Scaled-back Columbus Day celebration still attracts crowd

Baltimore's Italian-American community celebrates one of the old country's favorite sons, even while longing for the grander celebrations of old

October 10, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun

Dee Tana loved Sunday's Columbus Day celebration, loved the Italian military band that came all the way from Rome to play, the dignitaries who laid wreaths at the foot of the Columbus monument, the five-block procession from St. Leo's to Columbus Plaza off President Street.

"It's all about our pride," she said, echoing the sentiment of many of the dozens of Baltimore's Italian-Americans who gathered on the western edge of Little Italy to celebrate one of the old country's favorite sons.

Still, Tana couldn't help but be a little regretful, a little melancholy about days gone by. Until two years ago, when budget cuts forced the city to scale back, Columbus Day in Baltimore meant a big parade attended by hundreds of people. The celebration came complete with floats and multiple bands. And it wasn't all over by a little after noon, like this one was.

"It's a bit like they cut our arms off," said Tana, 60. Her friend, Imelda Liberatore, who admitted to being only "older than 60," agreed, though not as graphically. "The parade would have been nicer," she said a little wistfully.

Sunday's celebration, sponsored by the Associated Italian American Charities of Maryland, began with a 9:30 a.m. Mass at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church on Exeter Street. Immediately following, scores of celebrants walked the five blocks to the plaza. At the head of the procession were 50 members of the Banda dell'Arma dei Carabinieri, the Italian National Military Police Band, in Baltimore for the weekend to help the commemoration.

Assorted dignitaries took to the podium at the plaza. All spoke with pride of their Italian heritage. Many urged the community to maintain what has been a 120-year tradition of parading in Baltimore in honor of Columbus. While the weak amplification system made it difficult to make out what anyone was saying, the crowd's repeated applause sounded sincere.

"This is symbolic of the outstanding and long-lasting relationship between Italy and the United States," said Michele Pala, representing the Italian ambassador to the U.S.

Following the remarks, each of the 20 wreaths was carried to the monument, the first by Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley. Other wreaths were presented by groups including the City of Baltimore, the American Council on Italian Matters of Maryland and the Italian-American Bocce League.

Former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, wearing a sash made of the colors of the Italian flag, urged the crowd to appreciate and support the newly scaled-back celebration. "We need to see to it that this tradition lives," he said.

After the wreaths had been laid and the band had finished playing, D'Alesandro remained cautiously optimistic about the future of the city's Columbus Day festivities. "It's the only substitute that's really available," he said. "The parade just lost its ability to draw people."

None of that mattered, however, to people like 91-year-old Pietro Canzi, who refused to let his spirit be dampened. "It's beautiful, I feel like I'm in heaven," said Canzi, who came to the United States in 1947. He then shouted "La Musica e l'amore" ("Music is love") before jumping to his feet and dancing to the music of the Carabinieri band.

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