Mt. Carmel Feast: Faith, history, tradition
HAMMONTON—Since its inception in 1875, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel has been an annual fixture in the town of Hammonton. Generations of residents have formed lifetimes of memories centered on and around the festival and the traditions surrounding the yearly celebration—particularly the religious procession each July 16.
For Angela Donio, the procession holds a very special place. Donio said that the first time she walked in the procession was in 1965, and it was “by accident,” accompanying one of her late husband Frank Donio’s aunts.
“She was one of my favorite relatives of his. She was from Florida, and she was walking. She was behind St. Jude, and I walked with her from the Central Café back to the church ... My husband and I couldn’t have children; we had been married maybe six years by that point. The next year, I was walking with a baby carriage,” Donio said.
That baby was her eldest son Frank, who went on to become the Rev. Frank Donio, SAC.
“My doctor always called my children the miracle children, but he was the first ... After that, I walked behind St. Jude, and there were many people; we were a little group who all had our own stories, for one reason or another—because St. Jude is the saint for hopeless cases,” Donio said.
Donio walked with the statue of St. Jude for several years following, until a special request was made of her.
“When Fr. Joe Mungari was here—the first time he was here—he asked me to do a float with the Pietà on it—that’s in the church; it doesn’t come out anymore because it’s so old—and it had a big cross on it. I said, ‘But I always walk behind St. Jude.’ He said, ‘Oh, he won’t mind; you’re doing it for the Blessed Mother.’ I made that float for quite a few years. In 1973, I made the float, I was working on it, and on the 16th of July, in the morning, I went to go have Gabe—so I missed that procession. I think I had a good excuse,” Donio said.
Donio has continued to walk in the procession ever since, though the floats with which she walks have changed.
“When the lady that used to do the rosary float couldn’t do it anymore, and they weren’t going to take out the Pietà anymore, they asked me to do that—and I’ve been doing that ever since. We hand out how to say the rosary. I call her the Immaculate Conception—in this town, that’s what we’ve always called her—but some insist on calling her Our Lady of Grace,” Donio said.
Alyssa Mascioli-Vega began walking the procession more recently, but it is no less special to her.
“We started doing the procession when I started coaching cheerleading at St. Joe, and it’s become part of a tradition every year now that we walk in the procession,” Mascioli-Vega said.
Mascioli-Vega said that she, Coach Paul Sacco and Coach Paul Rodio all had the same thought.
“We all make our teams walk; we all push a statue ... Each team will get a statue, but we’re all next to each other, and then our family members stay with us,” Mascioli-Vega said.
Soon, Mascioli-Vega gave birth to her first daughter.
“By July she was only a couple of months old, and I was pushing her in a stroller. I said, ‘Let’s do this every year,’ and we do. My brother was even on the football team when we started it, so he was walking with the team and I had my girls, then I had my daughter, my mom; we were all just walking together, and it became an every-year thing ... Now, she’s 3, and I have another daughter, and we all continue to do it. It’s all she knows, and she loves to run up to the statues and give money, and for Father David; it’s fun for her and it’s great to watch, because it’s something that is small but memorable for her and her future,” Mascioli-Vega said.
Mascioli-Vega said that walking in the procession with her family is “something that is nice, that is something small but is close to home.”
“It’s something that they’ll remember—that we’ll all remember—that we started together. My whole family does it, along with the St. Joe cheerleading team; we all walk together. It’s the 16th, so afterwards we all go get something to eat and have a great time,” Mascioli said.
Many people who walk the procession each year have their own favorite float—and special memories that accompany it.
Franco Catania said that his most memorable experience was the first time that he was with his wife, Deana, and their daughters, Olivia and Angelina, watching the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel exit St. Joseph Church at the start of the procession.
“That’s special to me, because I was able to experience my faith and my heritage with my wife and my kids. Now, to experience that every year with my family—and the perpetuation of the feast—is always a memorable moment for me. It hits me every year, no matter how many times I do it,” Catania said.
