ASTORIA — The temperature outside St. Joseph’s Church on Saturday, Aug. 14 reached 90 degrees, with loads of humidity. Inside it was — the same.
Despite an air conditioner breakdown, parishioners filled the pews to celebrate the Feast of St. Rocco. This saint, born in the 1300s in Montpellier, France, receives honor to this day as the protector against plagues and other contagious diseases.
The Mass was eagerly celebrated in fluent Italian by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. Many of the congregants had just walked nearly a half-mile with a statue of St. Rocco from the intersection of 28th Avenue and 37th Street to St. Joseph’s Church on 30th Avenue.
Bishop DiMarzio explained that the French-born St. Rocco is very popular in Italy, where he was a pilgrim during a plague epidemic, but stayed to tend the sick, only to become infected himself.
Therefore, the bishop said, this saint’s story is “very contemporary.”
“We have now another plague: coronavirus,” he said before the Mass.
Much of the population is now vaccinated against the coronavirus. But Bishop DiMarzio noted that the virus’s Delta variant is gaining traction, and some people are “really hesitant to get vaccinated.” St. Rocco’s intercession, the bishop said, is timely.
“In all of this, we’re going to invoke him today,” he said. “It’s very much in apropos that we get an intercessor to help us.”
Bishop DiMarzio said that when he was a little boy, his grandmother, who was born in Italy, told him stories about St. Rocco.
“The story is very well known all over,” he said. “But among Italians, St. Rocco is a very honored saint. He traveled to different cities there. And it was a time of the plague. Eventually, he caught it himself. He went to a forest so he could live there and not give it to anybody else.”
According to the story, a nobleman’s hunting dog regularly snatched bread from his master’s table and brought it to the ailing pilgrim. The nobleman was perplexed by the dog’s strange behavior and followed it to St. Rocco’s makeshift hut in the woods.
“And he was converted,” Bishop DiMarzio said of the nobleman.
St. Rocco returned to France where he died at about age 30, the bishop said.
“His greatness came after he died because people had many miracles from his intercession,” he added. “So it’s very nice to celebrate.”
Societa Gioventu Quagliettana sponsored the event, as it had done since 1911, said the group’s president, Vincent Carpinelli. A scaled-down version was held last year because of COVID restrictions, he said.
“This year we invited the bishop because we opened up a little bit more,” Carpinelli said. “And thank God he came.”