US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What I did on my summer vacation

By Catherine O'Connell-Cahill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

My family and I ran across several fascinating expressions of Catholicism on our recent trip to New York and Boston. As fortunate heirs of Chicago Catholicism, with its rich history of social action and its practical and vibrant spirituality, we are keen observers of the church in other locales.

A stroll after a great dinner at Bamonte’s restaurant in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn (photos of Gary Sinise and Harrison Ford on its walls, along with Brooklyn Dodger greats) brought us to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, celebrating its 125th anniversary this month. Just down the street stood a towering ornamented pillar on a metal stand, bearing an image of a saint at its very top. What could this be?

We stopped into the church, still open late on a Monday evening. A man saw us picking up the bulletin and visiting the saints’ alcove; he disappeared and returned with scapulars for each of us. He told me how during the approaching parish feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (this year also the parish’s 125th anniversary), he was going to take part in lifting the giant pillar with St. Paolino of Nola, including the metal stand at its bottom which would support an entire band playing music. He would do this while performing complicated dance steps. “Every year, I swear, the band gets bigger!” he said with a grin.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s website reveals that the parish’s Italian parishioners, who arrived around the turn of the 20th century from Nola in Italy, brought with them this tradition. Catholics of their region had a special devotion to St Paolino of Nola, who, the story goes, gave himself up to African slavers in an attempt to ransom some local youths who had been abducted. A visiting Turkish sultan heard of his story and negotiated a deal that freed Paolino and the youths, who returned home to a grand welcome, henceforth celebrated every year. To mark the event, local celebrations at first featured sensational displays of lilies, which evolved into towering flower-bedecked pillars known as gigli, Italian for lily.

Men of the parish in Brooklyn (and special guests) lift not only the two-ton pillar and its musicians, but also an enormous figure of a boat bearing a young man who takes the role of the generous Turkish sultan. The two groups of lifters, bearing their burdens, meet in the street to clasp hands, all the while dancing to the music of the band. You have to see this to believe it. Here is the special feast website with photos and videos, and here is my favorite YouTube video showing the lifters of the two massive structures meeting in the street.

OLMC’s pastor Msgr. Joseph Calise writes, “Certainly our parish is most alive during the Feast—a time when devotion, faith, and tradition collide….During these days we celebrate who we are culturally in a way that only we can!” And he adds, lest anyone is wondering: “Be assured that, as has always been true, at Mt. Carmel all are welcome.”

A few days later, an after-dinner walk in Boston’s North End, home to Paul Revere in the 18th century and Italian Catholics starting in the late 19th, revealed this homemade shrine.

The blue sign says “ALL SAINTS’ WAY” and the blue lights encircle a statue of Mary. On the wall are images of dozens of saints, including Jude, Francis, Anthony, Rita, Therese of Lisieux (the Little Flower), Joseph, Maximilian Kolbe, and saint-in-waiting Mother Teresa, among others. What a labor of love.

We then stopped into Saint Leonard’s, also in the North End, also open late on a Saturday night for the crowds of passersby (kudos to whoever thought of this practice). The first church in New England built by Italian immigrants, the parish dates to 1873, the church to 1899. St. Leonard’s also founded the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain, Mass., opened in 1921 to care for the many Italian children of the North End who were orphaned by the influenza epidemic of 1917-19. Today the home treats emotionally disturbed children of all nationalities.

Another day, another stroll, this time through the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, home to the Bunker Hill Monument (and site of the Ben Affleck movie “The Town,” not a unanimous local favorite). A Charlestown native selling ice cream out of his truck near the foot of the monument pointed us to St. Mary’s church just down the hill, where he had gotten married. The sign screwed to the outside of the church spectacularly backs up his claim that the neighborhood now welcomes everyone: “Welcome to visitors to our parish, to those who have recently moved into the area and to those comfortable and nourished here—Welcome to All. And, regardless of your status in the Church, your marital state, your ethnicity, your prior religious experience, your personal history, background, or sexual orientation, please know that you are accepted and respected at St. Mary—St Catherine of Siena Parish.”

Would that every church in the U.S. had the guts to put up a sign like that, and to practice what it says.


St. Mary's welcome