SOUTHINGTON - For a few hours Sunday morning, the downtown neighborhood traveled back in time over a century, to a small village in Italy.
Hundreds of local families gathered on Center Street for a Catholic Mass from the old world, held outdoors in the same place their ancestors once began life anew on American soil.
“This is so precious to witness,” Carmela Salzillo said, rocking her grandson in a carriage right outside the Sons of Italy Club.
Salzillo was born in Cassaliccio, Italy, where a similar outdoor Mass and feast take place every July on Mount Carmel Day. Her husband is from Alvignanello. Villagers there gather for a special open-air service the day after Easter.
“This today, this brings us back to our traditions from Italy,” Salzillo pointed out. “It’s very important.”
The Southington community gathered for its 15th annual Italian-American Festival Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Thousands of people came to savor Italian foods, enjoy live music by Italian performers and take part in a wine competition Saturday. This large-scale cultural celebration was sponsored by the Sons of Italy, Southington UNICO and the Sorelle d’Italia. The Sunday morning Mass is particularly touching for older residents who are first- or second-generation Americans.
Festival Chairman Tony Cusano became emotional as he talked about what the event means to him personally.
“My parents emigrated here from Italy to give my sister and I a better future and live the American dream,” Cusano said. “To me, this honors the Italian traditions my parents instilled in me. It’s a way to keep them alive.”
The Mass took place on lower Center Street right beside the Sons of Italy clubhouse at the bottom of Wolf Hill, the neighborhood where Italian immigrants settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Sons of Italy came to be in 1910 - serving as a community beacon, helping immigrants find jobs and resources.
“They made their living right here on Center Street,” Cusano said. “They worked in factories all along here. They lived their American dream.”
“We do this Mass every year to teach the younger generation of Italian-Americans so that someday they can carry on our traditions,” festival co-chairman David Zoni added.
After the Mass, Southington Town Manager Mark Sciota led a procession deeper into downtown. Members of the Sons of Italy and UNICO carried a statue of the Madonna Della Strada, the festival’s patron saint.
Archbishop Leonard Blair of the Hartford Diocese blessed the Mass, which was wholly supported by the town’s Catholic churches.
Organizers extended their heartfelt gratitude to Father Joe Cronin from St. Thomas Church, who offered to host the event in his church in case of inclement weather, as well as Father Frederick Aniello, pastor of Mount Carmel Church in Waterbury and Deacon Angelo Coppola of St. Thomas Church, who officiated the Mass. Local businesses and organizations also sponsored the weekend’s activities.
Zoni pointed out that reciting the prayers in Italian and singing traditional hymnals in Italian during the Mass and procession are a way for the community to hold true to its heritage.
“We’re mimicking traditions from villages in Italy that our parents and grandparents came from,” Zoni said. “As the generations get older we don’t want to lose the language and traditions.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.