Catholics who commemorate the Feast of St. Januarius may celebrate two miracles—one ancient, one modern; one Old World, one New World. This past September 19, at the cathedral in Naples, Italy, dedicated to the fourth century martyr, dried blood preserved as a relic of the saint miraculously liquefied, as it has done nearly every year for the last seventeen hundred years. Half a world away, in New York’s Little Italy, descendants of Neapolitan immigrants remembered their Old World patron saint with a ten-day Festival of San Gennaro, much as they have done for the past eighty-seven years. As skeptics sadly continue to doubt the first event, so many believers may be tempted to disregard the second. The raucous celebrations accompanying the Festival of San Gennaro stand at quite a remove from the doctrinal concerns and devotional practices that have marked “serious” Catholicism in America for the past generation. Yet the promiscuous mingling of the sacred and the profane, the public and the private, has been the great historic achievement of Catholic culture.
The story of San Gennaro begins in the early fourth century, during the Great Persecution under the emperor Diocletian. Bishop of Benevento, Italy, Gennaro was imprisoned for visiting other Christians imprisoned in the early years of the persecution. As legend has it, Gennaro was tortured and thrown into a fiery furnace, yet emerged unharmed. At the end of his tortures, he was publicly beheaded. An old man wrapped his body and head in a burial cloth, while the women of Naples soaked up his blood with a sponge, enough to fill two glass phials. Four decades later, a slave woman named Eusebia, who had been Gennaro’s wet nurse, carried the phials in a procession as the faithful transferred the martyr’s remains to the catacombs of Naples. It was during this procession that the liquification first occurred. Since that time, the miracle is said to have occurred three times each year: on the first Sunday in May, on September 19 (the saint’s feast day), and on December 16 (to commemorate the saint’s protection against the threatened eruption of the volcano at Vesuvius).
Devotions to local saints such as San Gennaro were at the heart of popular Catholic practice throughout the middle ages and into the early modern period. Many of these local saints were of quasi-legendary status, and the stories surrounding them often mixed pagan and folk lore with Christian ideals. In responding to the criticisms of Reformation radicals, the Council of Trent sought to curb the more extreme pagan aspects of these devotions and celebrations, yet the local cults remained strong as long as people remained local. The great transformation in devotional practice took place during the nineteenth century, when the commercial and industrial revolutions drove millions of peasants off their lands, into cities, and in many cases across oceans. Nineteenth-century popes responded to this social dislocation by promoting what historians have called a “devotional revolution” that aimed to replace local devotions with a set of common, standardized devotions that would be both more removed from the taint of paganism and more accommodating to the geographic dislocation experienced by immigrants. In this vision, Neapolitan immigrants would trade their local devotion to San Gennaro for practices such as Eucharistic Adoration and the Stations of the Cross, which could be performed anywhere an immigrant could find a Catholic Church.
In the United States, Irish-American clergy took the lead in trying wean Italian, Polish and German immigrants away from their particular, local Old World devotions toward the universal devotions promoted by the popes. Many in these various groups resisted the imposition of these new ways strongly, and occasionally violently. This conflict led to the creation of something like a parallel Church in America: on the one hand, each diocese was organized into parishes marked by geographic boundaries; on the other hand, within these official parish boundaries there often existed separate “national” churches that catered to specific immigrant groups. These parishes were often staffed by religious orders from the immigrant group’s country of origin—due in part due to manpower shortages in the priesthood, and in part to the Irish-American clergy’s refusal to deal in a pastorally effective manner with non-Irish immigrants. In 1866, New York Archbishop John McCloskey invited Italian Franciscans to administer St. Anthony of Padua parish, serving both Italians and Irish on the lower West Side. With the explosion of Italian immigration in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the number of Italian “national” parishes multiplied. Italian Franciscans also staffed the Church of the Most Precious Blood, which would become the home of the Festival of San Gennaro.
Significantly, the festival began as a lay, rather than clerical initiative. In 1928, three Italian American businessmen, Donato Nappi, Michael Montanini and Alex Tisi founded the Society of San Gennaro, Incorporated. Each owned a coffee shop/café on Mulberry Street (the main street of the Little Italy section of New York). For the four days leading up to the feast day, they brought their business out of their shops and on to the sidewalks. They strung festive colored lights across fire escapes and built a small chapel in the street to house a statue of San Gennaro. Patrons could receive food in exchange for a cash donation to the poor, which they would pin to ribboned streamers hanging from the statue. The four days of celebration featured Italian food, music and entertainment, culminating in a grand procession of the saint’s statue through Little Italy. Early observers commented on the near-pagan frenzy that seemed to accompany the religious processions. Many penitents would walk barefoot and show signs of self-inflicted wounds. Supplicants would struggle to reach the statue, shouting out petitions that to American ears sounded more like threats or insults than pleas for assistance.
