group, led by Deacon Michael Chirichella, was working behind the scenes to ensure the feast had few flaws. They brought up the statues from the basement, served water to the lifters, and took care of the other dozen small things that the feast needed to run smoothly.
This, 15-year-old Phil Liew said, deepened his own experience with God.
“One of the main things that I’ve learned coming from the Carmelite way of practicing faith is that it doesn’t matter if you do a huge, big deed like curing cancer, to be a good person to God,” Liew said. “It’s the small things that make people’s lives just a little bit easier. That’s what we’ve done during the course of the feast. Though we haven’t physically lifted the Giglio, we’ve been following the idea of moving things … that helps strengthen our faith.”
In carrying the statues of the saints to and from the church, Liew learned more about how each dedicated their lives to the pursuit of God.
“I think this is a great way to celebrate faith, not only in the Church but with the Church,” he said.
Joseph Franco, 14, shared the same sentiment as his fellow youth group member.
“It’s dedication. A lot of people, most people here, come back every year. They lift, or they work [the feast],” he said. “We are all dedicated to our Lady and St. Paulinus.”
The feast also serves as a crucial opportunity to learn about Italian culture for these younger Catholics.
“There’s Italian flags everywhere, Italian food,” Liew said of Williamsburg. “It’s the one time of year where I can come here and look at all this food, look at all this celebration, and really feel like I’m immersed in Italian culture, even though I’m not in Italy.”
Prior to the celebrations, a Paranza Mass was celebrated that truly encompassed the mission of the feast. A brass band joined in the procession, signaling to churchgoers that the afternoon was bound to hold cheer, and the homily reinforced the need to use the energy from the feast to revitalize the faith and bring people back to the Church. NYPD Assistant Chief Chaplain Msgr. David Cassato called the filled church “beautiful,” and asked the attendees whether they could do it every Sunday.
“We need God in our life, and we all have to take a step forward — lift the Giglio, but be in church every Sunday,” he said. “Be part of God’s family, not just for a feast of 12 or 15 days.”
The monument will once again take to the skies this Wednesday, July 12, at 7:30 p.m. with the night lift of the Giglio.