A tribute to a patron saint

Residents flock to Little Italy for annual family festival

August 18, 2008|By James Drew | James Drew,Sun reporter

Hours before people jammed the streets, sipping Italian iced tea and devouring fried dough on a perfect day for a festival, there was Dominic Pompa carrying the 92-year-old banner of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother through the quiet streets of Little Italy.

After Mass yesterday morning at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church, Pompa and about 25 others marched through the neighborhood as about 50 spectators followed. Residents came out of their homes to watch. Boys dressed in robes and girls as angels walked in front of St. Gabriel's statue, carried by four men. After the singing of the U.S. and Italian national anthems, the festival began.

Pompa's grandfather was a founding member of Baltimore's St. Gabriel Society, formed to honor the patron saint of young people.

Born the son of a prominent lawyer in Assisi, Francis Possenti entered the monastery at age 18 and was named Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother. He died of tuberculosis in the Italian province of Abruzzi in 1862, a year before he was to be ordained a priest and a few days before his 24th birthday.

Many of the Italians who settled in Baltimore's Little Italy came from Abruzzi. They established the festival in the late 1920s.

"They had their patron saint of their province and they honored him over there in Italy and they brought the tradition over here. It has a long history," said Pompa, 58. The White Hall resident who grew up in Little Italy is vice president of the St. Gabriel Society.

In 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized Gabriel as the patron of Catholic youth. In 1959, Pope John XXIII named him the patron of the Abruzzi region.

Honoring the patron saint of young people has taken on greater meaning in recent years in Little Italy.

The two-day St. Gabriel festival depends on about 100 volunteers and requires months of planning, said Joe Lavezza, who has coordinated the annual event for about a decade.

It's essential to balance the elderly volunteers who first attended the festival as children growing up in Little Italy with young people who hopefully will keep the tradition alive, Lavezza said.

"The key to keeping it going is to get the younger generation to work with the older generation, but don't make the older generation feel like they are getting thrown out. That is the hard part, because these older Italians are used to putting in 15-hour days. The younger generation will give us four hours here and four hours there. I tell the older ones, 'if we don't tell the younger ones what to do now, we're not going to be able to keep this rolling for years to come,' " Lavezza said.

Lavezza, 38, said he hopes his two sons, Anthony, 7, and Leo, 9, will work on the festival when they are grown up.

The event benefits St. Leo's Church and attracted an estimated 10,000 people over the weekend, Lavezza said.

Will Matricciani's grandfather on his mother's side and a great-uncle on his father's side helped found the St. Gabriel Society.

Matricciani returned recently from Abruzzi, where there is a shrine to St. Gabriel at Gran Sasso.

A few years ago, Matricciani carried the St. Gabriel banner in the procession with a son and grandson.

"The torch has been passed on from generation to generation," he said.

Pompa said the St. Gabriel banner he carried yesterday in the procession was hand-made in 1926. St. Gabriel Society members are looking for a replacement.

"It is getting old and fragile. We have tried to have it mended a couple of times," he said.

If the group is successful, the original banner will be framed and displayed in the basement of St. Leo's, Pompa said.

Pompa said he has many warm memories of the festival when it was held in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"It lasted two weeks. They blocked off the streets. There were amusement rides. There were bingo tables in the streets. You always had something to do every night for two weeks in August. People here really supported it. It was a much bigger neighborhood, with more families," he said.

Pompa's sons, Vincent, 19, and Dominic Jr., 16, worked at the festival this year.

"This is one of the cultural foundations of this neighborhood. To continue this festival is my hope and dream," Pompa said.

james.drew@baltsun.com

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