This weekend is a big one for Little Italy, as neighborhood folks, outsiders, and anyone who appreciates Italian food, music and culture gather to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony Italian Festival.
The festival–which is Saturday and Sunday, June 1-8, noon-8 p.m., in the streets of Little Italy–commemorates not just the Catholic feast day in honor of St. Anthony, but also an event that occurred in Baltimore 110 years ago.
The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 destroyed acres of property and thousands of buildings in the city, but somehow Little Italy was unscathed.
“The fire was so intense that sparks started coming into the neighborhood,” said Jerry Elliott, president of the St. Anthony’s Society of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church.
In fear, the residents prayed to St. Anthony of Padua, a friar of the Franciscan order during the 12th and 13th Centuries. They took a statue of the saint out of St. Leo’s, and brought it down to the waterfront to accompany them as they prayed.
“Some went to Patterson Park; others took the statue out of the church, walked to the waterfront and prayed,” said Elliott.
“Overnight the winds shifted.”
The fire missed Little Italy, and the grateful residents promised to hold a special Mass every year for St. Anthony. At some point, they also decided a festival and celebration wouldn’t hurt either, and it’s been happening ever since, except for lulls during World War II and during the 1970s.
The centerpiece of this year’s festival is a 9:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday at St. Leo’s, followed by a procession through the neighborhood with the St. Anthony statue, commemorating that nervous, 1904 procession to the waterfront.
This year, a special guest is attending the festival. Consul General Andrea Canepari, who handles a wide jurisdiction from North Carolina to southern New Jersey from the Italian Consulate’s Philadelphia office, said that he is very pleased to return to Baltimore’s Little Italy, which he first visited 15 years ago as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was really impressed by the Italian American community [in Little Italy],” he said, “and I’m looking forward to seeing the festival, which is so important to the community and, I believe, the entire city of Baltimore.”
Canepari, who has ultimate authority over most of the Mid Atlantic region, said that he appreciates the function of the Honorary General Consulate in Baltimore.
“The dependent honorary office is particularly important since on a voluntary basis it helps the local community,” he said. “It channels the most sensitive and complex materials to the General Consulate in Philadelphia, who is in charge by law.”
Canepari will kick off the weekend by attending the Associated Italian American Charities Annual Dinner Gala in Cockeysville on Saturday. The event happens to fall on the evening of his 42nd birthday.
“I will celebrate with the Mayor of Baltimore, and also my wife,” said Canepari.
On Sunday morning, he will attend Mass at St. Leo’s, the procession with the statue of St. Anthony, and also the festivities.
Saturday and Sunday include live music (Mixed Company and Park Avenue with Chicky Peluso on Saturday; Small Miracle and the Frank Monaldi Band on Sunday), “wheels of chance,” vendors, wine and beer, and kids’ activities.
“There will be a lot of Italian food the parishioners of St. Leo’s made themselves,” said Elliott.
The weekend also includes a bocce tournament, obviously.
“They kind of run their own tournament, but make a very generous donation to St. Leo’s,” said Elliott, adding that proceeds from the festival will benefit the church.
Canepari, who is responsible for improving cultural, political and economic ties between Italy and the U.S., says that the origins of the Festival of St. Anthony make for “a good lesson.”
“It’s important to remember that when there is a problem, if you bring the people together, such as when they prayed to the statue of St. Anthony, it’s a way to bring the community together in the face of danger,” he said.
Canepari added that he hopes that the U.S. and Italy can enjoy an even closer relationship in the future.
“I do think that the links between Italy and Maryland are great, but they should be improved,” he said, noting that Italian researchers work and study at Maryland universities, and that Italy is one of the top 10 exporters to Baltimore.
“I think we can do more to create more business opportunity, more investment, and more cultural opportunity.”
Canepari, who grew up near Milan, wished to invite Baltimoreans to attend the 2015 World Exhibition in the Italian city. The exhibition, with over 150 participating countries, will follow the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” with workshops and exhibits on food, sustainability, the environment and more.
He also encouraged Baltimore to pay attention to negotiations underway between the U.S. and the European Union regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
“U.S. exports to Europe would increase by $200 billion,” Canepari said. “You can imagine how much every family on both sides of the ocean could benefit…It is something huge.”
by Erik Zygmont