International News

Palermo’s Santa Rosalia Feast Is a Must for Devotees

By Thomas G. Straczynski

The 14th of July in these United States is celebrated as the feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Born in what is now upstate New York to a Mohawk chieftain and his Algonquin captive, the young maiden revered as the “Lily of the Mohawks” is the first native American woman to be canonized.

Across the Atlantic, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the 14th of July coincidentally marks the feast day of Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo, metropolis of the island of Sicily. Each year, as I note the approach of the date, reminisces are stirred and memories relived about an awesome experience which I literally stumbled upon by accident one evening nearly 40 years ago.

I remember the date precisely because, while packing that afternoon for my departure from my hotel in Bari, Italy, I watched the televised “très grande” parade in Paris celebrating the bicentennial of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.

The day before was memorable, as I had been generously hosted by the Dominicans who staff the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari (and had a lunch of “orecchiette in brodo” with plenty of a good red table wine), but I was totally unprepared for what awaited me on the next leg of my trip. After the short flight from Bari and landing at Palermo’s airport with its mountainous backdrop to one side and descent to the sea on the other, I settled into my hotel, still oblivious to the significance of the date to the denizens of Palermo. Thinking I would take simply a short, casual after-dark walk through the lanes around my hotel. I strolled first to the left then took another left.

What confronted me was a most incredible spectacle, a procession approaching from the magnificent Norman Cathedral, perhaps a mile away, along one of the city’s main avenues, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (virtually every city and town in Italy has one).

Thousands of Palermitani were marching down the Corso nearly to the seashore, led by Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo and a wagon bearing an urn, usually venerated in the cathedral, in which were enshrined the bones of the saint.  At one point, the cardinal stopped to offer an impassioned homily, which I could not fully comprehend, given my limited grasp of Italian, but it was easy to recognize the theme as the scarlet-robed prelate frequently punctuated his words with a rousing “Viva Santa Rosalia!”

Evidently the “Festino” is not only a religious, but also an enthusiastically observed and prolonged civic event. My hotel, the Jolly, located near the sea, hosted a rooftop party in honor of the saint, complete with local delicacies including tiny, apparently meatless snails which seemed to be the treat of choice for many revelers; I crunched a few essentially empty shells, then moved on to the soppressata.

On the second night, there were spectacular fireworks over the seaside park across from the Jolly with spectators gathered literally beneath the bursting pyrotechnics, adhering to no ostensible standards of safety. Other parts of Palermo would have their own fireworks displays over the next several nights, perhaps in competition, always surely as a matter of neighborhood pride in the way they showed honor and respect to their saint.

All told, the celebration of Santa Rosalia in Palermo was a collection of events never to be forgotten. The bucket list of every true devotee of Santa Rosalia should include the 14th of July in Palermo.

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