It’s August and that could only mean one thing for the Mazza family on Conselyea St. in Williamsburg: time to make preparations for the annual feast of their beloved Italian saint, San Donato or St. Donato of Arezzo.
Except the crowds who will come to pray the rosary and the visiting priests who will celebrate Mass won’t step into the church building that’s a couple of blocks away. Instead, they will make their way to Francesca Mazza’s house. That’s because for the past 24 years, she hosted the three-day feast in her Brooklyn “driveway” out of pure devotion for the saint.
“I fell in love with St. Donato as a child,” said Mazza. “I always had a little special place in my heart.”
For the three days leading up to the saint’s feast day Aug. 7, the scene outside Mazza’s house looks like a miniature version of Little Italy in Manhattan with the lights cascading from the tent blocked off in the middle of the street and guests speaking in Italian-Brooklyn accents. The feast has grown over the years and has since attracted devotees from across the tri-state area.
Regardless of color or creed, if Mazza sees someone walking down her street and curiously looking at the saint, she might kindly offer a rosary or hand-made prayer card – simple conversations with strangers that at times, doesn’t seem to even take away a slice of her energy.
“Every year … when people come back, they tell me stories of things that happened to them,” she added. “It’s amazing. They get very personal. It’s not because of me, it’s because of Him, and it’s because of Jesus that we’re here.”
A life-sized statue of St. Donato sits in front of the house. Mazza herself ordered the statue of the martyred bishop and had him officially blessed not too long after he arrived on her doorstep. She even went to the extent of obtaining the saint’s relic, which she happily puts on display right next to the statue.
Little nonnas, or grandmothers, come together in groups, rosaries in hand, and give monetary offerings to Mazza so that she can pin them on the saint’s ribbon hanging around his arms.
One woman, an Italian immigrant who lives close-by, said she attended the feast since it began in the early ’90s.
“We pray for the saint, we get together with all the friends,” said Maria Sepe. “It’s a night to be out with friends and pray the rosary.”
While the Brooklyn block comes alive with Catholic tradition during these gatherings, Mazza’s love story for the patron saint of Arezzo actually began in her hometown of Sassano in southwestern Italy when Mazza witnessed her own mother’s personal devotion to the saint.
“As a child, I would see my mother every year celebrate St. Donato,” she said. “So she would walk from our town to Buonabitacolo – a three or four hour walk – she would walk barefoot to Buonabitacolo.”
Her mother’s personal pilgrimage and devotion resonated with Mazza for many years, including when she first came to the U.S. as a young girl.
“I always kept it in my heart even when we came here in 1974,” she said.
It wasn’t until the late ’80s that her beloved saint once again made an appearance – this time through the devotion of another Italian woman who also prayed to the saint outside her home.
“God works in mysterious ways,” she said.
Mazza approached the woman and when she found out it was her St. Donato, the rest was history. When it was time to buy her first house, where else would she consider besides close enough to her favorite heavenly companion. Her twin brother Nicola also enjoys the traditional feast day.
“We believed in it since we were kids and it’s part of our lives,” he said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s really special. It’s a major part of the foundation we have established in our lives and we hope to carry on this tradition to our kids.”
The devotion has been passed from one generation to another: her mother, who first introduced the family to the saint when they lived in Italy, to Mazza herself and to her son Michael whose middle name is Donato.
Even her daughter-in-law Madelaine finds value in the tradition and also named her son after the saint.
“It’s wonderful,” said Madelaine. “I like to see a lot of people come and join for Mass and prayers. I feel like it’s bringing our family together. It’s also building new traditions for my son, which we actually named him after St. Donato, his name is Anthony Donato.
“It’s a really beautiful tradition and I would love for him to keep it going when we are very old and can no longer do it.”