My heritage is half Polish-American and half Italian-American. My late mother was Gemma Pietramale, and as you can guess from the name hers is the Italian side of my family. She and her many siblings and friends from the old neighborhood, which still goes by Little Italy today, attended the annual Santa Lucia Festival. By the time my brothers and I came along, we grew up on the other side of town and the festival never held much appeal to us, although my mom still went some years, if not to the festival itself, then attending the special Mass and procession that officially kicked off the event. That’s not to say I didn’t celebrate certain aspects of my Italian cultural heritage, for I did, particularly indulging its food, which I’ve always loved eating and cooking. There were Italian grocers and bakeries I frequented and other Italian festivals I attended, but most of my Italian-American immersion came via interacting with my large extended family.
I finally attended a Santa Lucia Mass with my and its pageantry inspired me to do the following story on the festival. The piece originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no longer around.
Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
As Omaha continues plowing under the old to make room for the new, the city leaves behind fewer and fewer remnants of its once distinct ethnic neighborhoods and traditions. Among the oldest surviving ethnic celebrations still observed here is the annual Santa Lucia Festival, a peasant-style street pageant honoring St. Lucy, a saint invoked for her healing powers. This year the tradition-laden festival unfolds June 22-25 in the heart of Omaha’s former Italian colony at 6th and Pierce Streets.
While the festival proceeds in an area that is no longer an Italian district per se, it attracts many former residents of Italian ancestry and stirs in them deep currents. “We grew up in the atmosphere of the festival, and it’s a tradition that’s in our blood. It’s a part of us. It’s a part of our life. It’s like a reunion. You gather with relatives and friends and follow through on what your ancestors from Sicily brought over,” said trumpet player Dominic Digiacomo, leader of the Santa Lucia Band.
The 77-year-old festival is a direct link to the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Omaha around the turn-of-the-century, when they established an enclave in the hilly area just south of downtown that became known as Little Italy. The Salerno family of Carlentini, Sicily is credited with making Omaha a destination for hundreds and eventually thousands of immigrants from that district of the Italian island. The Salernos acted as padrones or patrons to the new arrivals. Within the span of a generation the Italian American colony here was a large, predominately Catholic working class stronghold (many of the men toiled for the railroads) whose cultural heritage was centered around church, home, school and the large array of Italian-run businesses that catered to people’s every need. One tradition missing from the old country, however, was the festival honoring Carlentini’s patron saint, Lucia, a young visionary martyred for her beliefs in Syracuse, Sicily in 320 A.D. when a Roman soldier stabbed her to death. The festival, which continues in Sicily to this day, is a gala occasion highlighted by a decorative procession with an ornate float carrying a statue of the beloved saint. Traditionally, believers in the saint line the streets to make donations of money, jewelry, flowers and articles of clothing in hopes of obtaining her intercession and indulgence.
Feeling the time was ripe for Omaha’s Italian Americans to stage a Santa Lucia fest of their own, Carlentini native Grazia Buonafede Caniglia led a drive to start one in the early 1920s. The matriarch of the Caniglia family that went on to establish some of Omaha’s best loved restaurants, including Mr. C’s and the Venice Inn, Caniglia went door to door soliciting funds for putting on the event here and she ultimately enlisted the support of business leaders. A committed was formed and the festival launched. Since its 1925 start, the festival has come to represent the local Italian-American community’s most visible and enduring heritage celebration.
The festival, which has changed little since its beginning, features a carnival with rides and games, booths stocked with Italian foods (from sausage and peppers to meatballs to biscotti), a band playing traditional Italian music and a solemn Sunday mass at St. Frances Cabrini Church (which has been the site of the festival mass since the church was known as St. Philomena’s). A color guard comprised of uniformed and saber-carrying men from the Santa Lucia Society, each dressed in matching coat, cape, white gloves, bow tie and plumed hat, stands at attention beside the statue during portions of the service, which features the singing of the Santa Lucia song. The color guard accompanies the statue outside, where it is placed on the decorative float. The mass, which attracts an overflow crowd to the tiny church at 13th and William, is the festival centerpiece along with the procession and the crowning of the festival queen that follows it.
For old timers like Frank Marino, the mass and the procession are deeply affecting moments that hearken back to early memories of the festival and all it represents. “When I was a kid I can remember that it was probably the biggest event of the whole year,” he said. “Even though those were tough times, our folks would get my sisters and I new clothes and new shoes. We always dressed real fancy because we met all our friends and relatives down there. This was the big thing. And it was always the religious aspect that was stressed. We always went to the church to the mass. That was the great thing — going to mass and seeing all the people there dressed up and listening to the preaching. Then, when the statue came out of the church, you almost cried because it was such a beautiful sight.”
The statue, patterned after a Santa Lucia icon in Carlentini, was fashioned in Sicily not long before the inaugural 1925 Omaha festival. The float, bedecked with angel figures from Italy, was constructed in Omaha. Where the float used to be pulled by hand, it has in recent decades been rigged to a rolling jeep frame.
Just like in Carlentini, devoted onlookers press in close to offer up money or personal items to the icon. Attendants accept the donations, pinning the money to ribbons and fabrics adorning the float, draping the jewelry about the statue and placing larger items below it. The Santa Lucia song is sung once more before the march through the neighborhood commences.