Catania said that, originally, he walked with the statue of St. Padre Pio.
“Now, in the last three years as a member of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Society, it’s more of a special connection to be involved with the entire procession and the feast, making sure that we perpetuate the feast and recognize our heritage and our faith. That’s very important,” Catania said.
Being a member of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Society has given Catania another experience to share with his family.
“I watch my daughters now, at 17 and 15, looking forward to working the Mt. Carmel stand along with my wife. It’s a family event, and it’s nice to see their eyes light up that the feast is coming—cutting peppers, and cutting onions, and being a part of something so special. Having the longest-running Italian festival in the country is special,” Catania said.
Catania added that his parents, Felice and Rosaria Catania, also “love the feast.”
“For many years, my mother was part of the procession. Unfortunately, due to disability and health issues, she’s unable to go, but she will not miss that Mass. They attend the 16th of July Mass every year, the Italian Mass,” Catania said.
For Cindy Rubba, the procession on the 16th of July was only the start of her fascination with the yearly festival.
“When I was younger, we would go to the procession. Once the procession was done, we would leave, and I just wanted to stay there and be in the middle of it all. I just wanted to see everything,” Rubba said.
Of particular interest, Rubba said, was the religious article stand.
“I would always go with my grandmother. I couldn’t wait to get out of the church to go look at all the rosary beads and everything ... It drew me to it. I liked looking at all the little medals and rosary beads. I remember the colored rosary beads; they were always so pretty,” Rubba said.
Now, Rubba is going on her 15th year as the captain of the stand.
“It was when Monsignor Bottino was there, and a friend of mine was asked to run it, so she asked me to help and I jumped at the task because I always wanted to help; I just never knew how to get involved. We ran it together for a year or two, and she said, ‘OK, you have it from here; you can take it.’ ... I’ve been doing it ever since,” Rubba said.
Being in the stand, Rubba said, allows her to take in all the sights, sounds and smells that entranced her as a child.
“I get to see everything line up; I see the saints coming out of the church and I get to be in the middle of everything. I look forward to this every year ... I take off a week of vacation every year, and I’m out there all the time. I’m out there on the 16th from like 8 a.m. until it closes. I love it,” Rubba said.
James Curcio said that he, too, has “very fond memories” of attending the procession.
“I went with my mother and grandmother. They used to put a peach basket in front of my uncle Joe’s house, so we had a place to park on French Street. Then, we would walk down. I remember my grandmother would always carry a candle, or she would have a scapular; she used to do the procession. That was in the ‘60s,” Curcio said.
Curcio said that one of his favorite memories, however, is centered not on the procession but on the carnival that traditionally accompanies the festival. Though, like many children growing up in Hammonton, Curcio appreciated the amusement rides and the midway games, this particular memory involves the sideshow attractions.
“They used to have different attractions, like the world’s biggest mouse, the world’s smallest human. They had a girl who turned into a gorilla. That one fascinated me, because I was trying to figure out how they did it. It was fun. She would turn into a gorilla, and then she would start shaking the bars of the cage, and break the cage—and all the people had to run away. I went in that a few times,” Curcio said.
Like Curcio, Franki Rudnesky also has fond recollections of walking in the procession and enjoying the carnival’s rides, but her favorite moments are more recent.
“I feel like it’s a reunion every year at the beer garden. I have friends who don’t live around here anymore, and they come from far and wide just to attend the carnival for that week ... I have friends who live in New York, and I was asking my one friend if she was going to be around for the carnival in a couple of weeks, and she said, ‘of course.’ She always blocks out that week for her hometown friends, and I thought that was cool,” Rudnesky said.
Rudnesky said that being able to reconnect with classmates during the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel has been rewarding.
“It’s a real sense of community—and I love the live music and the food. It’s a lot of fun,” Rudnesky said.