What began on two city blocks eventually covered the whole length of Mulberry Street. In the early decades of the celebration, up to three thousand men walked in the street processions, along with five hundred on horseback, one hundred and fifty carriages featuring prominent citizens, and some eighteen marching bands. The humble string of lights across a fire escape has grown to some seventy-five lit archways featuring a variety of shapes and designs. The visual splendor of San Gennaro was perhaps best captured in Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film Mean Streets, which uses the festival as a narrative framing device for exploring the lives of a group of small-time Italian-American hoods.
Scorsese’s free mixing of the sacred and the profane in part reflects the spirit of the festival itself, but Mean Streets is symptomatic of the changes occurring in American Catholic culture during the nineteen seventies. The older gangster, Giovanni, is perfectly at home in the world of the festival. He must silence his nephew, Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel), who tries to talk business with him while he listens to a traditional Italian band performing in a café. Another young street tough, Johnny Boy (played by Robert DeNiro), complains of how the traffic congestion of the festival interferes with his efforts to place bets and feed his gambling addiction. Mean Streets, along with Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, helped to fuel a revival of Italian-American ethnic culture even as they told stories of people who seemed incapable of carrying on the old ways. The rupture of tradition is perhaps nowhere stronger than in the area of faith, as many celebrations of ethnic heritage since the 1970s have tried to minimize the role of religion as a potentially divisive force.
The Feast of San Gennaro has had to weather storms other than secularism in recent decades. The criminal associations evoked in Mean Streets have turned out to be something more than Scorsese exercising poetic license. In 1996, nineteen members of the Genovese crime family were arrested for a series of festival-related crimes ranging from homicide to stealing the dollar bills pinned to the ribbons on the statue of San Gennaro. In 2004, the FBI accused Perry Criscitelli, president of The Sons of San Gennaro, of being a “soldier” for the Bonanno family, heirs to the crime empire of the Genovese. As recently as 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to defend the festival against local residents who were calling for an end to the festival due to its continued associations with organized crime and its generally disruptive effect on daily life in the city. Perhaps only in America does a Jewish mayor defend an Italian festival as a New York institution over the objections of local residents.
Still, these recent controversies also point to changing meanings of the term local. The working-class Italian American Catholics who once gave Mulberry Street its distinct ethnic feel have been moving out of the neighborhood for decades. Some have no doubt pursued a suburban dream still attractive to those living in cramped apartments; many more have been forced out by the high cost of living in a Manhattan that increasingly has no place for working families who insist on at least a minimum of personal safety. The “locals” who have called for an end to the San Gennaro festival have last names like Sweeney. They represent a recently gentrified section of the northern end of Little Italy that now calls itself (or markets itself) as the Nolita district (North of Little Italy). These locals complain that the street vendors and rowdy crowds of the festival block the entrances to their shops, fill high-end boutiques with the smells of fried food, and generally scare off the wealthy clientele that Nolita hopes to attract as customers and residents. For these locals, San Genarro is a public nuisance that no longer reflects any indigenous Italian-American neighborhood life.
Some of the remaining Italians agree. In a newspaper report during the 2007 controversy, a customer at an Italian barbershop lamented: “When I was a kid, the feast was about family, religion and food. Now its about CDs and three socks for $10.00.” The festival has indeed adapted to new times, featuring rock music along with Italian American standards. One could say that the original San Gennaro festival, with parades waving both American and Italian flags, was itself a mix of the contemporary and the traditional; still, one wonders how much mixing can occur before a culture is diluted beyond all recognition. There is no doubt that European ethnic cultures in America have suffered greatly from assimilation to American norms. What still awaits serious recognition is the way in which this is not simply a cultural problem, but a spiritual problem.
Is it any wonder that Catholics have abandoned their faith when they have abandoned everything else that once set them apart from mainstream Protestant and secular America? Faithful, concerned Catholics have done much in recent years to promote a culture of life, but beyond opposition to grave moral evils such as birth control, abortion and euthanasia, the Catholic culture of life all too often looks like a pale reflection of simply the least offensive aspects of modern secular American culture. Those looking for more authentic models of Catholic culture would do well to look to the life and lore of the Festival of San Gennaro.
Denise Marrgieri, “The Historyof the Italian Festa in New York City” (Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University, 1990)
Maurizio Molinari, The Italians of New York (Washington, DC: Vellum, 2012)
Philip V. Cannistraro, The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle an Achievment (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1999).
Alex Mindlin, “The Socks, the Sausage and the Snub,” New York Times (April 15, 2007)