Nowadays, the post-mass procession is the only march of the four-day fest. In years past, a series of parades were held during the course of what was a seven or nine-day festival. And whereas today the march is a mere few blocks long, it used to wend through the narrow streets of Little Italy along a route covering some three or four square miles. “It started at 6th and Pierce and we would go up and around Little Italy, all the way down to 4th Street and then come all the way up to 12th and Center. It was quite a jaunt. We’d start at 4 o’clock and we’d get back about 7 or 8 o’clock. We were dead tired after we got back. We used to call it the Italian Death March,” said Marino, a past Santa Lucia Festival committee president.
According to Marino, the festival has been pared down over the years in response to the changing makeup of the area. What used to be an almost exclusively Italian section tied together by a common belief and background is now a mishmash of nationalities, histories and interests. “It seemed like in every other house there was an Italian family living along the route, and they would come out and greet us and talk to us and donate money to the cause and ask for the Santa Lucia song to be played in front of their house,” he said. “Many times, in one block alone, we’d stop five or six times for that song to be played. The Italian people all understood the festival. Then, in later years, we’d go almost a whole block without anybody coming out to greet us. The new people didn’t understand the whole deal.”
Italian-Americans, like other ethnic groups, joined the great rush to suburbia in the 1960s and ‘70s — fleeing the old neighborhood in droves for the promised perks of ranch-style upward mobility. Historic Little Italy is home now to only a smattering of second and third generation Italian-American residents, merchants and institutions.
In the early 1980s the festival, faced with declining attendance, pulled up stakes from the old neighborhood and moved to the area around the then-new Central Park Mall. It proved to be the first in a series of moves for the festival, which gained bigger crowds but lost some of its authentic charm and historic surroundings in the process. After downtown construction impinged on the mall site, the event found its way to the Deer Park Boulevard area adjacent to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium. When parking problems surfaced there, the festival found a new if somewhat sterile home on the south side of Ak-Sar-Ben, where it remained until last year. With the south side Ak-Sar-Ben property’s future in doubt and old timers nostalgic for a return to the festival’s original turf, the 2000 event came back home after an absence of nearly two decades. Santa Lucia Festival Committee president Frank Distefano said, “We tried having it in different parts of the city…but it’s just not the same without having it in the neighborhood.” Except for two rain outs, the festival’s return to what some consider almost sacred ground was a hit. “All the people were talking about how great it was to be back in the old neighborhood and the festival’s original roots,” Marino said. For him, there is no doubt the event is back where it belongs. “Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s still Little Italy in my heart.”
Dominic Digiacomo feels the festival should never have left in the first place. “This is where it should have been,” he said from the kitchen of the Santa Lucia Hall at 7th and Pierce after a festival committee meeting there. “I really wasn’t for it when we moved. We were just kind of feeling our way around. We all wanted to be back here in the old neighborhood and now that we’re back we’re happy about it.”
The religious meaning, ethnic pride and historic ties bound up in the long-running festival became an issue recently when a few detractors sought to prevent its taking place in the mixed residential-commercial district that has traditionally been its home base. Having failed to stop the festival from proceeding there, opponents then tried blocking the sale of beer at the fest, but lost out when organizers and supporters appeared before a City Council hearing to emphasize what an integral part of the Italian-American legacy in Omaha the event is and how vital concession sales are to its success. By a 5-1 vote, the Council granted the beer license. To backers like Frank Marino, the public flap over whether the festival is still a good fit given the area’s altered cultural landscape only helps bring into focus what a vital link it is to Omaha’s Italian-American past and what a revered tradition it continues being for descendants of the event’s originators.
“That’s the whole thing — the tradition behind it all,” said the white-aproned Marino from behind the refrigerated meat locker of his A. Marino Grocery store on South 13th Street. The cozy neighborhood market was started by his late father Andrew Marino in 1920. “And that’s what we keep going — the tradition. That’s what were all after. We don’t want to lose our tradition. It’s the highlight of our year, really. I want to continue it. My children want to continue it.”
Or, as former festival master of ceremonies Joe Carlentine put it, “It’s just a thing we were brought up with and believe in and that’s been part of our life all of our lives. It’s a family thing. It’s a tradition that brings back memories of old times.” Just as Carlentine said of Marino’s throwback store — “It never changes; it always stays the same; it’s part of the old times here” — the festival is one constant in this fast-changing era and one relic from the past preserved in all its glory.
For Yano Falcone, who like the others has been attending the festival for nearly its entire duration, it offers a connection to a time, a place, a people and a sentiment that is otherwise gone. “This is the way we were raised and this is our way of coming back to our home and to our roots. We’re trying to do the festival in the same manner as when our mothers and fathers around. We’re trying to keep the tradition flowing through.”
The event triggers such feelings of pride and reverence among the faithful that anyone describing it as a mere carnival should be prepared for a fight. As Joe Pattavina, who has been at virtually every festival since the early 1930s, explained, “To us, it’s a festival — it’s not a carnival. The festival is what we celebrate. We believe in the saint. We believe in our Catholic heritage. If we didn’t believe in it, I don’t think we’d be here all these years.”
Santa Lucia Festival president Frank Distefano, who is considerably younger than most of his fellow committee members, said, “Most of our members are in their 70s and as a younger member I feel a responsibility and a sense of pride and, actually, urgency to keep this tradition alive.” How far the festival continues into the new century will depend on how well it does financially. Things are tight right now due in large part to last year’s rain outs, which cost the festival $8,500 in projected revenue. “We had to go to the bank and borrow some money to put on this year’s festival,” Distefano said. “But we’re going to get it done. We’re going to spend close to $43,000 this year. That’s why we’re praying for good weather so we can generate enough money from the carnival and the sale of food and beer to cover our costs and to raise money for the charities we contribute to.” The festival donates proceeds to the Lions Club as well as various church and civic groups.
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