On the surface, the street carnival segment of the 122nd annual Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (OLMC) in Melrose Park could serve as a backdrop for a Martin Scorcese movie. Whether it’s Caliendo’s Banda Napoletana marching around or the brash vendors calling out to customers looking to sample arancini, lupini beans, baked clams, and other delicacies, this outdoor street party pays homage to the suburb’s Italian heritage and traditions.
While a carnival atmosphere prevails during the four-day street festival, this annual event is deeply rooted in faith and dates back to 1894 when an Italian immigrant named Emanuella DeStefano prayed for her sick husband and promised that she would establish a feast in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel if her spouse survived. He did and the first “Festa Della Madonna” was held on her farm near 25th and North Avenue with a procession following basically the same path it does today.
As the Italian population grew in Melrose Park, the parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel expanded. The feast and procession also gained ground with new residents continuing with the tradition of building and carrying candlehouses devoted to patron saints while marching in procession to show their gratitude for favors and special intentions. The oldest surviving candlehouse has been a part of the procession since 1921. This is carried by members of the Branda family whose ranks include current Melrose Park Village Clerk, Mary Ann Paolantonio.
In a 1901 article, the Chicago Tribune noted, “4,000 Italians had assembled at the depot ready to take part in the procession to the Italian church at Lake Street and 25th.” Later, “the number in the line of the march was fully 7,000” with “men and women from all grades of social life in the procession.”
One who is uniquely qualified to outline the history of this “rare, incredible, and fragile tradition” is Tina Valentino, Editor and Publisher of the Melrose Park-based Neighbors magazine. Valentino said, “Our Lady of Mt. Carmel has been part of our family’s history from the beginning.” She added that her relatives were part of the 82 member group that “rallied around” Mrs. DeStefano to “scrape up” money for the original statue and have it shipped from Italy to the United States.
Valentino’s great-uncle, Frank Montino, had the distinction of serving as the longest-running Feast Committee President as he oversaw its growth from 1925-1944. A recipient of the 2008 “Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Woman of the Year” honor, Valentino has also played several key roles in keeping the spirit of this unique tradition alive. She was part of a “collective effort” coordinated by the late Lawrence Passarella that led to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church receiving Shrine designation in 2006
Although Melrose Park is now predominately a Mexican community, the days leading up to the Feast serve as old home week for Italians to come back and reconnect to their roots. Valentino said, “with the designation of the Shrine, many Italian-American groups, displaced from closed parishes, have found a “refuge” at OLMC and join with us now as do numerous Hispanics who now reside in Melrose Park.”
But while many flock to the area for to pay homage at the Shrine as well as participate in the procession and related festivities, Valentino, like many others, worries about the tradition that “is as strong as it is fragile.” She said that there are many keys to keeping the Feast viable including “the involvement of young people and the dedication of entire families.”
Valentino also noted that, “every time someone tells me, “The Feast isn’t what it used to be,” infuriates me because they are the ones who moved away, turned their backs and abandoned a tradition that is so very rare!”
Valentino’s sentiment is echoed by Caliendo’s Banda Napoletana, who have been marching in the procession—and performing the chill-inducing “Ave del Carmine” for 42 years. Yet, they recently posted on Facebook that they “pray that we’ll see our 50th anniversary in these rapidly changing times.”
Dedication has been the cornerstone of the Feast since its inception. In 1901, the Chicago Tribune reported that “two thousand dollars in bills were pinned to the rich draperies of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” by “Italians celebrating their greatest religious feast” in Melrose Park. These donations were earmarked for the construction of a new Italian church in the rapidly growing village.
Five years ago, parishioners and other devotees dug deep and donated over 15 pounds of gold jewelry to create a new crown for the statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. After the gold had been collected, the parish priest contacted the Vatican to see if the Pope would bless the crowns. It was literally a leap of faith, as they did not expect a response from Rome. But their request was approved and Pope Benedict blessed the crowns in 2009. Only three other images of the Virgin have been similarly blessed and include the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.
Valentino considers herself blessed to have many wonderful Feast memories so selecting a favorite is impossible. Yet she does single out moments ranging from childhood pastimes like riding “our bikes through the streets as carnival workers put up the food and game stands” to faith-based recollections such as “watching my mother and late aunt carefully prepare the statue for the week-long festivities.”
The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Street Festival begins on Thursday, July 9 and promises to have something for everyone including food, carnival games, rides, live entertainment, and more.
The Solemn Mass and procession in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel begins on Sunday, July 12 with a 7 am Mass in English followed by an Italian Mass and procession with the statue at 9 a.m. There will be a field Mass at noon with the procession continuing in and around the streets of Melrose Park.