Centennial Feast Family Reunion
NORTH ANDOVER — The Feast of the Three Saints and Jessie Diminico’s family trace their American roots to 1923 Lawrence.
Now — and 100 years ago — family, food and the three martyred saints fuel the festival, along with band music, cannon-fired confetti and crispellis.
On Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1-3, Common Street will draw visitors including Italian descendants seeking laughter, old friends and new memories in the place where their predecessors strove and today’s immigrants strive.
Meanwhile, two weeks ago Jessie (Caruso) Diminico, 94 — her fingernails painted green, white and red — and family celebrated her parents’ arrival from Ramacca, Sicily to America.
Sebastiano, 36, and Josephine Caruso, 29, and their young daughter Mary left known poverty for unknown promise aboard the 2,800-passenger steamer Colombo for an 11-day trans-Atlantic voyage to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, arriving July 4, 1923 with $75.
After more than a week in limbo they traveled to Lawrence and moved into a since vanished triple-decker, 100 Common St., where today lies the Tripoli Bakery parking lot.
Jessie was born at home in 1929.
She remembers the families in her building, two Guerrera families, the Sciutos and the Garofalos. Every Saturday morning, wives scrubbed the halls and stairways, their children’s playground.
Two weeks ago, the Diminicos and Carusos and other extended family came from all directions to Jessie and her daughter Deborah’s Sawyer Road home in North Andover for laughter, home-cooked Italian food and memories including Feast reminiscences.
Jessie says her father’s brother, Francesco, who lived at 72 Common St., was the family’s sponsor, which was needed for entry to America.
When Jessie was 7 her family moved to Garden Street, right across from the St. Alfio Society, where the St. Alfio Villa senior housing is now.
“All the Italian people that went to the Feast would have to come down Garden Street and turn onto Essex Street for Holy Rosary Church,” Jessie remembered.
“So they would walk by our house.”
Her mother started baking early that week and the kitchen was always set for the Feast with a table cloth, Italian homemade cookies and a jug of homemade Italian wine.
“Everyone would stop in and have a cookie, all their cronies, have a cookie and a glass of wine, wish each other well and they all would go to the Feast.”
Decades later, Jessie and her husband, Arthur, who died in 1998, and their family went to the Feast.
Jessie’s niece, Rosann Catalano (Mary Caruso’s daughter), who grew up in Methuen, would stay at her grandparent’s Garden Street home on Feast weekend when she was a small child.
On Saturday night, when the visiting band from Sicily played, her grandfather, Sebastiano Caruso, lifted her on his shoulder so she could see and listen to the band.
Invariably, she’d fall asleep and he would hold her through the concert then wake her for the last song, the anthem of the Kingdom of Italy, from before the time Mussolini took over.
“When they’d strike up the first notes of that, all these old Italians who had left everything to come here, would stand perfectly still and they would all together sing the words to this anthem,” she said.
In retrospect, these immigrants always felt the tug of the home they left, yet here they were, in a new world, creating a new life, she said.
“It is an honor to have their blood coursing in our veins and it is our responsibility to live a life that honors their memory,” said Catalano, who now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated from Tenney High School in Methuen in 1959.
Also at the family’s centennial party was Jessie’s son Jeffrey Diminico, a ‘73 graduate of North Andover High School, and his wife.
As a kid, Jeffrey grew up with all the Sicilian traditions. His parents dropped him off at his grandparents’ house on Garden Street for weekends including Labor Day and the Feast.
“The Feast of the Three Saints was like this huge event for my family,” he said, stressing the word huge.
His best and oldest memory was the pony rides on Common Street.
He and every other kid collected the Feast streamers fired from cannons.
He still has some of them.
“My wife and I just moved and we had a safety deposit box which we were closing out and we hadn’t been in it for years,” he said.
“Lo and behold what was in the safety deposit box — we had rows of streamers and pins from the St. Alfio (Feast) 75th anniversary.”
Faith and religion are diminished from a century ago but remain the Feast’s ostensible center, though no more than family and culture and tradition.
Feast organizers, the St. Alfio Society, have recruited Sicilian tenor Salvatore Bonaffini and the I Tre Santi Siciliani orchestra, drawn from the island’s top Feast musicians, to play Saturday night, Sept. 2.
St. Alfio Society President Tony Palmisano says the Diminico family story was a familiar one for hundreds of Common Street immigrants in the early 20th century, including his own family, on his mother’s side.
“It resonates,” he said. “The thing that has changed is we are really now trying to promote our Italian heritage and culture, and part of that is bringing over the Sicilian orchestra.”
Sicily has its own Feast of Three Saints, in May, each year. Palmisano attended the last one and the procession of the statues of the three saints took place over many miles, continuing for 24 hours straight, except for a mid-point break for food and rest.
Lawrence’s first Feast was also in May but soon thereafter was moved to Labor Day or the holiday weekend to accommodate working people.
The Diminicos, as well as uncountable families, grew up with the feast, forming traditions that will continue at the 100th anniversary Feast.
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