Centuries-old feast celebrates first year in Niles

Members of the Society of Maria SS. Lauretana carry a cart containing the Maria SS. Lauretana icon along Church Street - a tradition meant to let the people worship the sacred image of the Virgin Mary.

Sicilian heritage, religious tradition on display during Feast of Maria SS. Lauretana

By Igor Studenkov | Bugle Staff

This year, the Feast of Maria SS. Lauretana moved from its long-time home in Berwyn to Niles – and the organizers couldn’t be more pleased.

The feast traces its roots to a centuries-old event in Altavilla Milicia, an Italian municipality in Sicily. The Catholic feast honors the Virgin Mary, with the worship centered around the Maria SS. Lauretana icon. When Sicilian immigrants moved to Chicago, they brought the celebration with them – and it has been an annual event ever since.

The feast was held Sept. 4-7 on Church Street between Greenwood and Cumberland avenues, and it included a carnival, musical performances and food from several Italian restaurants from Chicago and its suburbs.

The most important part of the festival – the worship of Maria SS. Lauretana – took place Sept 6. Members of the Society of Maria SS. Lauretana carried the icon and the sanctuary that held it along Church Street. However, the centerpiece of the event was the traditional “Flight of the Angels.”

As the cart reached the end of the street, two young girls were “flown” above the sanctuary on wires – a tradition that evoked Annunciation, a Biblical event when Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.

When Italians started migrating to Chicago in the late 19th century, Italy’s unification was still a recent event. The new arrivals tended to settle in neighborhoods based on regions. Immigrants from the Sicilian region settled in the city’s near north side, by the factories that lined the Chicago River. The neighborhood became known as Little Sicily.

According to the Society of Maria SS. Lauretana, the neighborhood’s first Feast of Maria SS. Lauretana was held on Sept. 23, 1990. With the original icon still in the sanctuary in Altavilla Milicia, the society used a replica image donated by Guiseppe Muscarello.

After World War II, the neighborhood’s population changed as older homes were cleared to make way for Francis Cabrini Rowhouses public housing development.

The Italian-American population eventually left the area for neighborhoods farther away and the suburbs. Little Sicily became known as Cabrini-Green, and the feast left the neighborhood, eventually moving to the city of Berwyn.

Joseph Camarda, president of the Society of Maria SS. Lauretana, said the society moved the feast to Niles because many former Little Sicily residents and their families moved to the area, and because the location had more room.

The icon is normally kept in a chapel at 5854 W. Lawrence Ave., in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. But during the feast, it was moved inside a tent located on the south end of event grounds. Visitors had the opportunity to stop by and worship. The society also put up a smaller tent nearby that contained photos, newspaper clippings and other artifacts dealing with its history.

The Italian American War Veterans organization, which had a tent at the feast for a long time, was on hand to introduce itself to the Niles area and potentially recruit volunteers.

“It’s very nice, very centrally located, very multi-cultural,” said Diana Fecarotta, Commander of Post 1. “And everyone has been very, very nice.”

“[It’s] the best,” added Tony Langone, member of Post 1. “Couldn’t be in a better place.”

 

Procession of angels

A number of people who attended brought chairs, setting up along Church Street hours ahead of the Sunday procession.

The procession was scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m., it took a while for it to get going. It wasn’t until another half an hour before the society members started moving the icon and the altar onto the cart. Actually mounting it on the cart took another 20 minutes, as society members carefully made sure that it was fully secured.

The society members carried the cart on their shoulders. Before they started walking, they allowed anyone who wished to approach the icon to do so. Most people kissed the icon frame and bowed, and virtually all of them had their pictures taken while on top of the cart.

The cart stopped a few more times along Church Street to give more people the same opportunity.

Traditionally, the girls who played angels during the Flight of the Angels use ropes stretched between balconies. For the Niles feast, the society set up scaffolding.

Maria Voight, Camarda’s granddaughter, and Michaella Jennette, Camarda’s grand-niece, served as the angels.

While the flight wound up running almost half an hour behind schedule, the audience waited patiently. They watched, transfixed, phones and cameras on hand, as Voight and Jennette moved above the altar, singing without missing a beat.

As the flight concluded, Camarda said the feast is going to stay in Niles for the foreseeable future.

“I know, with your cooperation and your support, we’ll be here for a long time, in this beautiful village of Niles,” he said.

Camarda added that he was very happy with how this year’s feast turned out.

“I’m very happy, and our members are very happy,” he said. “This reminds me, for the first time in a long time, of the old neighborhood.”

 

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